Heavy on insults, light on substance: 5 takeaways from the chaotic first Biden-Trump debate

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WASHINGTON — Personal insults. Chaos on stage. More interruptions than anyone can count.

The country has never before seen a presidential debate like the one that took place between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on Tuesday in Cleveland, Ohio, the first of three scheduled showdowns between the two candidates.

A night that began ugly stayed vitriolic for the entirety of the 90-minute event, with Biden and Trump relentlessly speaking over each other while struggling to answer questions about health care, the coronavirus pandemic, and the recovering economy.

Here are the 5 takeaways from the debate:


Biden entered the night with a comfortable lead over Trump nationally and in many key battleground states, according to a broad array of polls.

It was not immediately clear how the debate will help the president regain any of that ground.

A night that will likely be remembered most for moderator Chris Wallace’s frequent demands that the president stop talking failed to yield an obvious shining moment for either presidential nominee, the kind of viral video clip that could help win over the race’s few remaining persuadable voters.

That in itself is likely bad news for Trump, who has little more than a month before Election Day to try and win over the new supporters he needs. But the event’s subject matter was also a reminder of the difficult political terrain confronting the president this year.

The debate opened with an argument over whether Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett endangered the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights before moving on to the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus and whether people should wear masks — all subjects that could alienate moderate voters, particularly moderate women.

Democrats made GOP attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act the centerpiece of their successful midterm campaigns in 2018, while the public’s dim view of Trump’s response to the pandemic weakened him with voters across the board.

After the discussion turned to the economy, a more favorable issue for the president, it just as quickly moved back to a discussion of whether Trump has paid any income taxes recently.

They’re the same issues that have helped make Trump’s campaign an underdog to this point in the race. And it’s hard to see how the focus on them Tuesday will help him turn things around.


The debate began without a traditional handshake between the two competitors, due to the coronavirus. The suspension of the nicety proved to be foreshadowing for the vitriolic debate that would come.

From its opening minutes, the debate was, in a word, vicious, with the candidates frequently talking over each other and trading insults.

Trump accused the Democratic Party of embracing socialist health care proposals, leading Biden to respond: “My party is me. Right now, I am the Democratic Party. I am the Democratic Party right now.”

The president fired back by invoking Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris. ”Not according to Harris,” Trump said.

Biden later called Trump a “liar” and a “clown” while he tried to mitigate repeated interruptions.

“Will you shut up, man?” an exasperated Biden asked. “That was really a productive segment, wasn’t it? Keep yapping, man,” he added as the first section of the debate came to a close.

Later, Biden flatly declared that Trump was the “worst president America has ever had.”


After a simmering start, however, one dynamic emerged between the two candidates: Trump was intent on bickering with Biden, while the former vice president mostly did his best to talk directly to voters.

“Look, you folks at home, how many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID?” Biden said, pivoting from Trump’s criticism over how he handled a swine flu outbreak in 2009. “How many of you are in a situation where you lost your mom or dad and you couldn’t even speak to them, you had a nurse holding a phone up so you could in fact say goodbye?”

Biden often looked directly into the camera while he spoke, as if trying to have a one-on-one conversation with voters at home amid an otherwise chaotic night of insults. It was a conventional approach to debating in an otherwise unprecedented night, and it represented the Democrat’s most forceful attempt to cut above the noise of a debate where either candidate’s message struggled to break through.

Trump, meanwhile, took every opportunity to directly address not the audience at home but the former vice president himself, appearing at times to do his best to simply pick fights with Biden. It appeared to be part of a deliberate strategy to get under the Democrat’s skin and make him angry.

Biden did engage in several tit-for-tats. But even in the face of criticism of his son, Hunter, Biden tries to push the conversation back to the voters.

“This is not about my family or his family,” Biden said. “It’s about your family. The American people.”


One of the few times that Biden did address Trump directly was to condemn derogatory comments the president reportedly made about the nation’s veterans.

“My son was in Iraq, spent a year there. He got the Bronze Star. He got the Conspicuous Service Medal,” Biden said, turning to Trump. “He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind there were heroes.”

Biden was referring to Beau, his deceased son, who passed away after a battle with brain cancer in 2015. But Trump interjected and said, “Really? Are you talking about Hunter?”

It was one of the more cringe-worthy moments of the debate that derailed early and never got back on track.

“I’m talking about my son Beau Biden,” the Democratic candidate said. “I don’t know Beau. I know Hunter,” Trump responded.

Hunter Biden was one of the more consistent lines of attack Trump attempted to use against the former vice president, frequently criticizing his son’s business dealings in Ukraine. This particular exchange ended with Trump saying Hunter Biden was discharged from the military for cocaine use.

Joe Biden acknowledged his son had a drug problem that he was recovering from, but said he was working to fix it.

“I’m proud of my son,” Biden said.


In a moment that will likely live on well beyond Tuesday night, the president sidestepped a question about whether he would condemn white supremacists and military groups.

“I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing,” Trump said. “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”

Pushed further, he said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem.”

The remarks served as a reminder of the president’s comments in 2017, when he said there were good people “on both sides” after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Trump’s debate message stood in sharp contrast to Biden, who urged calm during a time of civil unrest throughout the country and condoned violence.


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