CLEVELAND (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden hurled insults and repeatedly interrupted and talked over each other in their first debate, sparring over topics ranging from healthcare to the economy to their families as moderator Chris Wallace tried mostly in vain to control the conversation.
Mr Biden repeatedly called Mr Trump a “clown” and told him to “shut up” as Mr Trump talked over his answers. He called the president a “racist” after Mr Trump defended his orders to end racial sensitivity training in the government.
Mr Trump insulted Mr Biden’s intelligence and jabbed the former vice-president over unsubstantiated allegations about his son Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings.
Mr Biden called Mr Trump “the worst president America’s ever had” and said that under his leadership, “we’ve become weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided, more violent”.
SUPREME COURT JUSTICE NOMINEE
The back-and-forth quickly degenerated after Mr Trump answered the first question, about his nominee to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mr Trump said he had the right to move swiftly to replace her, while Mr Biden said US voters should weigh in first.
“We won the election,” Mr Trump said in answer to the first question, about his nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
“Elections have consequences. We have the Senate, we have the White House and we have a phenomenal nominee.”
Mr Biden said that Mr Trump and Ms 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,” Mr Biden said.
“What’s at stake here, as the president’s made it clear, he wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. He’s in the Supreme Court right now trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which will strip 20 million people from having health insurance now, if it goes to the Supreme Court.”
The debate moderator, Fox News host Wallace, tried to intervene as the two candidates squabbled over their respective health policies, and Mr Trump complained: “I guess I’m debating you.”
“Folks, do you have any idea what this clown is trying to do?” Mr Biden, who frequently spoke directly into the camera, said as Mr Trump talked over him.
“Will you shut up, man,” he grumbled moments later.
HANDLING OF PANDEMIC
Wallace subsequently asked about Mr Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans so far, and why voters should trust Mr Biden to handle the response better.
“You don’t panic. He panicked,” Mr Biden said. “He still doesn’t have a plan.”
“Wrong,” Mr Trump interjected.
“You could never have done the job that we did. You don’t have it in your blood,” he told Mr Biden, alleging “millions” of Americans would have died with the former vice-president leading the country.
“I know how to do the job,” Mr Biden said. “I know how to get the job done.”
After enduring Mr Biden’s criticism of his coronavirus response, Mr Trump seized on a Biden remark that his management of the crisis would be “smart”.
“Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me,” Mr Trump said, reminding Mr Biden that he once said he went to Delaware State University when he went to University of Delaware.
Mr Biden chuckled. “Oh, give me a break.”
“There’s nothing smart about you, Joe,” Mr Trump added.
MASKS - TO WEAR OR NOT TO WEAR
Mr Trump and Mr Biden even argued about whether Americans should wear masks to combat the spread of the virus. Many people in Mr Trump’s entourage in the audience did not wear one, and when an official from the Cleveland Clinic, which is co-hosting the debate, came by to offer them masks, they refused.
Mr Biden’s entourage wore masks. He noted that the director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said earlier this month that near-universal mask-wearing would end the US outbreak. Mr Trump said other officials had claimed the “opposite”.
“No serious person said the opposite,” Mr Biden said.
“I think masks are OK,” Mr Trump said. “I mean I have a mask right here. When needed, I wear masks. I don’t wear masks like him.”
TRUMP'S TAX CONTROVERSY
Hours before the debate began, Mr Biden released his most recent tax returns, signalling that he wanted new revelations about the president’s taxes at centre stage for their first face-to-face encounter.
“Is it true that you paid $750 in federal income taxes” in 2016 and 2017, Wallace asked Mr Trump, a reference to The New York Times' reporting beginning on Sunday on tax records the president has kept secret.
Mr Trump did not directly answer, saying he paid millions of dollars in taxes.
“Show us your tax returns,” Mr Biden interjected.
“I paid $38 million one year. I paid $27 million one year,” Mr Trump said, without specifying which years.
“Will you tell us how much you paid in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017?” Wallace repeated.
“Millions of dollars,” Mr Trump answered. “And you’ll get to see it.”
The difference between the two candidates’ tax history is fodder for Mr Biden’s argument that Mr Trump has conned working-class voters into supporting him.
Mr Biden paid nearly US$300,000 (S$410,383) in income taxes in 2019, according to his returns. Billionaire Trump, meanwhile, paid US$750 in 2016 and 2017, and nothing in 10 of the last 15 years, according to The New York Times.
