President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden battled fiercely over Trump’s record on the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare and the economy in a chaotic and bad-tempered first debate marked by personal insults and Trump’s repeated interruptions.
Trump bulldozed his way through the 90-minute debate, trying to goad Biden, claiming that Democrats were trying to steal the November presidential election and declining to condemn white supremacist groups when asked to do so.
Moderator Chris Wallace never established control of the debate, with Trump repeatedly ignoring his calls to let Biden speak. The two White House contenders talked over each other and lobbed insults in a breathtaking political brawl that made it hard for either to make a point.
At one point, an exasperated Biden said after Trump’s repeated interruptions: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”
Wallace tried in vain to reel in Trump, who ignored his time limits and talked over Biden.
“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,” Wallace said.
When Trump said he should tell Biden the same thing, Wallace said: “Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting.”
As of Tuesday evening, 1.4 million Americans already had cast early ballots. With time running out to change minds or influence the small sliver of undecided voters, the stakes were enormous as the two White House candidates took the stage five weeks before the Nov. 3 Election Day.
For Trump, 74, Tuesday’s debate represented one of the few remaining chances to change the trajectory of a race that most opinion polls show him losing, as the majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of both the coronavirus pandemic and protests over racial injustice.
Biden, 77, has held a consistent lead over Trump in national opinion polls, although surveys in the battleground states that will decide the election show a closer contest. It was hard to determine whether the debate would move the needle.
Trump, asked if he was willing to condemn white supremacists and tell them to stand down, initially said he would be willing to do anything for peace but then said most of the violence was from the left wing.
“This is not a right-wing problem. This is left wing,” he said.
He also repeated his unfounded complaints that mail-in ballots would lead to widespread fraud in the election and declined to commit to accepting the results of the election or commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election.
“If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” he said. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”
Biden urged Americans to make a plan to vote and assured voters that Trump would be gone if Biden won. He said he would not declare victory until the outcome was validated.
“If we get the votes, it’s going to be all over. He’s going to go,” he said, adding Trump’s complaints about mail-in ballots was that Trump was “afraid” to count the votes.