President Trump sought to rescue his flagging reelection campaign with a chaotic, insult-laden clash with former vice president Joe Biden in the first presidential debate, in Cleveland on Tuesday night.
Trump, who has been trailing Biden in national polls for months, steamrolled Fox News moderator Chris Wallace to heckle Biden, interrupting him to make fun of his college grades, his son’s business dealings, and his performance against Senator Bernie Sanders. Trump attempted to dodge Biden’s criticisms over his handling of the coronavirus, which has taken more than 200,000 American lives, the economy, and his handling of race relations.
“The president does not have a plan,” Biden said, at one point calling Trump “the worst president America has ever had.”
The result was an often incoherent shouting match, with Biden flashing his anger at the near-constant interruptions and the two trading insults more often than policy proposals. The chaos made for a stark contrast with their extraordinary — and silent — environs, which lacked the customary large crowd as a safeguard against the spread of the virus.
Trump used the debate to air grievances and conspiracy theories. He contradicted his own top scientists by promising a vaccine before the end of the year, suggested local governments' virus restrictions are a plot to prevent him from being reelected, complained about “fake news,” and pushed the idea that Biden has a “manifesto” with Sanders and is controlled by socialists — a charge Biden forcefully denied.
During an astonishing exchange over the issue of race, the president failed to condemn violence by white supremacist groups after he was asked multiple times to do so by Wallace.
“Proud boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said, referring to a hate group, before claiming that far-left “antifa” groups are the real problem. Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted in response that Trump “owes America an apology or an explanation. Now.”
The president also flatly rejected the concept of racial sensitivity training, seemingly suggesting it is not fair to white people.
“If you are a certain person, you had no status in life — it was sort of a reversal,” Trump said.
Biden responded by saying racial insensitivity is a problem and accused Trump “and his friends” of looking down on people “who are of a different faith, they look down on people who are a different color.”
The long-awaited matchup seemed unlikely to change the fundamental status of a remarkably stable race, one that has seen Biden leading nationwide through a health crisis and racial unrest. But it was still a remarkably unbridled brawl between a defensive president and his challenger. The two accused each other of lying, lobbed personal insults, and, at one point, Biden called Trump a racist. At times, Wallace yelled at them in an effort to control the proceedings.
“Gentlemen!” he snapped. “I hate to raise my voice, but why should I be different than the two of you?”
Biden, who struggled at times to get a word in amid Trump’s barrages but sought to speak directly to viewers at home, tried to cast Trump’s handling of the pandemic as a personal failure. He pointed out that nearly 1,000 people are still dying each day. “When he was presented with that number, he said, ‘It is what it is,’ ” Biden said of Trump. “Well, it is what it is because you are who you are.”
Trump shot back that Biden would have handled it worse, because it’s not in his “blood,” and touted his move of banning some travel from China.
With five weeks to go until the election, early and absentee voting is already underway in many states, and scores of voters have already cast their ballots.
Trump seized on the debate as an opportunity to push his baseless theories about voter fraud, apparently seeking to sow doubt about the election results on his biggest stage yet.
“They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country, there’s fraud,” Trump said, without offering any evidence.
When Wallace asked if he would urge his supporters to stay calm as votes are counted, and if he would pledge not to declare victory until the election was independently certified, Trump changed the subject.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen,” he said. “If it’s a fair election, I’m 100 percent on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”
Biden urged Americans to vote early and block out Trump’s rhetoric. “He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election,” Biden said, while pointing to Trump.
Biden frequently called out Trump for lying during the debate, and criticized him for downplaying the threat of COVID-19 while privately acknowledging how deadly it was. Biden cast doubt on Trump’s promise to have a vaccine ready before the end of the year, which some experts in Trump’s own administration have said is unlikely. “This is the same man who told you by Easter this would be gone away,” Biden said of Trump’s previous claims about the coronavirus. “By the warm weather, it’ll be gone like a miracle.”
“Maybe you could inject some bleach in your arm,” Biden added, referring to a medically unsound suggestion the president made during the height of the pandemic.
“That was said sarcastically,” Trump huffed.
Trump made fun of Biden for wearing a mask and for not holding large campaign events, portraying him as overly cautious. “He could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen,” Trump said. While Biden called Trump’s decisions to hold large rallies “irresponsible,” Trump retorted that Biden was not holding similar events only because he would not be able to attract a crowd.
“If you can get the crowds you would have done the same thing,” Trump said, as Biden shook his head and laughed.
Biden emphasized that Trump did not appear to have a plan to combat the virus. “You can’t fix the economy until you fix the COVID crisis and he has no intention of doing anything to make it better,” Biden said.
Trump frequently interrupted and even taunted Biden, charging into one of his answers about China with accusations about Biden’s son Hunter, who he said should not have been paid to sit on the board of a foreign energy company.
“Mr. President, please stop,” Wallace said, as Trump lobbed allegations that ate into Biden’s allotted time. Biden showed some anger toward his opponent. “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown — excuse me, this person,” he said. At another point in the debate, when Trump interrupted him as he spoke directly to the camera about the Supreme Court, Biden simply asked “Will you shut up, man?” He sighed. “This is so unpresidential.”
The debate came two days after The New York Times released a sweeping investigation into Trump’s tax records — which he has long refused to release to the public, breaking a norm for presidential candidates — that found he paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. In 10 of the 15 years before that, the Times found, he recorded such steep business losses, he paid no income tax at all. Trump denied the story on the debate stage, saying he paid millions in taxes, but still declined to release his tax returns. “You’ll see it as soon as it’s finished,” he claimed.
Biden argued on the debate stage that Trump’s very low tax payment is an argument against the president’s tax cut law, which favors wealthy people and corporations. “That’s why I’m going to eliminate the tax cuts,” Biden said. Trump responded that Biden should have fixed the tax code when he was in office. “I’ve done more in 47 months than you’ve done in 47 years,” he claimed.
On Tuesday, Biden released his own tax returns for 2019, which showed he paid about $288,000 on an adjusted gross income of nearly $1 million.
Trump has tried out multiple lines of attack against Biden in the past months, veering from “Sleepy Joe” to painting him as a Trojan horse for more liberal politicians like Sanders. On Tuesday night, Trump again accused Biden of being used by the left of his party, saying he would pass a universal health care program because the left wants to. “They’re going to dominate you, Joe, you know that,” Trump said. Biden pushed back. “I am the Democratic Party right now,” he said. “The platform of the Democratic Party is what I, in fact, approved of.”
Instead, many of Trump’s attacks focused on Hunter Biden. Trump has accused Joe Biden of corruption for seeking to dismiss a Ukrainian prosecutor in 2016 while Hunter Biden sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. But that prosecutor, Victor Shokin, was widely believed by the United States and its Western allies to be dragging his feet on anticorruption prosecutions, and Trump has supplied no proof that the two are connected.
Trump was impeached by the House last year for improperly pressuring the president of Ukraine into launching an investigation into Biden and his son while key military aid to the country was held up.
Biden attempted to deflect the discussion about Hunter, but he spoke passionately about his other son, Beau, the former attorney general of Delaware and an Iraq war veteran who died in 2015 from brain cancer.
“He was not a loser,” Biden said, referring to a report that Trump made disparaging remarks about soldiers. "He was a patriot. "
Biden decided not to hit back by bringing up questions about potential conflicts of interest with Trump’s children.
“We want to talk about families and ethics? I don’t want to do that,” Biden said. “His family we could talk about all night. This is not about my family or his family — this is about your family, the American people.”
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.