By Alex Leary
After months of distanced sniping, President Trump and former
Vice President Joe Biden took to the debate stage for a 90-minute
clash animated by fresh news developments and an enduring
The first of three debates between the two candidates came days
after a report alleging how little federal tax Mr. Trump has paid
in recent years -- which Mr. Biden quickly seized on -- as well as
the president's decision to push ahead with filling a Supreme Court
vacancy following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Mr. Trump arrived in Cleveland needing a jolt. He trails in
national polls and in a number of key states as some voters are
already casting ballots. Mr. Biden faced pressure to show he could
withstand an unpredictable adversary and get across key points.
Most people may be locked into their choice, polls show, but
debates matter and millions watched.
Here are moments that stood out:
The long-awaited Trump-Biden clash: "Will you shut up, man?"
Things got rolling during a discussion about the Supreme Court
that veered into a debate over health care, with the candidates
repeatedly talking over each other. Both appeared initially
comfortable in the setting, with Mr. Trump challenging questions
from moderator Chris Wallace and Mr. Biden flashing a wide smile
and laughing at some of the president's responses. He tried to
directly address viewers, while Mr. Trump made slashing remarks, at
times rattling the former vice president. Mr. Trump repeatedly
reminded viewers that Mr. Biden has been in office for nearly five
decades and questioned why he hadn't accomplished more.
A rhetorical brawl ensued.
Mr. Trump, 74, has long sought to brand his 77-year-old opponent
as mentally and physically unfit for the job. More recently the
Trump campaign sought to cast the former vice president as a
seasoned campaigner, recognizing the risks of lowering the bar too
far. Mr. Biden early on held his own, even as he stumbled over
words and figures at times.
"I'm not going to listen to him," he said at one point to Mr.
Trump's interjections. "Everything he is saying so far is simply a
lie." At another point, he said, "Will you shut up, man?"
Mr. Biden's campaign went into the debate bracing for Mr.
Trump's anything-goes approach, which aimed to provoke anger or
knock him off message. Mr. Trump for his part lashed out at Mr.
Biden as being a tool of the far left and questioned his
"There's nothing smart about you, Joe," Mr. Trump said. "47
years you have done nothing."
"You're the worst president America has ever had," Mr. Biden
And that was in the first 45 minutes.
Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic
Through it all, the coronavirus remains the defining issue of
the race and it provided the sharpest contrasts during the
Mr. Biden sought to portray the president's handling of the
coronavirus emergency as a deadly failure. All told, there are 7.15
million confirmed infections in the U.S. -- more than a fifth of
the global tally -- and more than 205,000 deaths.
"He panicked," Mr. Biden said, looking directly into the camera
as if talking to people at home. Overall, Mr. Biden sought to make
the coronavirus a question of trust. "Do you believe for a moment
what he's telling you, in light of all the lies he has told you,"
The president countered with the steps he has taken, including
restricting some travel and speeding along a vaccine.
"You would have lost far more people," the president said. "He
wants to shut down this country and I want to keep it open." Mr.
Trump was put on the defensive over mask wearing and holding
The economy remains one of Mr. Trump's strengths, polls show,
and he played to that, accusing his rival of trying to kill any
progress that has been made. "People want their places open," he
said. "They want to get back to their lives."
Tax records and the economy
Mr. Biden briefly raised the issue of the moment -- his rival's
tax records -- but let it pass. Minutes later, though, Mr. Wallace
raised the question. Pressed how much in federal taxes he pays, the
president replied, "millions of dollars" without detail.
"Release your tax return," Mr. Biden demanded.
Hours before the debate, Mr. Biden did just that, his 2019 tax
return, showing he paid nearly $300,000 in federal taxes. The New
York Times reported that the president paid $750 for 2016 and the
same amount for 2017 -- and zero for years before that.
Mr. Biden has been trying to contrast his modest upbringing in
Pennsylvania with Mr. Trump's in New York, and during the debate he
framed the election as "Scranton vs. Park Avenue," an appeal to
working class voters who helped elect Mr. Trump in 2016.
Mr. Trump has refused to release his returns, counter to decades
of presidential precedence, saying he is under audit.
That morphed into a broader discussion about economic policy,
giving Mr. Trump room to tout the gains that happened before the
pandemic and accusing Messrs. Obama and Biden of presiding over a
historically slow economic recovery. He accused Mr. Biden of being
weak on China before pivoting to questions about the international
business dealings of the former vice president's son, Hunter. Mr.
Biden strenuously defended his son.
The meaning of law and order
Racial unrest seen across the country provided another
contentious exchange. Mr. Trump has made a tough stance toward
protesting and property damage a centerpiece of his campaign and he
questioned his rival: "Are you in favor of law and order?"
Mr. Biden responded, "Law and order with justice -- where people
get treated fairly." Mr. Biden denied he is in favor of defunding
the police, a demand sought by many protesters, and said Mr. Trump
was using racial appeals to suburban voters, while not recognizing
the suburbs have diversified.
Mr. Trump also brought up the 1994 crime bill, which Mr. Biden
helped draft as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The
bill largely increased police and prison funding and created
several new categories of federal crime and increased
"You have treated the Black community about as bad as anybody in
this country," said Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump was asked if he would condemn white supremacy and
militia groups but he quickly pivoted to groups on the far left.
"Sure, I'm willing to do that," he said. "Proud Boys, stand back
and stand by. But I'll tell you what... somebody's got to do
something about Antifa and the left."
Dueling Supreme Court arguments
The death of Justice Ginsburg injected the election with a new
dynamic and both campaigns have rushed to rally supporters. Mr.
Trump explained his push to install conservative Judge Amy Coney
Barrett. "Elections have consequences," he said. "We have the
Senate and we have the White House."
Mr. Biden said the American people should have a say after the
election, noting some people have already voted. "That's the only
way the American people get to express their view."
Mr. Biden argued a solidly conservative majority could bring an
end to the Affordable Care Act, playing up what has been a potent
issue for Democrats in recent congressional elections. He also said
abortion rights under Roe v. Wade would be in jeopardy.
But Mr. Biden refused to give his position on expanding the
court -- as some Democrats want -- or ending the Senate filibuster.
"Whatever position I take on that, that will become the issue. The
issue is, the American people should speak. You should go out and
Election Day and beyond
Election security was another issue for debate and Mr. Trump
continued to attack mail-in ballots as ripe for fraud. He called on
his supporters to keep a close watch on voting. "They cheat. They
cheat," Mr. Trump said, raising a recent reported case of discarded
ballots in Pennsylvania.
Instances of fraud in past elections have been low and the
Federal Bureau of Investigation director said last week that the
agency hasn't seen "any kind of coordinated national voter fraud
effort in a major election." Mr. Trump has also stirred controversy
by declining to say he would accept the election results and ensure
a peaceful transfer of power, citing ballot issues.
Mr. Biden said he was concerned that a court would settle the
election but expressed faith that a clear winner could be declared.
"If it's not me, I'll support the outcome," he said.
But Mr. Trump cast doubt on when that outcome would be clear:
"We might not know for months, because these ballots are going to
be all over."
Write to Alex Leary at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 29, 2020 23:49 ET (03:49 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.