Donald Trump, Joe Biden clash in chaotic first debate

President casts doubt on the legitimacy of the election, refuses to denounce white supremacists; his rival calls him a ‘clown.’

September 30, 2020 07:21 am | Updated 11:38 pm IST - CLEVELAND

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his opponent, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, clashed in their first presidential debate on Tuesday night — an interaction characterised by chaos and acrimony, not seen before in recent debate history. This was caused primarily by Mr. Trump repeatedly talking over Mr. Biden, interrupting him and attempting to commandeer the debate from the moderator.

Also read: U.S. presidential debate | A fact check on Trump, Biden statements

During the debate, Mr. Trump failed to denounce White supremacists when provided an opportunity to do so and sought to undermine the legitimacy of the November elections, in which an unusually high number of Americans are expected to vote by mail, due to the COVID-19  pandemic. 

Mr. Trump repeatedly tried to throw Mr. Biden off balance, including by insinuating that Mr. Biden was controlled by the “radical left” or by bringing his son Hunter Biden — whose relationship with the government of Ukraine had been questioned by Republicans during the Trump impeachment hearings — into the discussion.

‘Putin’s puppy’

The debate had frequent acrimonious exchanges, with Mr. Biden visibly frustrated by Mr. Trump’s interruptions.

At one point, an irked Mr. Biden called Mr. Trump a “clown” and at another, said, “Will you shut up, man?” He also called Mr. Trump, “Putin’s puppy”, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Trump questioned Mr. Biden’s intelligence at one point. “Show us your tax returns,” Mr. Biden said when Mr. Trump was asked if he paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 as reported by the New York Times .

Mr. Trump challenged Mr. Biden to say “law and order”. Mr. Biden said it but also said, “with justice where people are treated fairly”. In recent months, the U.S. has witnessed mass protests set off by police killings and violence against African Americans. Some of these have been violent. Mr. Biden has supported the right to protests but has condemned the violence. 

Mr. Trump, keen to win the suburban women demographic, repeated a claim — one with racist undertones — that the Democrats under Mr. Biden were out to destroy suburbs. “He wouldn’t know a suburb unless he took a wrong turn,” Mr. Biden said. “This is not 1950... all these dog whistles and racism don’t work any more.”

Also read: Biden says he trusts vaccines and scientists, not Trump

Mr. Trump, who has been making unsubstantiated claims on fraud around mail-in ballots, was asked by the debate moderator, Chris Wallace, if he would urge his supporters to stay calm and not engage in “civil unrest” as the election was being decided. The President used the opportunity to once more cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election. He also urged poll-watchers to go into the polls and “watch very carefully”, and said the Supreme Court would need to look at the ballots.

“I hope it’s going to be a fair election. If it’s a fair election, I am a 100% on board,” Mr. Trump said. “But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.” There is no evidence of mail-in voting being a source of significant election fraud. Republican and Democrat-run States use the process and Mr. Trump has used it personally to cast his vote in the past.

Also read: In first Trump-Biden debate, U.S. will finally see its choice

From time to time in the debate, Mr. Biden looked directly at the cameras and addressed the American public. He said Mr. Trump was trying to dissuade people from voting by scaring them into thinking their vote was not going to be legitimate.

“Show up and vote... you will determine the outcome of this election... He [Mr. Trump] cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election,” he said.

Also read: If Biden wins, China wins: Trump

Mr. Biden said voters had the power to choose between changing the country or getting “four more years of these lies.”

Comments on India

India received two mentions in the debate — along with U.S. rivals China and Russia.

On India, China and Russia, Mr. Trump said the number of COVID-19 deaths was unknown because “they don’t exactly give you a straight count”.

Mr. Trump clubbed India with Russia and China again during a segment on pollution. “China sends up real into the air. Russia does. India does. They all do.”

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