By Morgan Chalfant
and Brett Samuels
CLEVELAND — President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden faced off Tuesday evening in a debate that was marked by personal insults and constant interruptions, encapsulating what has become a nasty and chaotic election contest.
Discussions of substance were largely overshadowed by frequent crosstalk and putdowns as the two men tried to knock the other off kilter. Both Trump and Biden attacked one another’s intelligence.
Biden dismissed Trump as a “liar” and a “clown,” at one point declaring him the “worst president that America has ever had.” The president, who has for months questioned Biden’s mental state, attacked the former vice president’s intelligence after Biden said more people would die of the coronavirus pandemic if Trump did not get “a lot smarter.”
“Did you use the word ‘smart?’” Trump said, mocking Biden for his college class rank. “Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me.”
Trump repeatedly brought up Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, accusing him of profiting off of his father’s position as vice president and claiming that he received “dishonorable” discharge from the U.S. military for a cocaine habit.
The president pushed the limits of debate decorum throughout the night, at times seeming to exasperate the moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace. At one point, Trump’s microphone appeared to be muted as the president tried to talk over Biden and Wallace, with the Fox News anchor imploring Trump to let his opponent speak.
Trump’s barbs at times appeared to get under the former vice president’s skin. “Will you shut up, man,” Biden said early in the debate, a phrase that his campaign quickly turned into a T-shirt.
Biden called Trump a “clown” multiple times, and briefly engaged with the president in trading attacks over the candidates’ families.
“We want to talk about families and ethics. I don’t want to do that. His family we could talk about all night,” Biden said. “My family lost a fortune by coming down and helping us with government,” Trump shot back.
Trump at various points referenced the findings of a controversial Senate Republican report about Hunter Biden’s foreign dealings that was released days before the debate and deemed by Democrats as an effort to interfere in the election.
“The mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son 3.5 million dollars,” Trump said.
“None of that is true,” Biden countered. “Totally discredited.” As the back and forth ensued, Biden interjected: “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown.”
Trump indicated leading up to the debate that he planned to make things personal by targeting Biden’s son, Hunter, over his foreign business dealings. It was Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine to investigate Hunter and Joe Biden that led to his impeachment last year.
The Senate GOP report released just last week described Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukraine gas firm to be “problematic” while his father was vice president, but did not demonstrate that it changed U.S. policy on Ukraine.
Among the findings that conservatives have highlighted, the report claimed that a firm tied to Hunter Biden received $3.5 million from the widow of a former Moscow mayor. Biden’s lawyer has denied the allegation as false.
The debate marked the natural extension of what has already been an extraordinarily personal and at times vicious campaign. Biden last week compared Trump’s rhetoric to Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels and called the president a racist.
Trump and his allies spent the hours before the event spreading the unfounded claim that the former vice president may use an earpiece or use performance enhancing drugs, the president has relentlessly attacked Biden’s physical and mental state, and he was impeached last year after asking the Ukrainian president to investigate the Biden family.
But it’s unclear if Trump’s attack-oriented approach will shift the minds of voters as the country is riven with an economic and public health crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and erased millions of jobs.
The debate took place at the Cleveland Clinic’s Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion at Case Western Reserve University’s health education campus.
Trump and his advisers headed into the debate feeling confident, telling reporters traveling aboard Air Force One that the president did not plan to prepare any more on the plane ride to Cleveland or once there.
Trump remains the underdog in the presidential race. He has trailed Biden nationally by a significant margin for several months and remains behind in key swing states that he won in 2016.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released on Monday showed Biden ahead of Trump by 9 percentage points in Pennsylvania. NBC/Marist polls released on Sunday showed Biden leading Trump by 8 percentage points in Michigan and 10 percentage points in Wisconsin. And in Ohio, the location of the debate, Biden leads Trump in Ohio by 5 percentage points, according to a Fox News poll released last week.
A Washington Post-ABC poll released last week showed Trump with a 4-percentage point lead in Florida and a razor-thin single percentage point lead in Arizona.
Biden has made the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 205,000 Americans and more than 1 million worldwide, a central focus of his campaign to defeat Trump. A section of the debate focused on the coronavirus, with Biden vociferously criticizing Trump’s response as contributing to the U.S. death toll and the president defending his response as one that saved millions of lives.
In one exchange, Trump insisted that a vaccine was possible before the November election and that his administration would distribute it “right away,” while disputing comments from top health officials that a potential vaccine would not be widely available to the general public until summer of 2021.
“This is the same man who told you by Easter this would be gone away, by the warm weather it would be gone miraculously like a miracle,”
Biden said, suggesting Trump could not be trusted. “And by the way maybe you can inject some bleach in your arm and that would take care of it.”
“That was said sarcastically and you know that,” Trump responded immediately, referring to the comment he made suggesting bleach as a potential treatment for COVID-19. “That was said sarcastically.”
Tuesday’s debate marked the first of three between the two presidential candidates, serving as an opening salvo for what promises to be a brutal and chaotic final five weeks before the November 3 election.
Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris will face off in their own debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Oct. 7.
Trump was aided in preparations for the evening debate by former GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who was present in person for the contest.
By Morgan Chalfant