Trump-Biden Debate Slips Into Chaos as Insults Drown Out Issues
(Bloomberg) -- 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% 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.
“I know how to get the job done,” Biden responded.
Trump seized on a Biden remark that his management of the crisis would be “smart.”
“Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me,” Trump said, reminding Biden that he once said he went to Delaware State University when he went to the University of Delaware.
Biden chuckled. “Oh, give me a break.”
“There’s nothing smart about you, Joe,” Trump added.
Trump and Biden sparred over whether Americans should wear masks to combat spread of the virus. Many people in Trump’s entourage in the audience didn’t wear one, and when a doctor from the Cleveland Clinic, which co-hosted the debate, offered them masks, they refused.
Biden’s entourage wore masks. He noted that the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said earlier this month that near-universal mask wearing would end the U.S. outbreak. Trump said other officials had claimed the “opposite.”
“No serious person said the opposite,” Biden said.
Hours before the debate began, Biden released his most recent tax returns, signaling that he wanted new revelations about the president’s taxes at center stage.
“Is it true that you paid $750 in federal income taxes” in 2016 and 2017, Wallace asked Trump, a reference to recent New York Times report on tax records the president has kept secret.
Trump didn’t directly answer, saying he paid millions of dollars in taxes. “Show us your tax returns,” Biden interjected.
“I paid $38 million one year, I paid $27 million one year,” Trump said, without specifying which years.
Wallace repeated his question about 2016 and 2017.
“Millions of dollars,” Trump answered. “And you’ll get to see it.”
Biden paid nearly $300,000 in income taxes in 2019, according to the returns he released Tuesday. Billionaire Trump, meanwhile, paid $750 in 2016 and 2017, and nothing in ten of the last 15 years, according to the New York Times.
Hunter Biden Attacks
A question about Trump’s economic record degenerated into arguing over China and the two candidates’ families.
“You take a look at what he’s actually done. He’s done very little,” Biden said, criticizing Trump’s so-called “phase one” trade deal with the country. “China’s perfected the art of the steal.”
Trump used the criticism as an opening on Hunter Biden, demanding to know whether Biden’s son had taken “billions of dollars” from China and alleging “the mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son three and a half million dollars.”
After a sigh, Biden responded: “That is not true. It’s totally discredited.”
Trump began talking over him again, disputing that the claim is false.
“It’s hard to get any word in with this clown,” Biden said.
‘He’s the Racist’
Wallace asked Trump to explain actions he’s taken to end racial sensitivity training in the government and by federal contractors. 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,” Biden responded. “He’s the racist.”
That led to Wallace’s invitation for Trump to condemn White supremacists.
“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.
Biden said he should condemn the Proud Boys, a group of White male Trump supporters who have engaged in protests and street violence with left-wing demonstrators.
“Proud Boys?” 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.”
NBC News reported that members of the group celebrated the remarks on social media.
‘Proud of My Son’
Later, Biden returned the discussion to his family, noting Beau Biden’s military service and accusing Trump of calling service members “losers,” a reference to an Atlantic report earlier this month about the president disparaging people in the military.
Trump has denied the report.
“He was not a loser,” Biden said. “He was a patriot and the people left behind there were heroes.”
“I don’t know Beau. I know Hunter,” Trump said, alleging he was “dishonorably discharged” for “cocaine use.”
“None of that is true,” Biden said, addressing viewers. “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.”
Hunter Biden was discharged from the military because of drug use.
Tuesday’s presidential debate, hosted by Case Western Reserve University as well as the Cleveland Clinic, was supposed to be the first of three before the Nov. 3 election. Cable TV commentators speculated subsequent debates might be canceled, but Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, told reporters afterward: “We are going to the debates.”
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