The first presidential debate between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and incumbent Republican Donald Trump was a chaotic spectacle of personal attacks, mostly coming from Trump, and moderator Chris Wallace had a hard time restoring order.
It also saw Trump refuse to condemn white supremacist groups and make a variety of false claims about the economy, law and order, and Biden’s son Hunter. Biden called Trump out on these claims and frankly termed him a racist. And when Biden denounced Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the suggestion that injections of bleach could kill the virus, Trump said that suggestion was a joke, although he sounded extremely serious at the time.
Over the course of the night, Trump repeatedly interrupted and talked over Biden, who interrupted Trump to a lesser degree but generally remained calm. Trump mostly came across as a playground bully. Here’s one exchange:
Wallace to Trump: “The country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you, sir, to do that.”
Trump: “Well, and him too.”
Wallace: “Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting.”
Trump: “But he does plenty.”
Wallace: “No, less than you have.”
It was like that.
At one point, discussing antiracism protests in cities around the nation this summer, Wallace asked Trump if he would condemn white supremacist individuals and groups that incited violence in some cases.
“I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right, but what are you saying? I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace,” Trump said. He asked Wallace for a name, and Wallace offered white supremacists, militias, and the Proud Boys. Trump said only, “Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” which supporters of the group lauded online, The Washington Post reports.
Trump then went into a long rant about Antifa, which he blamed for fueling violence, and Biden correctly pointed out that Antifa, short for antifascist, is a philosophy and not an organization. The president also took credit for quelling violence in cities this summer, but officials in cities such as Seattle and Minneapolis said he had nothing to do with it. Biden, for his part, openly called Trump a racist, while Trump claimed that the diversity training he recently banned for federal employees is itself racist.
Trump boasted of his economic record and downplayed the economic achievements of President Obama’s administration, in which Biden was vice president. However, when Trump called his pre-pandemic economy the greatest in history, he ran afoul of the facts, as economic growth was greater under presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Bill Clinton, according to the Post’s fact checker.
The president further made a wild claim about Hunter Biden receiving $3.5 million from a wealthy Russian, something that has been thoroughly debunked. Trump said Hunter had never achieved anything without his father’s connections, while Joe Biden said he’s proud of his son, who has overcome a drug problem. Biden also mentioned his other son, Beau, who served in the military in Iraq and later died of cancer, while criticizing Trump’s reported put-downs of military members.
Biden likewise critiqued Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that 200,000 Americans have died of the virus. Trump defended his handling of the pandemic, even though he has encouraged reopening of the economy and downplayed the importance of wearing masks — and downplayed the pandemic in general.
“A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker,” Biden said. Trump replied, “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. Because you know what? There’s nothing smart about you, Joe.”
When it came to issues, Biden said he would rejoin the Paris accord on addressing climate change, which Trump has pulled the U.S. out of, while Trump scoffed at the idea of climate change. Biden also touted renewable energy, although at one point, in a slip of the tongue, he referred to the Green New Deal, a package of environmental measures promoted by farther-left Democrats, which he does not support. Trump considers the Green New Deal “socialism,” as he does Biden’s health insurance plan, although it simply expands the Affordable Care Act and leaves a role for private insurers. Trump, meanwhile, is asking the Supreme Court to declare the ACA unconstitutional.
And when the court hears that case, it may well have three justices appointed by Trump—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and his latest nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, who would replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump said he had the right to appoint a justice this close to the election because he had won the previous election, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused a hearing on an Obama nominee, Merrick Garland, put forth eight months before the election.
LGBTQ+ issues did not come up (although the community is disproportionately affected by COVID, access to health care, and more). In response to the debate Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ rights group, issued the following statement:
“Donald Trump tried to bully his way through this debate, illustrating just how desperate and deranged Trump is. He could not articulate a single plan for our nation, failed to condemn white supremacists yet again, and proved his strategy is to continue to spread disinformation in order to suppress voter turnout. He disrespected our nation and our democracy by treating this debate like a circus. Our democracy is at stake and Trump’s sideshow was a clown show and a mockery of our nation.
“Joe Biden put Trump on the ropes and showed why he is the only option for Americans who care about restoring the soul of our nation and putting our country back on track. Only a Biden/Harris administration can lead us through this pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color and LGBTQ people — especially those of us with intersectional identities. Only a Biden/Harris administration can build back our economy to help working families and communities like ours that have borne the brunt of the pandemic's negative effects. We all must vote this election and vote for the only ticket that can save our democracy, support our economy, and protect our communities — Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, had this response: “Yet another night of LGBTQ issues left out of the conversation at the debate. Instead, more than 90 minutes of interruptions, lies, insults, personal attacks. Given a chance to condemn white supremacy, Pres. Trump refused. We’re left with one thing to know. Election Day is today — with early voting in 9 states, more than a million ballots already cast. The time is now. Vote. Check your registration or register today.”