CLEVELAND — The presidential campaign devolved into chaos and acrimony here Tuesday night as President Trump incessantly interrupted and insulted Democratic nominee Joe Biden while the two sparred over the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court and race relations in their first debate.
Biden, exasperated, asked Trump during the opening segment on the Supreme Court, “Will you shut up, man?”
The squabbling overwhelmed a debate that displayed substantive differences between both men on the converging crises convulsing the nation at a profound moment — from the pandemic and the related economic recession to the reckoning over racial injustice and the dangers of climate change as evidenced by the wildfires devastating the West.
Both men spoke in sweeping and at times apocalyptic terms about the other. Biden posited that under Trump, the United States had become “weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided and more violent,” while Trump argued that if Biden were elected, the country would experience “a depression the likes of which you’ve never seen.”
The attacks were extraordinarily personal, in keeping with the caustic nature of this campaign. Biden called Trump “a racist” and “the worst president America has ever had,” while Trump mocked Biden’s intelligence and pivoted off Biden’s impassioned defense of his late son, Beau, to attack the integrity of his surviving son, Hunter.
The discussion of race was especially tense. Biden decried the “systemic injustice in this country” and attacked Trump for federal officers using chemical irritants to forcibly remove peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square outside the White House.
Trump, meanwhile, accused Biden of being too tough on crime when he spearheaded the 1994 crime bill, which critics say has led to mass incarceration of African Americans. Now, the president said, Biden is not tough enough on crime.
“You can’t even say the word ‘law enforcement,’ ” Trump said. “If he ever got to run this country . . . our suburbs would be gone.”
“This is not 1950,” Biden responded. “All these dog whistles and racism don’t work anymore.”
Biden added, “This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division.” He also said of Trump, “He’s just, he’s a racist.”
Pressed by both Wallace and Biden to condemn White supremacists, Trump demurred.
“Give me a name,” Trump said. “Who would you like me to condemn?”
“The Proud Boys,” Biden interjected.
“The Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said. “But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
The 90-minute event, held on the Cleveland campus of Case Western Reserve University, was the first of three scheduled debates between Trump and Biden.
Viewers were deprived of sustained, cohesive arguments or statements of principle because of the welter of partisan claims and personal insults. The bickering came from both candidates, but it was Trump who tried to bulldoze and shout down his opponent most frequently and most loudly.
“The country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions,” said Wallace, of Fox News Channel. Speaking directly to Trump, he continued, “I’m appealing to you, sir, to do that.”
“Well, and him, too,” Trump shot back, invoking Biden.
“Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting,” Wallace replied.
“But he does plenty,” Trump said.
“No, less than you have,” Wallace concluded.
The debate was testy and argumentative from its opening minutes. Trump shrugged off questions about whether he is trying to rush Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett through the Senate before the Nov. 3 election. He dismissed Biden’s argument that the vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be filled by whoever wins the election.
“I will tell you very simply, we won the election,” Trump said, referring to 2016.
“We’re in the middle of an election already,” Biden said. “The election has already started; tens of thousands of people have already voted. So the thing that should happen is, we should wait.”
Trump repeatedly interrupted and spoke over Biden and Wallace as the topic shifted to health care and the potential that Barrett could vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act this term, when the Supreme Court hears arguments in November on a case backed by the Trump administration challenging the constitutionality of the law known as Obamacare.
Trump insisted falsely that he has advanced a comprehensive plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. Biden said, “Folks, do you have any idea what this clown’s doing? . . . He has no plan for health care. He sends out wishful thinking.”
The debate came as the novel coronavirus continues to ravage the nation, where more than 205,000 people have died of covid-19. The global death toll surpassed 1 million this week.
This reality could be felt at the debate site, where heavy safety measures were in place that underscored the lethal threat of the virus. The debate was hosted in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic and held on the Health Education Campus, a partnership between the clinic and Case Western Reserve.
The Cleveland venue could seat many hundreds of people at full capacity, but only about 80 or 100 were in the audience. In keeping with social distancing guidelines, guests were spaced far apart, in singles or pairs, provided with anti-bacterial wipes and instructed to wear masks.
Trump, Biden and Wallace, who hosts “Fox News Sunday,” were the only three people permitted not to cover their faces, although some members of the Trump family were seen without masks. Trump and Biden did not shake hands when they met onstage, another pandemic alteration to the traditional debate format.
