WASHINGTON - Republican U.S. President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, clashed in a contentious, chaotic presidential election debate Tuesday night, trying for 90 minutes to convince American voters that the other one was unfit to lead the United States for the next four years.
They argued over the world-leading coronavirus death toll of 205,000 in the U.S., the integrity and honesty of the November 3 vote, Trump’s nomination of conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, fractured racial relations in the U.S., environmental policies and more.
Trump disputed a New York Times report this week that he only paid $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016, when he first ran for the presidency, and in 2017, his first year in office. Trump said he paid "millions of dollars," but Biden claimed Trump "pays less tax than the average schoolteacher."
Name-calling, personal attacks
Mostly they insulted each other with cutting barbs, name-calling and personal attacks.
“He’s the worst president America has ever had,” Biden contended as he and Trump stood at podiums on a debate stage at a university in the Midwestern city of Cleveland, Ohio.
Several times, Biden called Trump “a clown.”
Trump, seeking a second four-year term after his upset 2016 victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, retorted to Biden, “I’ve done more things in 47 months [as president] than you’ve done in 47 years” as a U.S. senator and vice president under former President Barack Obama.
Trump argued that if Biden takes over as president next January, “you will have a depression like no one has ever seen” because of the Democrat’s plan to raise taxes on corporate earnings from 21% to 28% and on individuals who make more than $400,000 a year.
Early on, the two candidates, both in their 70s, clashed sharply over how to control the unchecked pandemic in the U.S.
“The president has no plan,” Biden claimed. “He knew it was deadly and didn’t tell you about it.”
Biden, alluding to Trump’s frequent golf outings, said the president “should get out of the sand trap” and stop the advance of the pandemic.
He referenced Trump’s recent remark that the death toll in the U.S. “is what it is,” with Biden adding that was because, “You are what you are.”
Trump responded, “We’ve done a great job. We’re weeks away from a vaccine.”
The president accused Biden of calling Trump xenophobic for placing initial restrictions on travel from China, where the virus originated. Trump said if he had not acted, 2 million would have died in the U.S.
The debate came five weeks ahead of the election. It was the first of three times the two candidates will meet face to face to debate during the next month. Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, will have their only debate October 7.
At Tuesday’s encounter, Trump and Biden frequently interrupted each other. The debate moderator, Fox News journalist Chris Wallace, more than an hour into the face-off rebuked Trump for not following the debate rules to allow each candidate to finish his answers unimpeded.
One of the most personal attacks occurred as Biden recounted a recent Atlantic magazine article alleging that Trump, on a trip to Paris in 2018 for the centenary of the end of World War I, described U.S. war dead as “suckers” and “losers,” a claim the president has denied.
Biden said that his late son, Beau Biden, who served in the armed services before dying of cancer in 2015, was not a loser or sucker.
“You’re not going to talk about my son Beau that way,” Biden emotionally told Trump.
Trump said he didn’t know Beau Biden but did know Biden’s son Hunter, whom he has claimed benefited financially with a lucrative position on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company, at the same time Biden was vice president and overseeing U.S. policy related to Ukraine.
Racial tensions in the US
On fractured racial relations in the U.S., Biden accused Trump of “using everything as a dog whistle to generate racial tension,” recalling how Trump said there were “fine people” on both sides after torch-carrying white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Trump rejected Wallace’s overture to condemn white nationalists, instead saying he is “doing better than any Republican” ever in political support from Black voters.
The president attacked Biden for writing anti-crime legislation in the 1990s when he was a senator, saying that he referred to Black criminal suspects as “super predators.”
Trump assailed “radical left Democrats” whose mayors oversee some of the country’s biggest cities. A number of violent protests erupted in those cities in recent months in demonstrations against police abuse of minorities in the aftermath of the May death of a Black man, George Floyd, while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The president demanded that Biden commit to “law and order” in American cities.
“He doesn’t want to say, ‘law and order,’” Trump contended.
Biden said he advocates “law and order with justice.”
The Democratic candidate said he would rejoin the international Paris climate change accord that Trump withdrew the U.S. from.
Trump, asked by Wallace whether he accepts that climate change is caused by the actions of people, replied, “To an extent, yes.”
But Trump contended that on-going raging wildfires in the Western U.S. could mostly be curbed by “good forest management.”
Biden said that Trump’s nomination of Barrett to the Supreme Court threatened the national health care law approved during his vice presidency under Obama and imperiled the landmark 1973 court decision legalizing abortion rights in the U.S.
Trump said, “I think she’s going to be fantastic. We won the election; therefore, we had the right to choose her.”
Early voting has started in some U.S. states and millions of people have requested or been sent absentee ballots, so they do not have to face other people at polling stations across the country on Election Day in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump, as he has repeatedly said in recent weeks, condemned election officials throughout the country for mailing unsolicited ballots to voters.
“This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he said, citing a handful of Trump absentee ballots found recently in a trash can.
Biden urged Americans to vote and said there is “no evidence” that mailed-in ballots will lead to fraud but called for all votes to be counted in the election. Polls have shown that more Democrats favor absentee voting, while Republicans more often say they will vote on Election Day in person.
The high-stakes debate, perhaps watched on television or livestreamed by 100 million people, comes as Biden has for weeks maintained about a 7-percentage-point advantage over Trump in national polls, threatening to make Trump the third U.S. president in the past four decades to lose reelection for a second four-year term in the White House.
However, the race is closer in several key battleground states, which raises the possibility that Trump could once again lose the popular vote — as he did against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and still win more of the all-important state electors to claim victory.