Republican U.S. President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, clashed in a contentious debate Tuesday night, immediately attacking each other over how to combat the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, now with a world-leading death toll of more than 205,000.
“The president has no plan,” Biden claimed. “He knew it was deadly and didn’t tell you about it.”
Biden, alluding to Trump’s golf game, said the president “should get out of the sand trap” and stop the advance of the pandemic.
Trump, seeking a second term after his upset win in 2016, retorted, “We’ve done a great job. We’re weeks away from a vaccine.”
The 90-minute encounter on a college campus in the Midwestern city of Cleveland, Ohio, came five weeks ahead of the November 3 election. It was the first of three times the two candidates, both in their 70s, will meet face to face to debate during the next month.
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.
The high-stakes debate, perhaps watched on television or livestreamed by 100 million Americans, 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.
The two candidates faced questions from Fox News journalist Chris Wallace, as about 100 people watched in person at Case Western Reserve University. Until Tuesday night, the candidates had not appeared together.
Wallace said beforehand he would pose questions on six topics in 15-minute segments: the candidates’ records; the coronavirus pandemic that has killed a world-leading 205,000 people in the U.S.; Trump’s nomination of conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court; the U.S. economy that has been buffeted by the pandemic; the integrity of the election; and “race and violence” in U.S. cities.
But one late-breaking topic also was sure to be a focal point — a New York Times report on Sunday that the billionaire Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, the year he ran for the presidency, and in 2017, his first year in office. The report detailed how Trump, who has often boasted of his business savvy, has written off hundreds of millions of dollars in business losses.
Trump called the report “totally fake news,” but later said he was entitled like any taxpayer to write off business expenses to offset income. The Biden campaign on Sunday highlighted Trump’s small tax payments to advance its contention that Trump is out of touch with U.S. workers he claims to be fighting for, many of whom pay thousands of dollars in taxes.
Hours ahead of the debate, Biden and his wife, Jill, released their own 2019 tax returns, showing nearly $300,000 in taxes paid on nearly $1 million in income.
Trump has not released his tax records, saying he is under audit by the government’s tax agency, although taxpayers are not prohibited from disclosing their own tax returns.
Debates in past presidential campaigns have occasionally proved crucial to the eventual outcome, but whether that is the case this year is open to question. Opinion surveys show that more than 90% of voters say they have already made up their minds and have no intention of changing their choice.
Trump has claimed, without evidence, that the sharp increase in mail-in voting this year will lead to a “rigged” election against him and he has refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power at January’s presidential inauguration if Biden wins.
The topics picked by Wallace for the debate reflect the news of the day in the United States, although critics say that Wallace’s description of race and violence in the U.S. mirrors Trump’s contention that protests against police abuse of minorities in recent months have been led by “thugs,” rioters and anarchists.
Democrats supporting Biden say instead, the discussion should be about systemic racism in the U.S. and the country’s national reckoning over race relations brought to the fore by the May death of a Black man, George Floyd, while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the deaths of other Black people at the hands of police.
Ahead of their encounter, Trump has questioned Biden’s mental acuity and sought to diminish Biden’s skill as a debater, claiming, without evidence, that the Democrat must have been drugged when his debate performance improved as the large field of Democratic presidential contenders was winnowed to a single opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, before Sanders conceded to Biden.
“I will be strongly demanding a Drug Test of Sleepy Joe Biden prior to, or after, the Debate on Tuesday night,’ Trump said on Twitter. “Naturally, I will agree to take one also. His Debate performances have been record setting UNEVEN, to put it mildly. Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy???”
The Biden campaign retorted, “Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine, he can have at it.”
Trump tweeted back, “Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?”