2020 Election

The Biggest Moments From the First Presidential Debate

13 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off on the debate stage during one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history Tuesday. A viral pandemic has killed 200,000 Americans and pummeled the economy, racial justice protests continue in towns and cities, and vast fires wreak environmental disaster across the American West. Adding to the national sense of foreboding, Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election and repeatedly used his bully pulpit to sow distrust in the voting process and spread false allegations that voting by mail—a safe alternative for many during the pandemic—will lead to rampant voter fraud. (It won’t.)

While the head-to-head was an opportunity for both candidates to convince Americans that they were the right person to lead the country through this tumultuous time, it was also a moment for voters to see the two men’s styles set side by side, in stark relief. The President is trailing Biden in national polls, but the race is close in battleground states Trump would need to win to get to 270 electoral votes.

The integrity of the election

As the evening ended, the President argued that no one should trust the results of the election if he loses.

In a stunning break from norms and a display of non-respect for how elections are conducted, Trump continued to feed doubts about the integrity of the election. He refused to say that he would accept the results, urged his supporters to be vigilant and declined to tell his allies to remain peaceful if the results came into question.

Biden, by contrast, said he would accept the results, whether he wins or loses.

It was a bracing display of just how differently the major parties’ nominees are approaching the very rules by which either of them will be returned to the White House in January. The break with tradition was so horrifying that the President’s niece called every word from her uncle’s mouth a lie.

Trump made allegations, without proof, that elections officials are losing as many as 40% of ballots. “They’re being sold. They’re being dumped in rivers,” Trump said.

Biden had no real response to the fantastical claims: “There is no evidence of that.”

It was a fitting coda for a maddening night that will forever have a place in history books for just how the bananas evening unfolded.

Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists

In one of the starkest moments of the night, Trump refused to clearly condemn white supremacists and militia groups adding to the violent clashes in American cities.

After moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly asked Trump to do so, Trump hemmed and hawed, saying he would do it, but asking what words he should use. “So do it,” Biden chimed in. Trump looked into the camera and said “Stand back and stand by,” which was not a condemnation. “But somebody’s got to do something,” Trump said. Biden pounced, pointing out that Trump’s own FBI director Christopher Wray said that the rise of violent white supremacist groups poses a major threat to the country.

The Trump administration has come under fire for repeatedly downplaying the threat of white nationalist violence and inflating the threat posed by left-wing agitators, including by whistleblowers from inside the Department of Homeland Security. In the early days of Trump’s presidency, his administration gutted the DHS office that focused on violent extremism in the U.S. and pulled funding for grants that were meant to go to organizations countering neo-Nazis, white nationalists, far-right militants and other similar groups.

The two tussled also over their track record of support for Black Americans. Trump went after Biden’s support for the 1994 crime bill that increased mandatory prison sentences and contributed to higher incarceration rates, saying that hurt the African American community. Trump claimed his economic policies before the pandemic cratered the economy helped Black Americans, as did his support for the prison reform bill the First Step Act that sped up the release of thousands of prisoners and shortened some mandatory minimum sentences.

Trump defended his decision to stop racial sensitivity training in government offices and by government contractors, saying “I ended it because it’s racist” and was teaching “very sick ideas.” Biden interrupted, saying “Nobody was doing that.” Biden defended the trainings saying people need to be made aware of what insults and demeans them. “Many people don’t want to hurt other people,” Biden said.

Trump dodges the science of climate change

A surprise discussion of climate change hammered home the gap between the two candidates on the issue. Trump demurred when asked to acknowledge the science of climate change. “To an extent, yes,” he said of the role greenhouse gas emissions play warming the planet. (Man-made emissions are, in fact, the primary driver of temperature rise). Pressed further about his rollback of an Obama-era policy that required carmakers to make more efficient vehicles, Trump offered a variety of falsehoods or half-truths, claiming the regulation would have made cars more expensive and less safe.

Biden reiterated his plan for a $2 trillion spending plan to foster clean energy and other green initiatives while also drawing a contrast with the Green Deal, a non-binding resolution proposed by progressive members of Congress that has become a talking point for Trump. Biden insisted that his plan is distinct. “We can get to net zero,” Biden said, using a term for eliminating the country’s carbon footprint, “not only not costing people jobs creating jobs.”

Biden slams Trump for COVID-19 response: “‘It is what it is’ because you are who you are.”

Biden aggressively went after Trump for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, repeatedly citing the death toll of more than 200,000 Americans that happened on his watch. While Trump mainly had his gaze trained on his opponent as he spoke, Biden spoke directly to the camera, an intentional choice as he expressed empathy for the families who lost loved ones to the deadly virus. “When he was presented with that number, he said, ‘It is what it is,’” Biden said about Trump’s response. “‘It is what it is’ because you are who you are.”

He also hit the areas Trump is known to be sensitive about, telling him to “get out of your bunker and get out of the sand trap in your golf course” and mocking the president’s comments about injecting disinfectant to ward off the coronavirus. “By the way, maybe you can inject some bleach in your arm,” he said.

Trump quickly resorted to blaming China, calling the coronavirus the “China plague” and praising his administration’s response, maintaining that the death toll would have been in the millions if he had not early taken decisive action. (The U.S. has more cases than any other country, with more than 7 million Americans infected and a death toll that by Tuesday had surpassed 205,000.) He also falsely claimed that Biden would not have supported travel restrictions. “I closed it, and you said, ‘He’s xenophobic.’ You don’t believe we should have closed the country,” Trump said.

