“Will you shut up, man?”
It took only minutes into the first presidential debate for Joe Biden to snap at Donald Trump in response to the president’s interruptions during a question about the Supreme Court. But the heated exchange was only a precursor to the ugly night ahead in what was perhaps the most chaotic and toxic presidential debate in modern history.
The debate in Cleveland, Ohio, was meant to cover the Supreme Court, health care, the coronavirus pandemic, law and order and police brutality. But Trump attempted a high-speed highjacking of the debate by relentlessly disrespecting the debate rules — he frequently talked over both Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News — and by telling ostentatious lies in every segment. Trump falsely claimed he had enacted a comprehensive health care plan, launched personal attacks about Biden’s son Hunter, and advanced disinformation about mail-in voting.
Although his performance was typical for Trump, it’s not clear the president did anything to sway the millions of suburban and women voters who say they are turned off by his behavior after nearly four years in office. Throwing a presidential debate into chaos when you are down in the polls might provide a sugar rush on the similarly combative Fox News, but will likely be a poor long-term strategy for the incumbent president.
It was, however, an apt demonstration of how Trump won the White House and governed as president: by trammeling unwritten political rules about mutual respect for the process and your opponents. An irritated Biden — who in addition to telling Trump to “shut up” also called him a “clown” ― could only stand by as Wallace pleaded with and, when that didn’t work, ultimately shouted at Trump to stand down.
“Let me ask my question,” Wallace said at one point, and then finally: “Mr. President, I’m the moderator of this debate, I’d like you to let me ask my question and then you can answer. … My question, sir, is what is the Trump health care plan?”
Trump fired back: “Well, first of all, I guess I’m debating you not him. But that’s OK, I’m not surprised.”
At another point in the debate, Wallace tried to rein Trump in after the president refused to allow Biden to respond to a jab about Biden’s son’s past work in Ukraine. The former vice president defended Hunter Biden, saying he did nothing wrong by serving on the board of a Ukranian energy company.
“Mr. President, let him answer!” Wallace said. “Mr. President, please stop.”
A frustrated Biden responded, “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown.” He added, “Excuse me, this person.”
At an auditorium that just months ago served as an emergency pop-up hospital for COVID-19 patients, some of the biggest issues facing the United States loomed large. To date, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 200,000 American lives, and cases continue to rise, outpacing nations around the world. Meanwhile, millions of Americans remain unemployed and with dwindling federal assistance.
But the exchange between Trump and Biden did not expand on how to address these struggles. Trump repeatedly claimed the American death toll would have been higher under a Biden administration, defended holding massive rallies during the pandemic and downplayed the utility of wearing a mask.
Biden, in some rare moments where he could talk at length, was able to accomplish what his campaign said he would attempt to do: speak directly to the voters. Looking straight into the camera, Biden asked how many Americans have an empty seat at their table after losing a loved one to the pandemic. He asked working-class Americans how they were really doing during the current economic climate. And in a final plea, he called on Americans to vote however they felt comfortable.
Those moments were followed by Trump’s bluster.
When put on the spot about his record, Trump resorted to denials: He claimed to have paid “millions” in taxes in 2016 and 2017, refuting a New York Times report that he only paid $750 in each of those years. He hung on to pre-coronavirus numbers on the economy, inflating how the manufacturing industry was doing even before the pandemic.
And in one of the most notable moments of the night, Trump refused to condemn white supremacists and militia groups. Instead, he said the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist group, should “stand back and stand by.”
Tuesday’s debate comes as Trump trails in national polls and in surveys of key battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Trump won all three Rust Belt states in 2016 over then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to clinch the presidency.
The negative tone between the two campaigns was set early. In advance of the debate, the Trump campaign circulated a series of baseless conspiracies that the Biden campaign had backed out of an inspection for earpiece devices. The claims were part of a continued attack, often pushed through doctored videos, that Biden has cognitive decline. Biden’s campaign denied that it had ever agreed to an earpiece check.
CNN political commentator and former Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum, who often defends Trump, said the president did poorly on Tuesday.
“I think the president overplayed his hand tonight,” Santorum said after the debate. “I don’t think it worked for him tonight. I think he came out way too hot.”