The first US presidential debate of the 2020 election campaign descended into personal attacks and constant interruptions – as commentators spoke of a national embarrassment largely caused by Donald Trump’s aggressive behaviour.
Broadcasters on the CNN cable news channel immediately condemned the face-off between the US president and Democrat challenger Joe Biden as a “shitshow” and “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck”.
The chaotic scenes in Cleveland, Ohio were marked by Biden’s low energy and attempts to speak directly to the camera, while Trump countered with ferocity and bullying. Moderator Chris Wallace, from Fox News, repeatedly failed to control the debate. Few coherent points were made.
It was the first of three scheduled presidential debates – and one vice presidential debate – but questions were being asked as to whether there is any point to completing the series. Here are some of the key moments from a bizarre night.
1. Exchange of insults
As the first discussion about the Supreme Court quickly turned to coronavirus, Trump claimed without evidence two million people would have died if Biden were president. In the real world, more than 200,000 have died on Trump’s watch.
Wallace pleaded with Trump, stating that Covid-19 would be discussed later in the debate – but the president attempted to muscle his way through. He said: “First of all, I guess I’m debating you, not him, but that’s OK. I’m not surprised.”
It was the start of the souring of the mood.
“Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential,” said Biden, exasperated, after repeated interruptions during only the first segment of the debate.
The insults continued to flow. Biden called Trump a “clown” and a “racist” and told him: “You’re the worst president America has ever had.”
Trump, without prompting, launched into an attack on Biden’s school record, objecting to Biden using the word “smart”.
“You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word smart with me. Don’t ever use that word,” Trump said.
Hillary Clinton took keen interest in the back and forth.
2. Trump fails to condemn the far right
Beyond the talking over each other and interruptions, the biggest talking point was Trump failing to condemn white supremacists and military groups.
The president was offered the chance to issue a blanket condemnation of far-right groups.
“Sure, I’m willing to do that,” Trump said.
“Go ahead, sir,” Wallace responded, and after more back and forth: “Do it, sir.”
Biden echoed: “Say it.”
“What do you want to call them? Give me a name. What do you want to condemn?,” Trump asked.
Wallace responded: “White supremacists and right-wing militia.”
“The Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” Trump responded ambiguously, referring to the far-right group.
At least one Proud Boy organiser, Joe Biggs, celebrated the group’s mention on the social media platform Parler, saying: “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA...well sir! we’re ready!!” according to screenshots posted by a New York Times reporter on Twitter.
3. Personal attack on Biden’s son
Trump interrupted Biden’s tribute to his late son, Beau, to attack Biden’s other son, Hunter.
Biden had been answering a question from Wallace about why voters should choose him over Trump in the 2020 election.
“The fact is that I’ve gone head to head with Putin and made it clear we’re not going to take any of his stuff,” Biden said, referencing his experience with the Russian president during his tenure as vice president.
“He’s Putin’s puppy,” Biden said of Trump.
The president, interrupting Biden, fired back that Hunter was paid $3.5 million by “Putin’s best friend”. The accusation appeared to stem from a claim made in a report released last week by the Republican-led Senate Homeland Security and Finance Committees.
In the report, the committees allege a Russian businesswoman wired millions of dollars to an investment firm co-founded by Hunter in 2014. Hunter’s attorney has refuted the allegation, stating Hunter neither co-founded the firm nor had a financial relationship with the woman.
After Wallace urged Trump to stick to the debate rules and stop interrupting, Biden continued to state why he believes Trump is a weak president.
“And speaking of my son, the way you talk about the military, the way you talk about them being losers and just being suckers,” Biden said, referring to a report published in The Atlantic earlier this month that alleged Trump repeatedly disparaged U.S. service members.
“My son was in Iraq,” Biden continued. “He spent a year there. He got the Bronze Star. He got Conspicuous Service Medal. He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind there were heroes. And I resent like hell ―”
But before Biden could finish his statement about his eldest son, Beau, the former Delaware attorney general who died of brain cancer in 2015, Trump interrupted him again to attack Hunter.
“I don’t know Beau,” Trump said. “I know Hunter. Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out ― dishonorably discharged.”
Hunter was discharged from the Navy in 2013 after testing positive for cocaine. Trump’s claim that he was dishonorably discharged, a punitive discharge handed down by a general court-martial, is false.
“My son, like a lot of people ... had a drug problem,” Biden shot back at Trump. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him.”
4. Trump’s unfounded voter fraud warning
Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, and fears the president may refuse to leave the White House were fuelled after Wallace asked both candidates if they will “not declare victory until the election has been independently verified”.
Trump repeated his unfounded allegations that postal voting would lead to fraud. Experts say fraud is extremely rare.
Trump said he expected the Supreme Court might have to decide the election and “look at the ballots”. He urged his supporters to go and watch the balloting.
“If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” he said, adding: “They cheat.”
Biden urged Americans to make a plan to vote and assured voters that Trump would be gone if Biden wins. He said he would not declare victory until the outcome was validated.
5. Trump’s false claims on rallies and coronavirus
Biden blasted Trump for his botched response to the coronavirus pandemic, accusing Trump of panicking in the face of a historic public health crisis and hiding the threat from the American people.
The Democratic candidate noted that when Trump was presented with the dire statistics in an August interview with Axios, he dismissed them with “It is what it is.”
“It is what it is because you are who you are. That’s why it is,” Biden said. “The president has no plan.”
Trump defended his response to the coronavirus crisis by blaming the death of 200,000 Americans on China and hurling insults at Biden.
Trump added that Biden could “never have done the job we did” and claimed “millions of people” would have died if the decision-making had been left to him.
The president also refuted any notion that his campaign rallies, some of which were held inside with large crowds, contributed to the spread of the coronavirus. “So far we have had no problem whatsoever,” he said. “We have tremendous crowds as you see, and literally on 24 hours notice.”
“We’ve had no negative effect,” Trump claimed, falsely.
Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which attracted more than 6,000 supporters and was held indoors, was “likely” the source of a dramatic surge in Covid-19 cases in the area in late June, the Tulsa City-County Health Department said.
A reporter, six of Trump’s campaign staffers and two members of the Secret Service tested positive for Covid-19 after attending the rally.