The first presidential debate was less than presidential.
For most of the 90-minute live event, President Donald Trump lobbed personal insults at former Vice President Joe Biden, frequently interrupting him and biting into Biden’s allotted speaking time. For his part, Biden at least attempted to speak clearly about his campaign’s platform, but was not unscathed by the President’s chaotic behavior. At one point, he told the President to “shut up,” and referred to him as “this clown.” As for moderator Chris Wallace, he spent most of the evening yelling over Trump, trying but often failing to maintain control over the conversation.
Already, many are insisting that Biden should refuse a second debate on the grounds that Trump would not agree to the rules of the game. But such a move is unlikely, and could have political consequences. For now, here are some key takeaways from the bizarre debate.
The first topic of discussion was about the recently-vacated Supreme Court seat for which Trump has nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Trump argued that “We won the election,” meaning the Republicans in the Senate had the right to consider a new justice immediately. Biden, meanwhile, repeated a line that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell himself used back in 2016, when Republicans blocked an Obama nomination to the Supreme Court: “The American people have a right to have a say,” adding that in several states, the election has already begun.
But the conversation quickly devolved into nonsequential bickering, with Trump interjecting before Biden was even finished with his 2-minute allotment. Unable to get a word in, Biden at one point sighed at the President, “would you shut up, man?” And as Wallace pivoted into the next topic of debate, Biden joked, “That was a really productive segment.”
“I guess I’m debating you”
As Wallace attempted to ask his next question, about healthcare, Trump did not even wait until the question was posed before interjecting. As Wallace and Trump went back-and-forth over Trump’s record, which Wallace said in his question did not include a single comprehensive plan on healthcare, Trump said to the Fox News journalist “I guess I’m debating you, not him.”
As Wallace continued to skirmish with Trump throughout the night, he lost patience over Trump’s disregard for the agreed-upon etiquette of the debate. “Your campaign agreed that both sides would get two-minute answers,” Wallace scolded like a middle school vice-principal later into the debate.
Biden says Trump cared more about stocks than preventing COVID
The Democrat argued that Trump refused to take COVID-19 seriously, even when he knew the risks. Trump’s concern, Biden argued, was only about the stock market. He also suggested that Trump was in over his head as the coronavirus became a global pandemic.
“Do 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?” Biden asked the audience. “He still hasn’t even acknowledged that he knew this was happening — knew how dangerous it would be back in February — and he didn’t even tell you.”
“He panicked, or just looked at the stock market, one of the two,” Biden added. “Because guess what? A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter or a lot quicker.”
It seemed like no item was too personal for the dueling candidates, as Trump frequently castigated Biden’s younger son, Hunter. Trump repeatedly accused Hunter of receiving a $3.5 million gift from a Moscow politician’s wife, a notion that Politifact has discredited. But even Biden’s attempts to deny the smear did not stop Trump from repeating it over and over. And as Biden discussed his other son, Beau Biden, insisting that his service in the army was honorable and that he was not a loser, Trump quickly pivoted back to Hunter, whom he called a drug addict.
“You want to talk about families and ethics?” a rattled Biden finally conceded. “I don’t want to do that. His family, we can talk about all night.”
Trump didn’t exactly condemn white supremacy, or agree to a peaceful transition
Wallace tried to get the candidates to make a few pledges, but Trump would not have it. Initially, Wallace asked both men if they condemn white supremacy, but the President continued to talk over the moderator, ultimately answering “sure.” Wallace and Biden both pushed him to actually say the words “I condemn white supremacy,” to which Trump asked “who do you want me to condemn?” Ultimately, Trump called on the Proud Boys, a white nationalist, paramilitary group, to “stand back and standby.” It was unclear what exactly that meant, but the Proud Boys online presence quickly printed t-shirts with those words on them. To the group, it was an invitation to guard polling places and intimidate the left.
As for the integrity of the election, Trump would not agree to calm his supporters in the interim between Election Day and the actual certification of results. Wallace asked both candidates to agree to keep the peace during what is likely to be a weeks-long process of ballot tabulation, which Biden happily agreed to. But Trump repeated claims about the inaccuracy of mail-in voting, and threatened to take the results to the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court which he is currently trying to stack with another conservative justice).
Was anyone swayed?
Trump’s freewheeling performance likely pleased his base of loyal supporters. But it’s hard to imagine that swing voters, the folks in the suburbs he desperately needs to win reelection, felt encouraged by the chaos of the evening. And while Biden did not exactly nail his chance to clearly state his policy proposals, which he hoped would appeal to undecided voters, he at least showed the stark character contrast between he and the current President. He displayed a more traditionally presidential composure.
And the debate was good news for the Democratic fundraising machine, if nothing else. ActBlue, the Democratic donation site, processed close to $8 million between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.