The first US presidential debate of 2020 degenerated into an ugly spectacle on Tuesday night as Donald Trump repeatedly interrupted Joe Biden and the Democratic challenger responded by calling the president a racist and telling him to “shut up”.
In a series of acrimonious exchanges, Mr Trump declined to condemn white supremacist groups, suggested he might not accept the results of the election, and portrayed Mr Biden as beholden to his party’s leftwing and afraid to condemn anti-fascist protesters.
Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News appeared to lose control of the debate and frequently appealed for calm as the two candidates clashed, leading commentators on the right and left to say there had probably never been a presidential debate quite so chaotic.
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey Republican governor who helped Mr Trump to prepare for the event, said the president had been too hot-headed, adding: “With all that heat, you lose the light.”
Mr Trump came to the debate trailing Mr Biden in national polls and in most swing states. After questioning his 77-year-old challenger’s mental acuity and stamina for months, Mr Trump, 74, tried to knock Mr Biden off balance, frequently interrupting the former vice-president as he spoke — although not always with the desired effect.
“Folks, do you have any idea what this clown is doing?” Mr Biden quipped early on as Mr Trump tried to derail his performance.
Later Mr Biden went further, saying: “Will you shut up, man!
Days after he sparked criticism for refusing to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election, Mr Trump repeated unsubstantiated claims that the large number of postal ballots expected because of the coronavirus pandemic will lead to widespread fraud.
“If it is fair election, I am 100 per cent on board, but if I see hundreds of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” Mr Trump said, adding that he wanted his supporters to monitor voting.
“This is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen,” he added. “We might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over.”
Mr Biden urged Democrats to vote, saying they had the power to oust Mr Trump. “If we get the votes, it’s going to be over. He can’t stay in power.”
Mr Wallace asked Mr Trump if he was willing to “condemn” white supremacists and militias and “say that they need to stand down”, but the president refused to do so. Referring to the Proud Boys, a far-right group, Mr Trump said: “Stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.”
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia politics expert, said he had never seen anything like it in six decades of watching presidential debates.
“I’ve watched every presidential debate live since 1960. Never has there been a worse performance than Trump’s. He imploded,” Mr Sabato said. “The other presidential debates in October should be cancelled. You cannot have a civil debate if Donald Trump is on the stage.”
Mr Biden focused on painting Mr Trump as unfit to serve as US commander-in-chief, calling him Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “puppy”.
“You are the worst president that America has ever had,” the former US vice-president said.
He accused Mr Trump of bungling the response to the coronavirus pandemic and said many more people would die unless the president got “smarter”.
Some of the most pointed exchanges involved race and law and order. Mr Biden accused Mr Trump of intentionally trying to sow racial discord.
“He’s just a racist,” Mr Biden said. “This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racial hatred, racial division.”
The president said to Mr Biden: “You can’t even say the word ‘law enforcement’ because if you say those words you’re going to lose all of your radical left supporters . . . We believe in law and order, but you don’t.”
Mr Trump tried to get under Mr Biden’s skin by alleging his son Hunter had received $3.5m from a Russian billionaire. Hunter Biden has denied having a stake in the company that received the payment. When Mr Biden invoked the name of his late son Beau, a military veteran who died from cancer, Mr Trump returned the conversation to Hunter.
Mr Biden rebuked the president for reportedly calling US soldiers who died in wars “losers”, saying he resented the slur. “My son was in Iraq . . . He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind were heroes.”
The president came into the debate facing intense scrutiny over a New York Times report that he paid only $750 in federal tax in the year he won the election and the same amount in his first year in office.
Mr Wallace pressed Mr Trump on whether it was true. But the president ignored the specific question, claiming that he had paid “millions” in taxes, prompting Mr Biden to say, “Show us your tax returns.”
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