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As it happened: Donald Trump and Joe Biden go head-to-head in first presidential debate

We’ll be liveblogging the latest as Donald Trump and Joe Biden square off in Cleveland.

LAST UPDATE | 30 Sep 2020

FOR THE FIRST time in this campaign, Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden faced off against US President Donald Trump in Cleveland in a highly-anticipated debate. 

The disruption caused by the pandemic has meant that on-the-ground campaigning has largely ceased, meaning this is really the first opportunity a large-scale audience has had to see the two candidates in action. 

And remember – tens of millions of American watch these debates. And while many Americans might already have made up their minds, or indeed voted already, both campaign teams will be hoping that their candidate can sway any undecided voters. 

In a debate that was tetchy, argumentative and veering into personal insults frequently, the pair clashed on a variety of issues.

Here’s what happened.

Good evening all, and welcome to tonight’s liveblog. 

I’ll be with you through the night, bringing you the build-up and then all the updates as the two candidates clash.

Anyone else staying up for the debate tonight? Do you think Trump will get the better of Biden or does the former vice president have what it takes to outwit the current US President? 

Send your thoughts to or tweet me @seanmjourno.

I think it’s time to put the kettle on. 

So what can we expect when all the cameras are on Trump and Biden for 90 minutes?

My colleague Dominic McGrath had this succinct analysis earlier:

For many watching – not just in the US but around the world – the stakes couldn’t be higher. After four years of divisive politics, social unrest and large-scale protests at discrimination and violence against black people, many see the election as a defining moment in the future of the US.

We can predict some things about how the night will go. Trump will be combative and pugilistic, stressing his achievements and attacking Biden’s weak points. In contrast, his opponent will try to avoid any unforced errors, while also – or so he’s promised – fact-checking Trump.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for surprises. The next few hours of debate are important in offering us a glimpse of each candidate – and possibly a vision of what the next few weeks will hold.

The big news on the campaign trail in the past 48 hours has been the New York Times’ publication of Donald Trump’s tax affairs over the past few years.

According to the documents, 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. 

Biden is sure to press him on this tonight, but do you think Trump’s years of paying no federal income tax could cost him when Americans go to the polls?

Poll Results:

Yes (1001)
No (885)

On that point, it’s worth recalling this moment from the 2016 presidential debate when Hillary Clinton was pressing Trump for not paying federal income tax.

His response: “That makes me smart.”

CNN / YouTube

Here’s a rather serious-looking Trump arriving to Cleveland earlier ahead of the debate. / YouTube

Just how important are these debates though?

Can they really play an outcome in the final result?

They can certainly be used as a stick to beat the loser afterwards, as Gerald Ford found out to his cost. 

Going into the 1976 election, President Ford remarked during a debate with Jimmy Carter that “there is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe” and that there wouldn’t be one during a Ford presidency. 

The bemused moderator asked Ford to clarify what he had meant. 

MCamericanpresident / YouTube

It’s a bad gaffe to be sure, but this analysis from The Atlantic found it didn’t make that much difference to the poll numbers – and Ford lost anyway. 

Debates can give us very memorable moments, though. 

Like when Republican vice-presidential hopeful Dan Quayle got sunk by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen in 1988.

George HW Bush won it anyway for the Republicans but Bentsen’s “you’re no Jack Kennedy” managed to enter the political lexicon. 

CBS News / YouTube

Biden’s campaign team will certainly be hoping he can repeat his strong performance in the vice presidential debate against Paul Ryan (ft. Jack Kennedy) in 2012. 

My guess is that he’ll laugh a lot less this time. 

CBS News / YouTube

In the last couple of days, Trump has been seeking to double down on his claims of “Sleepy” Joe Biden as listless and inept by asking for a drug test prior to the debate.

Biden has just tweeted a dig back at Trump over this, saying his “performance enhancers” are at the ready. 

Regardless of your political persuasion, I think we can all get behind salted peanut butter ice cream with chocolate flecks.

And the “earpiece” referred to by Biden in his tweet is a reference to a row that has erupted in the last few hours. 

The Trump campaign has demanded Biden be checked for a secret earpiece – presumably to give him answers in the debate.

“Joe Biden’s handlers several days ago agreed to a pre-debate inspection for electronic earpieces but today abruptly reversed themselves and declined,” Tim Murtaugh, Trump 2020 communications director, said in a statement.

Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield called this “absurd” and shot back with her own bit of rumour mongering, claiming that Trump’s team had tried unsuccessfully to ensure that the debate moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, would never mention the number of US deaths from Covid-19.

“See how easy that was to try to throw up a distraction?” she was quoted as saying by Politico.


There’s a plethora of analysis out there on what each candidate hopes to get out of this debate.

This piece from the Associated Press characterises this debate as a last chance for Trump to “define Biden” in a way that he managed to do with his rivals back in 2016.

“But privately many Republicans are perplexed that Trump, who skillfully identified and preyed on his rivals’ weaknesses in 2016, seems to still be grasping for the most effective ways to define Biden at this late stage of the campaign. Some warned the campaign earlier this summer that they were at risk of wasting the advantages of incumbency: the months and the money that a sitting president can typically use to test out messages against a rival ahead of the fall campaign.”

And what of the moderator, Chris Wallace?

The Fox News Sunday anchor will be in the hotseat in between the two rivals for the 90-minute debate. 

He moderated the third debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, but the first debate is usually the one that attracts the most viewers in the US.

Wallace said on Fox on Sunday: “My job is to be as invisible as possible… I’m trying to get them to engage, to focus on the key issues, to give people at home a sense of ‘why I want to vote for one versus the other’.”

The New York Times has more on Wallace here

What will Biden press Trump on? It’s been fairly clear what his points of attack will be. 

The first, and perhaps, most important is Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Over 200,000 people have now died with the coronavirus in the US. 

While the president has repeatedly praised his own actions in this regard, Biden is likely to seize on this during the debate. 

The recent unrest in cities across America in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the recent Trump nominee to the Supreme Court and post-pandemic healthcare are all likely to feature. 

It’s nigh-on impossible to “win” one of these debates – unless one of them makes a horrendous, overshadowing gaffe. 

At 3.30am Irish time, both sides will be fervent in their claim of victory in the first debate. 

So, instead I’ll ask you: Who do you think will fare better in this debate?

Poll Results:

Trump (1001)
Biden (885)

It’s 34 days until election day. 

And these rather nice graphics from the Press Association give us a picture of what the polling and swing states are looking like at this stage.

The key takeaway – Biden is seven points ahead of Trump nationally right now, and he’s ahead in almost all of the crucial swing states.

And polls are never wrong, right?


2.55758442 PA PA

The Fox News stream currently features a load of people standing around and not doing very much.

I’m going to put the kettle on again.


ICYMI, Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris released their tax returns ahead of the debate, almost certainly in response to the controversy surrounding Trump’s tax affairs.

You can read more on that here.

The debate also starts in 30 minutes. 

Trump’s motorcade has arrived.

trump motorcade

We’ve talked about the six topics that will be debated for fifteen minutes each.

They are:

  • The records of both Biden and Trump
  • The Supreme Court – and the controversial pre-election nominee
  • Covid-19
  • The economy
  • Race and violence in our cities
  • The integrity of the election

On all of those things, we can expect vast different viewpoints from the pair. 

On the last point, Trump was again repeating claims that postal ballots will be used to rig the election earlier today.

Just over 15 minutes to go. I’m not sure if it’s sleep deprivation or the very real possibility of fireworks between Trump and Biden on some/all of those topics, but I’m starting to get excited for this. 

The venue in Cleveland, Ohio has a very limited number of attendees with only around 100 people on site.

One of them is UFC figher and Trump fan Colby Covington. He’s a guest of the president, apparently. 

election-2020-debate Patrick Semansky / PA Images Patrick Semansky / PA Images / PA Images

On those straw polls earlier.

A majority of readers think a) the details of Trump’s tax affairs won’t affect his chances of winning the election and b) Biden will fare better in tonight’s debate.

We won’t have to wait too much longer to find out…

Chris Wallace – tonight’s moderator – is speaking. But we can’t hear what he’s saying. What a shame. 

He’s going to go over the ground rules for tonight, and Trump will get the first question. 

All the cameras are on the president’s children who’ve taken their seats in the auditorium.

To quote the mildly popular 2004 album from Belgian electronic music band Soulwax – Any Minute Now.

any minute now

Moderator Chris Wallace is introducing the debate now. Makes clear he decided the topics and questions, and says none of them have been shared with either of the two candidates.

He also says the attendees have agreed not to cheer or boo during answers. Let’s see what happens there. 

chris wallace


And here we go.

