a mess

Chaotic, personal and ill-tempered: Five main points from the first Trump v Biden debate

It was a feisty affair in Cleveland. And there’s two more of them to go.

election-2020-debate Olivier Douliery Olivier Douliery

THAT WAS… QUITE something. 

In a debate stretching just over 90 minutes, US President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden traded personal insults in scenes that frequently resembled farce as they put their case forward to the American people ahead of the November election. 

Moderator – and Fox News presenter – Chris Wallace often struggled to put some order on proceedings as the pair clashed on topics such as Covid-19, the economy, the Supreme Court and racial division in America.

Our liveblog covered all the events and you can read that here, but here are some of the main takeaways from the first of three presidential debates to take place in the coming weeks.

1. Personal attacks were present almost from the off and persisted throughout

The debate was less than 20 minutes old when Biden first called Trump a liar.

As a discussion on the Supreme Court swiftly turned to Covid-19, Trump claimed that 2 million people would have died from the coronavirus if Biden had been president – instead of the 200,000 who have died so far.

Biden wasn’t having any of it.

CNBC Television / YouTube

“Here’s the deal, the fact is that everything he’s saying so far is simply a lie,” he said. “I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar.”

Biden also referred to Trump at various stages as a “racist” and a “clown” during the debate.

For his part, Trump zeroed on Biden’s son Hunter on more than occasion. 

He claimed that Hunter Biden had received a payment in excess of $3.5 million from Russia – a claim Biden strenuously denied.

In another instance when Biden was praising his late son Beau – who served with the US military in Iraq – as a “hero”, Trump switched it back to Hunter and pointed to his drug problems in the past. 

The US President also criticised Biden as being “not smart”, and said he’d performed among the lowest in his class at university. 

It was a debate where the moderator frequently lost control as Trump constantly interrupted Biden and the pair were effectively shouting at each other. 

It was ill-tempered and has perhaps set a tone for the next couple of debates.

2. The tax affairs

Coming into the debate, news of Donald Trump’s tax affairs had dominated headlines. 

According to documents reported on by The New York Times, the US President paid no federal income taxes in 10 of the past 15 years.

While the details raise doubts about Trump’s self-image as a shrewd and successful businessman, question marks remain over whether this will affect the support for Trump in a meaningful or decisive way. 

CNBC Television / YouTube

During the debate, he refused to say when he will finally make his personal taxes public as he has long promised.

All presidents except Trump have publicly released their taxes since the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Trump has said since 2016 that he would eventually release them, but he replied when asked by moderator Chris Wallace when that would occur: “You’ll get to see it.”

Biden quickly used that as a point of attack, saying Trump “does take advantage of the tax code” and “pays less tax than a school teacher”.

Trump shrugged off the attack, saying that all business leaders do the same “unless they are stupid”.

This echoed his reaction to similar claims from Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he remarked “that makes me smart”. 

Trump effectively evaded questions on the matter this evening, but that’s not to say the issue won’t continue to crop up on the campaign trail.

3. White supremacists and Antifa

In the context of a country that has appeared increasingly dividied in recent months as many cities became engulfed in protests after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Trump refused an opportunity to condemn the actions of white supremacists.

Wallace put to him: “Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and say they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?”

Trump responded that he was “prepared to do that” but added that “almost everything I see is from the left wing not the right wing”.

“I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”

When pressed further, Trump said: “What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name?”

Finally, he said: “Proud Boys — Stand back, and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not right-wing problem… This is a left wing problem.”

The Proud Boys are a far-right group. And the president’s remarks appear to have been warmly welcomed by the group. 

Retweeting a screenshot from a New York Times journalist purporting to show Proud Boys supporters welcoming Trump’s comments, Biden said: “This. This is Donald’s Trump’s America.”

NBC News / YouTube

4. Smile for the camera

A clear strategy for Biden throughout was to ignore Trump’s attempt at interruption and make his case directly into the camera to address the millions watching at home. 

“How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of Covid?” Biden said at one point.

Mocking the 74-year-old Trump for one of his more notorious statements on supposed cures for coronavirus, Biden said: “Maybe you could inject bleach in your arm and that would take care of it.”

He attempted to cut through the bluster on several occasions in this manner. 

ABC News / YouTube

In an election that will be decided by very fine margins, with only a low percentage of people still undecided according to the polls, every small gain will be important. 

Biden will be hoping this manner of getting his point across will land with voters.

Speaking of being on camera, moderator Chris Wallace had said at the weekend he would be “invisible” in the debate. He was anything but as he constantly had to try get things back on track and was at one stage even called out by Trump.

He had asked Trump about whether he had a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, and the president said: “First of all, I guess I’m debating you, not him, but that’s OK. I’m not surprised.”

5. A dead heat

Both men will feel they performed well tonight.

They both had specific points they wanted to emphasise.

Trump went hard on allegations that mail-in voting will result in huge voter fraud, he strongly defended his plans for the economy and tried to emphasise that a range of issues – such as Covid-19 and the economy – would be much worse under Biden’s watch. 

On the ballots, Trump said he will tell his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I’m urging them to do it”.

He also claimed that a vaccine would be made available for Covid-19 very soon, and that his response to the crisis had been praised around the country. 

For his part, Biden will be hoping he was able to cut through Trump’s rhetoric by appealing directly to voters as mentioned above.

He singled out the president for “downplaying” the Covid-19 pandemic and had failed to lead, with 200,000 people now dead in the US. 

He rebuked Trump for “dog whistle” politics and claimed he had stoked racial division in America, and this was something he would aim to improve.

Biden also aimed to defend members of the military and pointed to recent comments reportedly said by Trump characterising some Americans who had died in war as “losers”. 

Invoking his own son, he referred to him as a “hero” and said all those who served in the military were heroes. 

There’s no clear winner but the ill-tempered affair is unlikely to have appealed to swing voters.

It’s 34 days until the election and the next debate is in two weeks. This debate was a dead heat but there’s a long way to go, yet. 

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