CLEVELAND (Reuters) – President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden battled fiercely over Trump’s record on the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare and the economy in a chaotic and bad-tempered first debate marked by personal insults and Trump’s repeated interruptions.
Trump bulldozed his way through the 90-minute debate, trying to goad Biden nearly every time he spoke, claiming that Democrats were trying to steal the November presidential election with mail-in ballots and declining to condemn white supremacist groups when asked to do so.
Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News never established control of the debate, with Trump repeatedly ignoring his calls to let Biden speak. The two White House contenders talked over each other and lobbed insults in a breathtaking political brawl that made it hard for either to make a point.
At one point, an exasperated Biden said after Trump’s repeated interruptions: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”
Wallace tried in vain to reel in Trump, who ignored his time limits and talked over Biden.
“I think that 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,” Wallace said.
As of Tuesday evening, more than 1.3 million Americans already had cast early ballots. With time running out to change minds or influence the small sliver of undecided voters, the stakes were enormous as the two candidates took the stage five weeks before the Nov. 3 Election Day.
For Trump, 74, Tuesday’s debate represented one of the few remaining chances to change the trajectory of a race that most opinion polls show him losing, as the majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of both the pandemic and protests over racial injustice.
Biden, 77, has held a consistent lead over Trump in national opinion polls, although surveys in the battleground states that will decide the election show a much closer contest. It was hard to determine whether the debate would move the needle.
Trump repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to fluster Biden and force him into a gaffe, but largely neglected to make any affirmative case for why he is the candidate best suited to tackle fundamental election issues.
The hyper-aggressive performance would almost certainly draw raves from his core supporters, but was unlikely to win back critical swing voters, especially suburban women who have turned away from the president over his divisive and combative rhetoric, political strategists say.
Trump has more debates with Biden scheduled for October, while Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris, have a debate next week.
Tuesday’s debate followed months of racial justice protests over police brutality against Black Americans, which were mostly peaceful but sometimes led to violent clashes between liberal and right-wing protesters.
Trump, who has seized on the unrest to push a “law-and-order” message, was asked if he was willing to also condemn white supremacists and tell them to stand down. He initially said he would be willing to do anything for peace but then said most of the violence was from the left wing.
“This is not a right-wing problem. This is left wing,” he said.
Trump also repeated his unfounded complaints that mail-in ballots would lead to widespread election fraud and declined to commit to accepting the results of the election or commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election.
“If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” he said. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”
Biden urged Americans to make a plan to vote and assured voters that Trump would be gone if Biden won. He said he would not declare victory until the outcome was validated.
“If we get the votes, it’s going to be all over. He’s going to go,” he said.
Biden was sharply critical of Trump’s record on the coronavirus pandemic which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, accusing him of failing to protect Americans because he was more concerned about the economy.
“He panicked or he looked at the stock market,” Biden said of Trump, who has pushed for states to reopen their economies and played down the threat of the pandemic.
“You should get out of your bunker and get out of the sand trap and … the golf course and go in the Oval Office and (put) together Democrats and Republicans, and fund what needs to be done now to save lives,” Biden said.
Trump touted his decision to restrict travel from China, where the virus was believed to have originated, early this year and defended his approach on the pandemic. “We have done a great job.”
Hours before the debate, Biden released his 2019 tax returns and his campaign called on Trump, who has come under fire for not releasing his returns, to do the same.
Biden took the step two days after the New York Times reported Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 – and none in 10 of the previous 15 years – following years of reporting steep losses from business enterprises. Trump had long sought to keep his personal financial records secret.
In the debate, Biden said Trump had managed to game the tax code so that “he pays less tax than a schoolteacher makes.”
Trump insisted he has paid millions of dollars in taxes but said he could not prove it by releasing his returns until an audit was finished. He said as a businessman he had taken advantage of tax laws to pay less.
“Like every other private person, unless they’re stupid, they go through the laws and that’s what it is,” he said.
DEFENDING COURT PUSH
The two also sparred over Trump’s effort to swiftly fill a U.S. Supreme Court seat after the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this month.Defending his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat, which would cement a 6-3 conservative majority on the nation’s highest court, Trump said “elections have consequences” and he had the right despite Democratic objections.
“I will tell you very simply we won the election. We have the Senate and we have the White House and we have a phenomenal nominee respected by all,” he said.
Biden said Ginsburg’s seat should be filled after the election, when it was clear who the president would be. He said a more conservative Supreme Court would endanger the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments shortly after the election on a Trump administration challenge seeking to strike down the Affordable Care Act, including its popular insurance protections for patients with pre-existing conditions.
Democrats have argued Republicans are being hypocritical for moving quickly to fill the seat given they had blocked then-President Barack Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016, arguing it should wait until after that November election.
(Reporting by John Whitesides; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu and Trevor Hunnicutt; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Howard Goller)