Marked by angry interruptions and bitter accusations, the first debate between US President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden erupted in contentious exchanges Tuesday night (Wednesday afternoon NZ time) over the coronavirus pandemic, job losses and how the Supreme Court will shape the future of the nation's healthcare.
In what was the most chaotic presidential debate in recent years, somehow fitting for what has been an extraordinarily ugly campaign, the two men frequently talked over each other, with Trump interrupting so often that Biden eventually snapped at him, "Will you shut up, man?"
"The fact is that everything he's said so far is simply a lie," Biden said. "I'm not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he's a liar."
Trump and Biden arrived in Cleveland hoping the debate would energise their bases of support, even as they competed for the slim slice of undecided voters who could decide the election. It has been generations since two men asked to lead a nation facing such tumult, with Americans both fearful and impatient about the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 of their fellow citizens and cost millions of jobs.
Over and over, Trump tried to control the conversation, interrupting Biden and repeatedly talking over the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News. The president tried to deflect tough lines of questioning — whether on his taxes or the pandemic — to deliver broadsides against Biden.
The president drew a lecture from Wallace, who pleaded with both men to stop interrupting. Biden tried to push back against Trump, sometimes looking right at the camera to directly address viewers rather than the president and snapping, "It's hard to get a word in with this clown".
The vitriol exploded into the open when Biden attacked Trump's handling of the pandemic, saying that the president "waited and waited" to act when the virus reached America's shores and "still doesn't have a plan". Biden told Trump to "get out of your bunker and get out of the sand trap" and go in his golf cart to the Oval Office to come up with a bipartisan plan to save people.
Trump snarled a response, declaring that "I'll tell you Joe, you could never have done the job that we did. You don't have it in your blood."
"I know how to do the job," was the solemn response from Biden, who served eight years as Barack Obama's vice-president.
Trump struggled to define his ideas for replacing the Affordable Care Act on healthcare in the debate's early moments and defended his nomination of Barrett, declaring "I was not elected for three years, I'm elected for four years".
"We won the election. Elections have consequences. We have the Senate. We have the White House and we have a phenomenal nominee, respected by all."
Trump criticised Biden over the former vice-president's refusal to comment on whether he would try to expand the Supreme Court in retaliation if Barrett is confirmed to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
As the conversation moved to race, Biden accused Trump of walking away from the American promise of equity for all and making a race-based appeal.
"This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division," Biden said.
Recent months have seen major protests after the deaths of Black people at the hands of police. And Biden said there is systemic racist injustice in this country and while the vast majority of police officers are "decent, honorable men and women" there are "bad apples" and people have to be held accountable.
Trump in turn claimed that Biden's work on a federal crime bill treated the African American population "about as bad as anybody in this country". The president pivoted to his hardline focus on those protesting racial injustice and accused Biden of being afraid to use the words "law and order" out of fear of alienating the left.
"Violence is never appropriate," Biden said. "Peaceful protest is."
With just 35 days until the election, and early voting already under way in some states, Biden stepped on to the stage holding leads in the polls — significant in national surveys, close in some battleground states — and looking to expand his support among suburban voters, women and seniors. Surveys show the president has lost significant ground among those groups since 2016, but Biden faces his own questions encouraged by Trump's withering attacks.
Leaving the White House for Cleveland, Trump pumped his fist for supporters gathered on the White House lawn but did not address reporters. He spent the morning in informal debate preparations while a more formal session was set for the afternoon once he arrived in Ohio. Biden held an umbrella to ward off the Delaware rain as he boarded a new, bigger campaign plane en route to Cleveland. He, too, did not address reporters.
In the hours before the debate, Biden released his 2019 tax returns just days after the blockbuster revelations about Trump's long-hidden tax history, including that he paid only US$750 a year in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing in many other years. The Bidens paid nearly US$300,000 in taxes in 2019.
Trump, in the debate, insisted that he paid millions in taxes — but refused to say how much he paid in federal income taxes — and insisted that he had taken advantage of legal tax incentives, another angry exchange that led to Biden declaring that Trump was the "worst president" the nation has ever had.
The tumult of 2020 was difficult to overstate: Covid-19 has rewritten the rules of everyday life; racial justice protests have swept into cities after several highly publicised killings of Black people by police, and the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg allowed Trump to nominate a conservative jurist to replace a liberal voice and perhaps reshape the high court for generations.