Supreme Court question up first – why are you right and why is your opponent wrong on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett?

election-2020-debate AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

Trump says that Coney Barrett is a fine candidate. “We won the election and we have the right to [nominate her to the Supreme Court],” he says.

The US President says the Democrats would do the same if the positions were reversed.

Biden says an aim of Trump is to revoke the Affordable Care Act, and that Coney Barrett is on record as saying this act is unconstitutional. 

He says revoking the ACA would affect women and people with pre-existing conditions disproportionately. 

“It’s not appropriate to do this before the election,” Biden says. “We should wait and see the outcome.”

Trump has said the word “socialism” so congratulations if you had that in your debate bingo. 

He also claims that if Biden were president, the death toll would’ve been 2 million rather than 200,000. 

Biden says Roe v Wade – the landmark ruling on abortion in the US – is on the ballot in the election. Trump disputes this. 

Combative so far. 

“Everybody knows he’s a liar,” Biden says. He also calls Trump a clown. 

Trump accuses Biden of “losing the left” and frequently interrupts him.

The president and the moderator at loggerheads too.

I should’ve made popcorn.

“Keep yapping man,” Biden says. 

“47 years, you’ve done nothing, Joe,” Trump says.

Wallace pleads for them to be serious as it turns to Covid-19.

election-2020-debate Patrick Semansky / PA Images Patrick Semansky / PA Images / PA Images

Biden gets a chance to speak first on Covid-19. He’s presenting the numbers.

“He said ‘it is what it is’,” Biden says of Trump’s previous comments on the death toll. 

“He still doesn’t have a plan,” he says.

Trump retorts that millions of people would’ve died under Biden and it was “China’s fault”. 

He says by “closing the country”, he saved thousands of lives and says this was backed up by Dr Anthony Fauci. 

Trump claims he was praised by most governors for a “phenomenal job”. I take back what I said earlier about it being unlikely for Biden to audibly laugh a lot.

“You could have never have done the job we did,” Trump says. 

Biden says “we don’t trust him at all, we trust scientists”.

Trump is asked about the possibility for a Covid-19 vaccine not being available until next summer.

He dismisses that and says it should be there a lot sooner.

“This is the same man who said it’d be gone by Easter,” Biden says.

He also mentions the infamous bleach comments from Trump. Trump says it was clear he was being sarcastic. 

“We will have the vaccine very soon,” Trump persists.

Biden retorts – and it seems a common tactic from him tonight is looking straight into the camera and addressing the American people directly – and asks if the public believes the president.

Biden also mentions the word “smart” and that gets Trump’s back up. He says Biden came one of the lowest in his class so he shouldn’t talk about being “smart”. 

Biden has mentioned golf twice now and Trump suggests that Biden probably plays it more than him. Another laugh from Biden. 

“He wants to shut down this country and I want to keep it open,” Trump says. 

Here’s Biden calling Trump a clown.

Both candidates being asked about their approach to campaigning. 

Trump says there’s been no negative effect from his rallies, and says tens of thousands attended them. He also slags off Biden for not being able to drawn a crowd.

Biden says Trump’s approach was irresponsible. I also think he called him a fool. 

On the economy now.

Trump says the economy is doing remarkably well and says Biden would “destroy this country”. He also goes on the attack of Democrat-controlled states.

Biden says millionaires and billionaires are doing well while regular people are not. 

“He’s going to be the first president of the United States to have fewer jobs in the administration than when he became president,” Biden claims. 

He says you can’t fix the economy until you fix the Covid crisis, and claims Trump has done nothing to help small businesses. 

Oooh now Trump is being asked about the tax stuff.

election-2020-debate Julio Cortez / PA Images Julio Cortez / PA Images / PA Images

Trump says he’s paid millions in tax. He dismisses the claim he’s only paid a small amount. 

He says “you’ll get to see it”. Biden asks when. He doesn’t specify.

Biden says Trump takes advantage of the tax code and, if elected, he will eliminate these loopholes.

“You’ve been the worst president America has ever had,” he says. 

Trump responds by saying he’s done more in 47 months than Biden has done in 47 years. 

They’re now doing a “my car/house is bigger than yours” and quoting figures on the jobs created under the Trump and Obama administrations. 

“China ate your lunch,” Trump tells Biden. That seems like an extremely rude thing to do. 

Trump also claims that Biden’s son “received $3.5 million from Moscow”. Biden dismisses that as patently false.

