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‘Let him answer!’: Trump bulldozes his way through debate with mix of attacks, insults and falsehoods

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Trump argued against each other in a tense debate on Sept. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)

 After 82 minutes of loud crosstalk, insults and constant interruptions from President Trump during Tuesday night’s debate, both Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace seemed baffled.

“I can’t remember which of all his rantings was the final question,” Biden said when Wallace asked him to respond to Trump.

“I’m having a little trouble myself,” chuckled Wallace of Fox News.

Trailing in the polls and trying to cast his opponent as weak and doddering, Trump took to the stage and unleashed an onslaught of words, aggressively interrupting the moderator and Biden so many times that both of them seemed exasperated and unsure what to do with a president who would not stop talking.

Moderator Chris Wallace struggled to prevent President Trump from repeatedly interrupting Joe Biden during the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Will you shut up, man?” Biden asked at one point. “Let him answer!” Wallace said at a another. “Keep yapping,” Biden told Trump.

The president would not “shut up” — or let Biden answer. He kept yapping.

“President Trump has controlled every moment of this debate,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh tweeted at one point.

On that, most everyone seemed to agree. Whether it will help his campaign is another question.

“I think President Trump went in to dominate. Whether that’s a good or bad strategy, they’ll have to decide later,” Trump ally Newt Gingrich said on Fox News.

Trump incessantly interrupts and insults Biden as they spar in acrimonious first debate

For Trump, it was a trademark performance that is consistent with how he has approached challenges much of his life: More Trump. Louder Trump. He bulldozed through the debate hall for 98 minutes, with a mix of attacks, insults and falsehoods, getting louder and angrier at times, his visage turning red. He seemed intent from the start on overwhelming the event rather than participating in it.

But his performance was not ideal in the opinion of some of his advisers. The president is trailing Biden badly with female voters and his campaign is trying to close that gap while also trying to hold onto independents who like some of what he has delivered as president but do not like his tactics or personality.

Trump’s aides have privately said that they want to make the election less of a referendum on his personality and character, believing it is not a way to win. They want him to show more empathy and to talk less about himself — a strategy they put on display during the Republican convention in August.

“The reason Trump is losing women, independent voters, suburban voters is that they are exhausted by the chaos, the constant attacks and drama. He is leaning into all of that in this debate,” Amy Walter, national editor for the Cook Political Report, wrote on Twitter.

Several allies of the president said he should have talked less during what was billed as a major event of the campaign season.

It was, in the words of Chris Christie, who coached Trump for the debates at the White House in recent days, “too hot.”

“I think the president overplayed his hand tonight,” former Republican senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said, as other commentators on CNN looked on.

Over on Fox News, analyst Dana Perino said the president let Biden get away with some potentially problematic answers because he just talked over him “when Joe Biden might have been just about to maybe fumble on the 1-yard line and so those moments didn’t happen.” One commentator posted a meme of C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, who will moderate the next debate, huddling underneath his desk, chugging wine.

Trump refused to condemn white supremacists and militia members in presidential debate marked by disputes over race

The strategy of Trump’s campaign has been to caricature Biden as old and senile. To show “he didn’t even have a pulse,” in the words of Trump adviser Jason Miller. That he takes fewer questions from reporters. That he shows up to fewer places. That people are less interested in Biden. The goal, Tuesday night, Trump told advisers, was to fluster Biden.

“Crosstalk” appeared in one transcript 140 times. “Please,” as in please stop talking, appeared at least a dozen times. “Sir,” in a bid to stop Trump, more than a dozen more.

Biden’s answers were often slow and deliberate, sometimes with pauses as he searched for words, often looking right into the camera. At times, his answers were unsteady, analysts said.

The former vice president hurled insults of his own, calling Trump a “clown,” a racist and the “the worst president America has ever had.”

Trump prodded, interjected, flailed his arms, mocked Biden with his eyes and kept talking, talking, talking. There was no searching for words.

“People want to hear what I have to say,” Trump said, when Wallace asked why he was holding large rallies with maskless supporters during a pandemic that has killed more than 205,000 Americans.

He mocked Biden for drawing small crowds and often wearing a mask — precautions Biden has taken during the pandemic to protect himself and others.

“If you could get the crowds, you would have done the same thing, but you can’t. Nobody cares,” Trump said.

When Biden talked about his late son Beau’s service overseas in the military and his medals and commendations, Trump didn’t give an inch, interrupting him to talk about his living son’s cocaine use, discharge from the military and overseas business ventures.

“I don’t know Beau. I know Hunter,” Trump said, as he rolled on.

Trump sets the tone for the worst presidential debate in living memory

He interrupted to challenge Biden over the handling of protests in Portland, Ore., even as Biden condemned violent acts and said he did not agree with defunding the police. “Are you in favor of law and order?” he said at one point. At another, he interrupted to challenge Biden to name one law enforcement group that supports him.

He interrupted to accuse Biden of favoring socialized medicine, even as Biden said he did not.

He interrupted to feign surprise. “Oh, you don’t?” Trump said at one point, after Biden said he did not support the Green New Deal climate plan supported by liberals.

He interrupted to challenge arguments made by Biden, as the former vice president said Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court abortion ruling, was on the ballot due to the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.

“There is nothing happening there,” Trump said.

He interrupted as Wallace and Biden tried to talk about the president’s taxes. “That’s wrong,” he said, when the two discussed a New York Times report that Trump only paid $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017.

He interrupted to talk about raking forests in California during a discussion on climate change. He interrupted when election security came up.

“Take a look at Carolyn Maloney’s race,” he said, citing a New York congressional primary where the results were delayed for several weeks.

Biden often went quiet, shaking his head or smiling or laughing, as Trump talked on.

“It’s hard to get any word in with this clown. Excuse me, this person,” Biden said.

Trump interjected: “Hey, let me just say,” before Wallace had seen enough, yelling: “No! No! No!”

Wallace made dozens of entreaties to the president to be quiet, to let Biden speak, that his campaign agreed to the rules of two-minute answers without interruptions. Wallace regularly told Trump that he planned to talk about the thing Trump was talking about later — if Trump would just let him talk.

“Mr. President,” Wallace said at minute 51, as Trump talked over everyone. “Please. Please.”

A few minutes later, he urged the president to stop talking — with a promise that he would be pleased if he agreed.

“This will make you happy. Mr. President, we’re going to talk about law and order,” he said, as Trump continued to talk.

A few minutes later, Wallace reminded the president that his campaign agreed to the rules to two minutes each. Why wasn’t he following the rules? When Trump tried to respond, Wallace said it was a rhetorical question.

“In those two uninterrupted minutes, Mr. President, you can say anything you want. I’m going to ask a question about race, but if you want to answer about something else, go ahead,” Wallace 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 retorted: “Well, and him too.”

Trump was right, in that Biden interrupted Trump at times, but Wallace seemed taken aback. “Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting than he has.”

Trump interrupted again. “But that’s all right. But he does plenty.”

“Well, less than you,” Wallace responded.

Trump interrupted again. “He does plenty.”

After 98 minutes, Wallace sought to mercifully end the debate.

Trump kept his argument going on how the election would be “rigged.”

“I want to see an honest ballot,” he said. Wallace tried to end the debate again.

There was more crosstalk. Eventually the cameras cut away, and Wallace laughed.

“President Trump, Vice President Biden, it’s been an interesting hour and a half,” he said.