After the discussion of Mr Trump’s taxes, a question about Mr Trump’s economic record degenerated into arguing – again in personal and insulting terms – over China and the two candidates’ families.
“You take a look at what he’s actually done. He’s done very little,” Mr Biden said. “China’s perfected the art of the steal.”
Mr Trump used the criticism as an opening to attack Mr Biden’s son Hunter Biden, demanding to know whether he had taken “billions of dollars” from China and alleging “the mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son three and a half million dollars.”
Mr Biden audibly sighed. “That is not true,” he said. “It’s totally discredited.”
Mr Trump began talking over him again, insisting the claim was only discredited by the media.
“It’s hard to get any word in with this clown,” Mr Biden said. “His family, we could talk about all night.”
Mr Trump said some of his family had given up comfortable lives to move to Washington and help him govern. Wallace ended the back-and-forth by admonishing the two men not to interrupt each other, focusing on Mr Trump, who he said had been the worst about it.
After Wallace asked Mr Trump to explain actions he had taken to end racial sensitivity training in the government and by federal contractors, Mr Trump said that “I ended it because it’s racist” and “they were teaching people to hate our country and I’m not going to allow that to happen”.
“Nobody’s doing that,” Mr Biden responded. “He’s the racist.”
Wallace asked Mr Trump if he would condemn white supremacists and militia groups.
“Sure, I’m willing to do that, but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing. I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace,” he said.
Then do it, Wallace said to him.
“You want to call them – what do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead,” Mr Trump said. “Who would you like me to condemn?”
Mr Biden said he should condemn the Proud Boys, a group of Trump supporters who have engaged in protests and street violence with left-wing demonstrators.
“Proud Boys?” Mr Trump said. “Stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem.”
Mr Biden noted that law enforcement officials in Mr Trump’s administration have named white supremacists one of the nation’s gravest domestic threats.
“Antifa’s an idea, not an organisation,” he said.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Mr Trump replied.
Later, Mr Biden returned to the discussion to his family, noting the military service of his late son Beau Biden and accusing Mr Trump of calling service members “losers,” a reference to an Atlantic report earlier this month about the president disparaging people in the military.
Mr Trump has denied the report.
“He was not a loser,” Mr Biden said. “He was a patriot and the the people left behind there were heroes.”
“Are you talking about Hunter?” Mr Trump said. “I don’t know Beau. I know Hunter,” who he said “got thrown out of the military, he was thrown out, he was dishonourably discharged.”
“That’s not true,” Mr Biden said. “He wasn’t dishonourably discharged.”
“For cocaine use,” Mr Trump said. “And he didn’t have a job until you became vice-president.”
“None of that is true,” Mr Biden said, adding that “my son, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
Mr Hunter Biden was discharged from the military because of drug use.
Later, after an exchange about the environment and the economy, Mr Trump alleged that Mr Biden had called people in the military “stupid b******s” on tape, raising his voice as Wallace pleaded for him to “stop".
“Play it,” Mr Biden said of the alleged recording.
FIVE WEEKS TO ELECTION DAY
Tuesday’s (Sept 29) presidential debate, the first of three before the Nov 3 election, is hosted by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic.
The topics, which were announced last week by the Commission on Presidential Debates, include a comparison of the Trump and Biden records, the Supreme Court, the coronavirus, the economy, racial tensions, the violence in US cities and the integrity of the election.
With five weeks left until Election Day, polls show Mr Biden leading Mr Trump nationally and in key swing states. The Democrat’s campaign has approached the debate as a high-stakes moment when he could cement his advantage or see it begin to erode.
For Mr Trump, the debate is a critical opportunity to try to regain momentum after months of declining poll numbers.
Organisers said there were about 80 people in the audience, including the candidates' family members, their guests, campaign staff, hosts, health and security officials and journalists.
Mr Trump's guests included First Lady Melania Trump, sons Eric and Donald Jr, daughters Ivanka and Tiffany, and allies such as US Representative Jim Jordan and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
Mr Biden's wife Jill sat in Mr Biden's section.
With more than a million Americans already casting early ballots and time running out to change minds or influence the small sliver of undecided voters, the stakes were enormous as the two White House candidates took the stage before the election.