Interrupting Joe Biden nearly every time he spoke, President Trump made little attempt to reassure swing voters about his leadership. Biden hit back: "This is so unpresidential."
President Donald Trump and Joe Biden clashed over health care and abortion rights in the opening minutes of their first debate Tuesday night (Wednesday NZ time), with Trump shrugging off the possibility that Roe v. Wade could be overturned and struggling to defend his health care record against determined criticism from Biden.
Trump resorted quickly to interrupting and taunting Biden, complaining about moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News and effectively threatening to turn the debate into a fog of bluster and cross talk rather than a clear exchange of views. Biden attempted to talk past the president's heckling, but seemed before long to decide that Trump's insistent distractions were an unavoidable obstacle.
"Will you shut up, man?" he asked Trump in obvious exasperation. "This is so unpresidential."
The debate, at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, quickly descended into name-calling and hectoring in the first 15 minutes, derisive attacks that were extraordinary even by the standards of Trump's presidency.
Trump, trailing in the polls and urgently hoping to revive his campaign, was plainly attempting to be the aggressor. But he interrupted so insistently that Biden could scarcely answer the questions posed to him, forcing the moderator, Wallace, to repeatedly urge the president to let his opponent speak.
When Biden attempted to discuss voters who had lost loved ones to the coronavirus Trump interjected. "You would've lost far more people," he declared.
The former vice president veered between smiling and shaking his head in bemusement and firing off attacks of his own as Trump kept interrupting.
"You're the worst president America has ever had," Biden said. "In 47 months I've done more than you have in 47 years," Trump shot back, referring to his rival's lengthy Washington tenure.
Trump's volcanic performance appeared to be the gambit of a president seeking to tarnish his opponent by any means available, unbounded by norms of accuracy and decorum and unguided by a calculated sense of how to sway the electorate or assuage voters' reservations about his leadership.
In an election characterised by sharply defined and stubbornly stable opinions about both candidates, the president's conduct was the equivalent of pulling the pin on a hand grenade and hoping that the ensuing explosion would harm the other candidate more.
But Trump made no effort to address his most obvious political vulnerabilities, from his mismanagement of the pandemic to his refusal to condemn right-wing extremism, and it was not clear that he did anything over the course of the evening to appeal to voters who have deeply disliked him for years — including some who voted for him in 2016 in spite of that.
Even as he went on the offensive against Biden on matters of law and order, Trump declined when prompted by Wallace and Biden to specifically condemn acts of violence by white supremacists and right-wing extremist groups. When Wallace asked him whether he would be willing to do so, Trump replied, "Sure," and asked the two men to name a group they would like him to denounce.
But when Biden named the Proud Boys, a far-right group, Trump did not do so.
"Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by," the president said briefly, before pivoting to say, "Somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left."
Biden at times sought to ignore Trump by looking into the camera and speaking directly to the voters. He did so when the president brought up the overseas work of Hunter Biden, Biden's younger son. And he did it again when he highlighted The New York Times' revelations about how little Trump has paid in taxes. "This guy paid a total of $750," Biden said.
Pressed about how much he did pay in 2016 and 2017, the president claimed he paid "millions of dollars" but offered no evidence and declined to say he would release his tax returns.
But the president did not take aim only at Biden; he also undercut his own advisers. After Biden criticised him for his handling of the coronavirus — "he's a fool on this," the former vice president said — Trump mocked his opponent for wearing "the biggest mask I've ever seen" and then belittled Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert.
"He said very strongly 'masks are not good,' then he said he changed his mind," Trump said of Fauci.
The only phase of the debate that might have been taken by an open-minded viewer as an extended and articulate exchange of views came on the subject of the coronavirus pandemic, as Trump voiced impatience with a range of public-health restrictions and Biden criticised the president for being dismissive of measures like mask wearing and social distancing.
"If we just wore masks between now — and social distanced — between now and January, we would probably save up to 100,000 lives," said Biden, who also alluded to the disclosure in journalist Bob Woodward's recent book that the president had misled the American people about the severity of the disease last winter.
Trump, reiterating his demands that the country return quickly to normal, called on Democratic governors to "open these states up" quickly, and said without evidence, "They think they're hurting us by keeping them closed."
But even on a matter as grave as the pandemic, Trump indulged freely in personal mockery. When Biden called him "totally irresponsible" for holding mass rallies without health protections in place, Trump responded by mocking Biden's more constrained events, suggesting the former vice president would hold large events, too, "if you could get the crowds."
The president's bulldozer-style tactics represented a risk for an incumbent who's lagging in the polls because voters, including some who supported him in 2016, are so fatigued by his near-daily attacks and outbursts.
For all his evident frustration with Trump for not abiding by the rules, Wallace made no attempt to correct the president as he unspooled a series of falsehoods. Trump, for example, insisted that Biden had once called criminals "superpredators." But it was Hillary Clinton who said that in 1996. Trump denied that one of his advisers, Kellyanne Conway, had described riots as helpful to him politically. But Conway did say that, on Wallace's own network.