“It’s hard to get any word in with this clown,” Biden says. “His family, we could talk about all night.”

This whole debate has been nasty enough. 

election-2020-debate Olivier Douliery / PA Images Olivier Douliery / PA Images / PA Images

Biden says Trump has used everything as a “dog whistle” to try to foster racial division. 

He mentions specifically the events in Charlottesville in 2017 and an incident with protesters outside the White House earlier this year

Trump says he would “put out the fire in Portland in half an hour” but the place is run by “radical left Democrats”.

He claims Biden doesn’t believe in law and order. He says the “radical left” has Biden “wrapped around their finger”.

Biden says violence is never appropriate but peaceful protest is.

Trump says he eliminated racial sensitivity training for federal agencies because it was “radical”, and says it was “teaching people to hate our country”. 

Biden says it makes a “gigantic difference” in how people treat others, and says people like Trump look down on others. 

“There’s nothing we can’t do if we do it together,” he says. 

Trump says there was tremendous division under the Obama administration and was more violent than what’s happening now. Biden says that’s “ridiculous”. 

I keep harping on about it, but Biden’s clear tactic when things get fractious and Trump interrupts is to look directly at the camera and address the viewer directly. 

Interesting to see a) if he keeps doing it in the other debates and b) if it works to win him support. 

Trump claimed no law enforcement supported Biden.

This article – on Fox News no less – reports on a list of 175 current and former law enforcement officials endorse Biden. 

Now they’re onto Antifa. 

“Antifa is an idea, not an organisation,” Biden says. Trump scoffs.

“That’s it,” the moderator says. I agree with him. Let’s move on. 

Important to note that Trump was offered the chance to condemn white supremacists there. And didn’t.

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

He added “Proud boys, stand back and stand by”. 

That was another nasty exchange. 

Biden tried to bring up Trump’s reported comments about members of the military being “losers”.

He says his son who served in Iraq – the late Beau Biden – wasn’t a “loser” and he and others were heroes.

Trump pivots to Hunter Biden and makes a series of claims that Biden again dismisses.

The hands up here from moderator Chris Wallace sums it all up quite nicely I think. 

election-2020-debate Patrick Semansky AP / PA Images Patrick Semansky AP / PA Images / PA Images

We’re onto the final segment now.

And it’s… election integrity.


election-2020-debate Olivier Douliery AP / PA Images Olivier Douliery AP / PA Images / PA Images

Biden says the Homeland Security director and the FBI have said there’s no evidence that mail in ballots will result in cheating or electoral fraud. 

He says there’s enough poll watchers to ensure they’re all counted correctly.

“This is all about dissuading people from voting,” Biden says. “Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote whatever way is the best way for you. He cannot stop you from determining the outcome from this election.

“If I win I’ll accept it.  If I lose, I’ll accept it.”

Biden also says if he wins, Trump cannot and will not stay in power. Possibly his strongest performance of the night there. 

Trump says there was “no transition” when he won the election. He mentions “Crooked Hillary” and says there was an “attempted coup”. 

“As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster,” he says. He claims “they” are sending millions of ballots around the country. 

“This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” Trump says. “We might not know [the result] for months… it’s a rigged election.”

Everyone is shouting at each other again. 

Both candidates are asked if they’ll urge their supporters to stay calm and avoid unrest if there’s a prolonged period where there’s no election result. 

Trump says he’s urging his supporters to go to the polls and “watch very carefully”. 

Biden says he would urge calm. “Some of the ballots in these states cannot be opened until election day,” he says. 

“No one has established at all there’s fraud related to mail in ballots,” he says. “He has no idea what he’s talking about,” he adds when Trump says there is evidence. 

“THIS IS THE END OF THIS DEBATE,” an exasperated Chris Wallace shouts. 

So that’s it. 

That was tetchy, argumentative, sometimes incoherent and downright unpleasant at times. 

Both men are congratulated by their wives on stage. 

Both will think they performed well too. 

They ticked many of the boxes for the points they tried to make. 

Trump tried to land several shots on Biden as a far-leftist who would shut down and destroy the country.

Biden tried to characterise Trump as a liar who cannot solve the Covid-19 crisis and would continue to sow division in America.

We have two more of these to go. Polling day is Tuesday 3 November.

Thanks for being with us this evening. Over the next few hours, we’ll have more coverage of the debate on site.

Óiche mhaith.

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