The images from Cleveland presented a stark contrast to Trump’s campaign events, as well as White House gatherings, where masks are rare and social distancing is typically nonexistent.
Biden and Trump clashed on how the coronavirus has been handled. Biden looked directly into the camera, as if speaking to viewers through their screens, and said, “How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of covid? How many of you are in a situation where you lost your mom or dad and you couldn’t even speak to them?”
Trump energetically defended his management of the pandemic and promised that “we’re weeks away from the vaccine.” He argued that many more Americans would have died had Biden been in charge.
“We got the gowns. We got the masks. We made the ventilators,” Trump said, offering a rosy view of the first few months of the pandemic when states were competing against one another and driving up the prices of needed safety equipment.
“I’ll tell you, Joe, you could never have done the job that we did,” Trump said. “You don’t have it in your blood.”
Biden retorted by recounting some of Trump’s promises, reminding viewers that Trump said the virus would be gone by Easter and then said it would disappear over the summer when the weather warmed. “And by the way, maybe you could inject some bleach in your arm and that would take care of it,” Biden quipped, referring to a dangerous idea that Trump mused about from the White House briefing room.
“That was said sarcastically,” Trump said.
As Trump and his aides had previewed, the president levied charges that Hunter Biden had collected millions from foreign governments or firms when the elder Biden was vice president, with the suggestion that both Bidens were corrupt.
His face tight with anger, Biden repeated “discredited” as Trump plowed on. Biden then countered that Trump’s family has its own conflict-of-interest problems, although he did not go into details.
Later, Biden accused Trump of disrespecting those who, like Beau Biden, had served in military uniform.
“He was not a loser,” Biden said, using language that the Atlantic magazine had quoted Trump as using to disparage the armed forces. The Washington Post confirmed Trump’s usage of the term.
Beau Biden served a year in Iraq. He died of brain cancer in 2015.
“I don’t know Beau,” Trump interjected. “I know Hunter.”
But Trump leaped in with further attacks on Hunter Biden, saying he “got thrown out of the military” and “dishonorably discharged.” That was a reference to Hunter Biden’s 2014 discharge from the Navy Reserve after failing a drug test.
“My son, my, son, my son,” Biden tried to interject, as Trump returned to allegations about Hunter Biden’s financial dealings in China and elsewhere.
“My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” Biden said, finally getting the floor. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it, he’s working on it, and I’m proud of him.”
Biden then said, “This is not about my family or his family. This is about your family. The American people.”
As Trump and Biden landed in Cleveland about an hour apart on Tuesday afternoon, their campaigns previewed a fiery exchange over the policies at the heart of the campaign, including the coronavirus and race relations, as well as over their personal backgrounds and characteristics.
Signaling that Biden planned to attack Trump over taxes, his campaign on Tuesday afternoon released Biden’s 2019 tax returns, as well as those for vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris. The returns showed that Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, a community college professor, paid about $300,000 in federal income taxes on earnings of nearly $1 million.
The Times, which said it had obtained nearly two decades of Trump’s tax return data, reported that he paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and again in 2017, and that he paid no federal income taxes in several earlier years, largely because he reported that his businesses had lost more money than they made.
Wallace asked Trump directly whether it’s true that he paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. “I paid millions of dollars in taxes,” Trump replied, ducking the specific question about how much he’s paid in federal income taxes.
“Show us your tax returns,” Biden interjected.
Wallace pressed Trump again. “You’ll get to see it,” Trump said, asserting that he’s paid “millions in taxes.” Trump also blamed the tax laws for having loopholes that he could use legally. “I don’t want to pay tax,” Trump said.
“This is all about trying to dissuade people from voting, because he’s trying to scare people into thinking that it’s not going to be legitimate,” Biden said. The alternative, Biden said, is “four more years of these lies.”
Biden said he would accept the results if he loses, but Trump did not immediately do the same. Instead, he launched into a list of familiar complaints and bogus allegations, including that mail-in ballots for him are already being discarded, and predicted a dark outcome.
“They’re being sold, they’re being dumped in rivers,” Trump alleged, although there is no evidence of any such activity being done intentionally or in a widespread way. “This is a horrible thing for our country. This is not going to end well.”
Gearan and Linskey reported from Cleveland, and Rucker reported from Washington. Sean Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.
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