In addition to lobbing false allegations, Trump also was unable, or unwilling, to discuss policy issues in a detailed manner. Pressed on whether he believed in climate change, the president said, "I think to an extent yes," before quickly adding: "We're planting a billion trees."
Overshadowed though it might have been, the policy content of the debate's opening phase mirrored the stark contrasts already on display in the race. On the Supreme Court, the two men split over whether it was appropriate for Trump to name a new justice to the court in the final months of his term, with the president offering a defiant rationale for doing so: "We won the election," he said, "and we have the right to do it."
Perhaps more surprisingly, Trump dismissed Biden's warning that Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision guaranteeing women's right to abortion access, was "on the ballot."
The president projected disbelief, though the decision would plainly be vulnerable to being overturned by a conservative court. "There's nothing happening there," Trump insisted.
Trump had no defense for Biden's warning that if the Supreme Court struck down the Affordable Care Act it could imperil women and people with preexisting conditions, nor did he offer a substantive response to Wallace's question prompting him to articulate a specific vision for health care policy.
Trump argued that he had already done so, though he has not, and said that his success repealing the Obama-era law's individual mandate was a "big thing" on its own. Instead of finally filling in the blanks of his health care agenda, Trump sought to go on the attack against Biden, tying him to the "socialist" aspirations of the left wing of the Democratic Party.
Biden, who campaigned against socialised medicine in the Democratic primary, deflected the attack — "I am the Democratic Party right now," he said — and sought to keep the focus on Trump's lack of health care policies besides gutting the ACA.
"He doesn't have a plan," Biden said. "The fact is, this man doesn't know what he's talking about."
For Trump, the first debate appeared to be his best chance to change the trajectory of a presidential race that has so far resisted all manner of Trumpian efforts to shake it up. The president has cycled through an array of attacks against his Democratic challenger in recent months, criticising or outright smearing Biden's governing record, personal ethics, economic policies, family finances, and mental and physical health — often relying on misinformation and falsehoods.
Over the past month, Republicans have made an especially concerted push to brand Biden as overly sympathetic to racial-justice protests that have turned unruly and insufficiently committed to maintaining public order.
Yet that argument has not budged the race an inch in Trump's direction, or changed the minds of a majority of voters who take a negative view of his personal character and his leadership during the pandemic. From the outset of the race, Trump has prioritised his largely rural and conservative base ahead of all other constituencies, and he has done little to reach out to Americans who do not already support him.
Rather, in a year of tumult, there has been one constant: Biden has enjoyed a steady lead in the polls since he effectively claimed the nomination in April.
Propelled by women, voters of color and whites with college degrees, and faring better with Republican-leaning constituencies than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, the former vice president is better positioned going into the final month of the election than any challenger since 1992.
Biden has established an advantage in the three Great Lakes states that swung the election to Trump: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And he is leading the president or deadlocked with him across much of the Sun Belt, including in Georgia and Arizona, states that no Democrat has carried this century.
Two new surveys this week — one from The New York Times and Siena College, the other from The Washington Post and ABC News — both indicated that Biden enjoys a 9-point advantage in Pennsylvania, an ominous sign for the Trump campaign, which viewed that state as easier to hold than Michigan or Wisconsin.
Just as revealing as it relates to Tuesday's debate, there are few undecided voters left in America. So it's questionable whether this or either of the following two debates can drastically shift the election.
Yet even with time working against him, Trump has spent most of the past month on defense. He has litigated a series of unhelpful revelations, including his acknowledgment to journalist Bob Woodward that he misled the public about the coronavirus and the disclosure this week in The New York Times that Trump for many years paid minimal or no federal income taxes and used legally questionable strategies to minimize his tax bills.
On Tuesday afternoon, in an attempt to draw more attention to The Times' story, Biden released his own 2019 tax returns, and the topic was sure to come up during the debate.
That is not to say that the debates won't play a role in shaping the final stretch of the campaign. Biden may be leading Trump, but his support is based less on enthusiasm for his candidacy than on the deep antipathy nearly half the country has for the president.
Polling also indicates that the former vice president faces questions about his mental acuity, which Trump and his allies have stoked for months by calling him "Sleepy Joe" and accusing him of suffering from dementia.
Hours before the debate, Trump's campaign accused Biden of refusing a "pre-debate inspection for electronic earpieces."
The messaging reflected pre-debate gamesmanship rather than any credible attack line, since there is no proof suggesting Biden is relying on pharmaceuticals or would wear an earpiece to the debate.
Recognising that the best way to allay any doubts about mental sharpness was to turn in a strong debate performance, the Democrat's campaign staff has sharply limited Biden's public appearances in recent days and staged extensive preparation sessions. By contrast, Trump has held few mock debate sessions and insisted he is busy running the country.
Trump's challenge is most pronounced on the issue of the virus. Up to this point, the president has attempted to grapple with the subject largely by arguing that it is all but resolved, promising an imminent vaccine and criticising ongoing efforts by state and local governments to control the spread of the disease by restricting individual and commercial activities.
Written by: Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns
Photographs by: Doug Mills, Ruth Fremson
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES