President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, faced off in their first debate of the campaign in Cleveland on Tuesday (September 29), with Trump talking over his rival and the moderator as he sought to hold the spotlight.
Trump is used to sparring with reporters, and he spent Tuesday’s debate using the same tactic he uses in the White House briefing room: interrupting.
Throughout the 90-minute debate, Trump repeatedly talked over Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, overshadowing attempts to discuss policy and drawing rebukes for breaking the rules that both campaigns had agreed on to ensure that both candidates had equal time.
The debate regularly showed the two candidates talking simultaneously while Wallace pleaded for order.
The effect was exhausting, seemingly, for the moderator, who conceded at one point that he was having trouble following.
Trump did manage on occasion to push Biden out of his comfort zone, leading the Democrat, who before the debate pledged to keep his cool, to deride Trump as a “clown” and the “worst president” in U.S. history.
Biden struggled to repel Trump’s attacks concerning Biden’s support of the protests that have erupted nationwide over racism and police brutality, sometimes turning violent.
The former vice president has embraced some of the goals of the peaceful protest movement, but not its push to de-fund police departments as Trump has suggested.
Biden also refused to answer Trump’s direct question about whether he would, as president, seek to add more justices to the U.S. Supreme Court to counter its rightward turn.
Trump deflected a question asking him to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, instead calling on one group to “stand back and stand by” and then attacking left-wing activists.
Senior federal officials, including at the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, this month warned that white supremacist groups pose a rising threat of violence in the United States.
There was no opening handshake on Tuesday night because of COVID-19, but the body language between Trump and Biden still took center stage.
Trump scowled at his rival for much of the debate, or wagged his finger or waved his hand to dismiss his Democratic opponent.
Biden, meanwhile, regularly gazed into the camera when Trump interrupted him to make a direct appeal to the American people.
While Trump spoke, Biden shook his head, sometimes broke into a smile or a laugh, and occasionally simply stopped speaking and kept silent in exasperation.
Trump didn’t mince words when Wallace asked him what he paid in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, after the New York Times reported that his tax returns showed only a $750 payment in each year.
Offering no evidence, Trump said he had paid, “millions of dollars. And you’ll get to see it,” despite his refusal to release any returns since he became a candidate in 2015, breaking with decades of tradition. “Show us your tax returns,” Biden interjected.
Reuters/Ipsos polling this month found that four in 10 white non-college-educated likely voters in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin said they were backing Biden this year, up from 2016 when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was supported by about three in 10 non-college whites in those states.
The polling shows Biden with a sizable lead overall nationally but with a smaller edge in those key states.
(Production: Njuwa Maina)