US President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden hurled insults and repeatedly interrupted each other in their first debate Tuesday, sparring over topics that included the coronavirus, the economy and their families as moderator Chris Wallace tried mostly in vain to control the conversation.
The chaotic debate left commentators across cable television stunned and groping for adjectives, in some cases settling on profanities. The exchanges made clear — if nothing else —the level of disdain the two men vying for the most powerful office in the world hold for each other.
In a statement afterward, the Trump campaign suggested that disorder had been the strategy. “President Trump in charge, Biden weak,” the campaign said, claiming that Trump had delivered “the greatest debate performance in presidential history.”
But Trump was repeatedly on defense, as Biden laced into his handling of the pandemic, called him a “racist” for executive orders ending racial sensitivity training in government and challenged him to accept the results of the November election.
Trump refused, without equivocation. “If it’s a fair election, I am 100 per cent on board, but if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” he said. And in an exchange sure to be exploited by Democrats, Trump repeatedly dodged entreaties by Wallace to condemn White supremacist groups that support him.
“You want to call them -- what do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead,” Trump said. “Who would you like me to condemn?”
It didn’t take long for Biden to express frustration as Trump repeatedly interrupted and talked over his answers. At least twice, he called Trump a “clown,” as well as “the worst president America’s ever had” and he told the president to “shut up.”
He audibly sighed as Trump launched into an initial attack on the foreign business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter. Biden later defended his children in emotional terms, declaring he was proud of Hunter for working on overcoming a drug problem and alleging Trump had smeared military service members like his late son, Beau.
For his part, Trump insulted Biden’s intelligence, in addition to the jabs at his family.
The back-and-forth quickly degenerated after Trump answered the first question, about his nominee to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump said he had the right to move swiftly to replace her, while Biden said U.S. voters should weigh in first. “We won the election,” Trump said about his decision to pick nominee Amy Coney Barrett, with just over a month until the election. “Elections have consequences. We have the Senate, we have the White House and we have a phenomenal nominee.”
Biden, who often spoke directly into the camera, said that Trump and Barrett want to strike down the Affordable Care Act, costing 20 million people their health insurance.
“The American people have a right to have a say over who the Supreme Court nominee is,” Biden said. Wallace tried to intervene as the two candidates squabbled over their respective health policies, and Trump complained: “I guess I’m debating you.”
Wallace subsequently asked about Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans so far, and why voters should trust Biden to handle the response better.
“You don’t panic,” Biden said to viewers. “He panicked. “He still doesn’t have a plan.”
“Wrong,” Trump interjected.
“You could never have done the job that we did. You don’t have it in your blood,” he told Biden, alleging “millions” of Americans would have died with the former vice president leading the country.