When Trump promised there would be a vaccine as early as next month, Biden countered to the camera: “You believe for a moment what he’s telling you, in light of all the lies he’s told you about, the whole issue relating to COVID?” CDC director Robert Redfield recently testified before the Senate that the vaccine would not be widely available before “late second quarter, third quarter 2021.”

A tale of two economies

It’s as if the candidates were discussing completely unrelated economies. To hear Trump’s version, he has created 10.4 million jobs since the pandemic crashed the economy. To hear Biden discuss the nominally same economy, Trump is on track to make history as the only President to potentially leave office with fewer Americans in the workforce than when he started.

Both are factually defensible positions. But that doesn’t make them both the most honest argument to put toward voters.

“We are doing record business,” Trump said, apparently ignoring the tens of millions of jobs that were lost as the economy tanked as the pandemic raged. He also warned that Biden would “close down the whole country … and destroy our country.” Instead, Trump says the economy needs to be opened up as though everything were safe. In a move to pander to his base, Trump said the limits on gatherings and businesses were oppressive. “It’s not fair. It’s almost like being in prison,” Trump said.

Biden, saying he would heed the advice of scientists, said the economy cannot be patched until the coronavirus is brought to heel. “You can’t fix the economy until you fix the COVID crisis,” Biden said. The former Vice President, who guided the Obama Administration’s response to the economic meltdown in 2008 and guided the stabilization of the auto industry, says the team that left the White House in early 2017 handed a growing economy to the incoming Trump Administration. “He blew it,” Biden said flatly.

Trump tries to deflect questions about his taxes

Tonight’s debate comes on the heels of explosive revelations in the New York Times laying out long-awaited details about Trump’s personal finances that tarnish his image as a successful business mogul, including that he paid little to no federal taxes for most of the last two decades and that he has massive debts coming due soon.

Trump has dismissed the report as “totally fake news” and is likely to fall back on the same defenses he used in 2016: that he intends to release his financial details once they’re no longer under audit (the IRS has repeatedly said there’s nothing preventing him from doing so) and that paying less in taxes just makes him a smart businessman. When pressed by debate moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, about the report, Trump asserted — without evidence — that he paid tens of millions of dollars in federal income taxes.

Trump attempted to paint Biden as the standard bearer of an old order and made the case that only Trump can engineer an economic rebound from the pandemic. He’s repeatedly called Biden “sleepy” and led a conservative media push attacking Biden’s age (Biden is 77; Trump is 74) and implying he’s not mentally up to the job. There are few more transparent windows into mental acuity than a debate stage. Biden seemed to freeze occasionally as Trump interrupted him in a way that would make any schoolyard bully proud.

Biden didn’t miss the chance to slam Trump on taxes — but he didn’t linger long

For his part, Biden all but bought a billboard across from the debate site to headline what at least part of his strategy would be. Just ahead of the candidates’ arrivals on stage at the Cleveland Clinic, Biden’s campaign released tax returns for 2019, showing an almost $300,000 tax bill on combined Joe and Jill Biden adjusted gross income of $985,233. The disclosure is now the twenty-second year of tax returns made available to the public from Biden — and a clear taunt to Trump, who is notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to questions about his claims of wealth.

But Biden’s advisers are also keenly aware that the trio of chaotic through-lines to this election have had far greater effects on voters than the extent of Trump’s tax planning. Biden had his fun casting doubts on Trump’s legitimate success and telling voters they can’t trust someone who doesn’t pay his fair share, but he’s didn’t linger on that. After all, the debate team is very familiar with how Hillary Clinton tried to make Trump’s tax dodges an issue in 2016 and then-candidate Trump’s reply of so what? inoculate him.

More pressing? The coronavirus death toll has now topped 200,000 Americans and Biden’s team has seen that stunning reality does far more to help their chances than anything that can be said about tax loopholes. Yet when Biden locked eyes with the camera and tried to address the families of coronavirus directly, Trump interrupted him in a shocking rejection of empathy.

Off to a rocky start

The power plays between the two candidates started from the first moments of the debate. There was no ceremonial handshake at the start because of the pandemic. But when Biden walked out, he got to the microphone first, and said to Trump, “How ya doing, man?” It was a gesture that seemed designed to show Biden was ready, and put Trump a little off balance.

The first question was about President Trump naming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but the discussion quickly devolved into targeted interruptions and unraveled from there.

Trump defended his pick, saying Barrett is highly regarded. Biden laid out what is at stake in the court, saying a justice shouldn’t be selected before the voters weigh in Nov. 3., the court will be ruling on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the balance of justices would determine whether 20 million Americans with health care through the law could keep their plans.

When Trump launched into his campaign attack line that Biden is beholden to the far left of the party, Biden took the bait and staked his claim as the Democratic Party’s standard bearer. “My party is me right now. I am the Democratic Party. The platform is what I approved of,” Biden said. He said that 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 on Trump’s watch, and the millions who got sick and survived will face less certainty if Trump’s Supreme Court nominees can strip away the protections of the ACA.

As Trump interrupted repeatedly saying falsely that he has a plan to protect preexisting conditions, Biden cut deeper, saying “I’m not here to call out his lies, everyone knows he’s a liar.” “You just lost the left,” Trump said. But by the end of the round, Trump’s jabs appeared to have overwhelmed Biden. Biden closed his eyes and said, “Would you shut up man. This is so unpresidential. Keep yapping man.”

—With reporting by Justin Worland

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com and Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com