US President Donald Trump and his Democratic contender Joe Biden faced off in their first debate in Cleveland on Tuesday (29 September), marked by personal insults and repeated interruptions, as they battled over Trump’s leadership on the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and the integrity of November’s election.
With early and postal voting already underway due to the pandemic and more than a million Americans already casting early ballots, both candidates’ performances five weeks before the 3 November election day was rated as decisive to sway undecided voters.
Trump, who has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, repeated his allegations that mail-in voting would lead to fraud, although according to experts fraud is extremely rare.
He said he expected the Supreme Court might have to decide the election and “look at the ballots.”
Biden in turn urged Americans to vote and said he would not declare victory until the outcome was validated.
“If we get the votes, it’s going to be all over. He’s going to go. If I win, I’ll accept that, if I lose, I’ll accept that,” said Biden.
‘Will you shut up, man?’
Throughout the 90-minute debate, Trump repeatedly talked over Biden and Fox News moderator Chris Wallace, overshadowing attempts to discuss policy and drawing rebukes for breaking the rules that both campaigns had agreed on to ensure the equal talking time.
“Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential,” said an exasperated Biden after Trump’s repeated interruptions during the first segment of the debate on the Supreme Court.
Biden later called Trump a “clown,” a “racist,” and “Putin’s puppy” in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin and told Trump: “You’re the worst president America has ever had.”
Late in the debate, Wallace himself urged the president to stop his interruptions.
Trump did not mince words when Wallace asked him what he paid in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, after the New York Times reported that his tax returns showed only a $750 payment in each year.
Offering no evidence, Trump said he had paid, “millions of dollars. And you’ll get to see it”. So far, he has steadily refused to release any returns since he became a candidate in 2015, breaking with decades of tradition.
“Show us your tax returns,” Biden challenged but failed the address many of the allegations in the Times report on tax deductions or no income tax paid by Trump in 10 of the last 15 years.
Hours before the debate, Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, released their 2019 tax returns. Biden and his wife reported on their 2019 federal tax return adjusted gross income of about $985,000 and total taxes of nearly $300,000.
More insults than policy
Foreign policy issues did not feature in the debate and are unlikely to take up much of the menu in the next one, where questions will be asked by citizens.
At one point, Wallace mentioned climate change, particularly in relation to the forest fires in California.
Trump blamed fires on the poor management of the forests while Biden called for a return to the Paris Agreement, which the US had left under Trump.
On the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden questioned Trump’s leadership, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
According to Biden, Trump knew of the danger of the coronavirus but played it down because he was more concerned about the economy and “looked at the stock market”.
“A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker,” Biden said.
Trump defended his approach to the pandemic and said “we have done a great job” but objected to Biden using the word “smart”.
“You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word smart with me. Don’t ever use that word,” Trump responded.
On economy, Trump stuck to his criticism that Biden wanted to send the country into lockdown, claiming that with President Biden, two million people would have died as a result of the virus.
Biden in turn promised millions of new jobs with his new economic program.
On the racial justice protests of the past months, Biden was tough about Trump’s stance on the right-wing extremist marches in Charlottesville, accusing him of “adding fuel to the fire” and saying the president did not want the unrest to calm down.
Trump did not clearly distance himself from representatives of the alleged white supremacy and right-wing militias, saying most of the violence came from left-wing extremists.
Trump defended his effort to swiftly fill a US Supreme Court seat with conservative federal appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett, saying he had the right as president to make the nomination before the election, despite Democratic objections.
Trump is moving quickly to fill the seat of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg in hopes of cementing a 6-3 conservative majority on the Court, while Biden said the seat should be filled after the election, when it was clear who the president would be.
Democrats accuse Republicans of hypocrisy, pointing out the Republicans had blocked then-President Barack Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016 arguing it should wait until after that November election.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]