US Election: Trump, Biden face off in first debate
Published: 11:45 AM, 30 September 2020
Donald Trump and Joe Biden
US President Donald Trump and his challenger Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden have fiercely clashed in one of the most chaotic and rancorous White House debates in years.
Amid angry shouting and name calling, the two fought over the pandemic, white supremacy and the economy during the 90-minute forum in Cleveland, Ohio on Tuesday night.
Biden called Trump a "clown" and told him to "shut up". Trump brought up drug use by his rival's son.
Opinion polls suggest Biden has a steady single-digit lead over Trump. But with 35 days until election day, surveys from several important states show a closer contest.
The debate focused on six topics in 15-minute segments - the candidates' records, the Supreme Court, the pandemic, race, election integrity and the economy.
In a vitriolic back and forth punctuated by insults, Biden, 77, told Trump, 74: "You're the worst president America has ever had."
Race and white supremacy
In one of the most talked about exchanges of the night, the president was asked by the moderator if he was prepared to condemn white supremacists.
He initially said he would but when asked to denounce the far-right Proud Boys group by name, he sidestepped.
Trump said: "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about Antifa and the left."
Earlier, Biden said: "This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division."
Trump countered that Biden, while supporting the 1994 crime bill, had referred to African Americans as "super predators".
The Democrat denied saying such a thing. In 1993, while chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden warned of "predators on our streets" who were "beyond the pale".
Trump also said: "You can't even say the word 'law enforcement' because if you did say those words you would lose all of your radical left supporters."
Due to the pandemic, the debate at Case Western Reserve University had a small, socially distanced audience and the traditional opening handshake was skipped.
Biden rubbished Trump's leadership on the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
"He panicked or he looked at the stock market," the Democrat said of the president, who wants states to reopen their economies.
"A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker," Mr Biden said.
Trump objected to Biden using the word "smart."
"You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class," the president said. "Don't ever use the word smart with me. Don't ever use that word."
Local rules required everyone in the room to wear masks, but of the president's family members present only US First Lady Melania Trump donned a face covering during the debate.
What other insults were exchanged?
As the two tussled over healthcare, Trump, a Republican, accused his rival of being beholden to socialists in his party, saying: "They're going to dominate you, Joe, you know that."
"Right now I'm the Democratic party," retorted Biden.
Biden went on: "Everybody knows he's a liar."
The president then defended his effort to swiftly fill a US Supreme Court seat to cement a 6-3 conservative majority on the bench.
Trump challenged his rival to say whether he would pack America's highest court, adding more justices to tilt its ideological balance, as some Democrats have urged.
The president also demanded Biden release a list of his own judicial nominees.
But Biden would not be drawn. "Will you shut up, man?" the Democrat snapped.
At another point, Biden said: "It's hard to get any word in with this clown. Excuse me, this person."
He also called the president "Putin's puppy" in a reference to Russia's president.
How did their families come into the debate?
The feistiest clashes unfolded when the candidates brought up their families.
Biden referred to claims by anonymous sources that Trump had once called members of the military "losers", a report denied by the president and a number of his former and current aides.
The Democrat spoke of his late son, Beau, who served in Iraq.
"He was not a loser, he was a patriot!" said Biden angrily.
Trump brought up the Democrat's other son: "Really? Are you talking about Hunter?"
"I'm talking about my son, Beau Biden!" said the Democrat.
"I don't know Beau," said Mr Trump. "I know Hunter. Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonourably discharged for cocaine use. And he didn't have a job until you became vice-president.
"And once you became vice-president he made a fortune in Ukraine, in China, in Moscow and various other places. He made a fortune and he didn't have a job."
Shouting over Trump, Biden said: "My son, like a lot of people, 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."
Why is the moderator being criticised?
It was Wallace's second time moderating a presidential debate and he at times struggled to rein in the quarrelling rivals. At one point he urged the president to stop his interruptions.
The Fox News host said: "I think that the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I'm appealing to you, sir, to do that."
Trump replied: "Well, and him, too."
Wallace said: "Well, frankly, you've been doing more interrupting."
Trump interjected: "But he does plenty."