US Election 2020: Donald Trump and Joe Biden face off in first debate

Coronavirus, crime and the Supreme Court dominate discussion

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US President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden began their 90-minute head to head on Tuesday evening discussing the Supreme Court, in the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio.

Although the debate was being watched by millions, the event had a small, socially distanced crowd because of the pandemic.

The candidates did not shake hands, in accordance with social distancing measures.

Here’s how it played out:

Supreme Court nominee 

The debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, opened discussing Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

“We won the election, and therefore we have the right to choose her,” Mr Trump said.

“I think that she [Barrett] will be outstanding. She will be as good as anybody who has ever served on that court. We won the election and therefore we had the right to choose her,” Mr Trump said.

Mr Biden hit back saying that with the election ongoing already with early voting denying many a say in the process meaning it should wait until after the November 3 results.

“The American people have the right to have a say on who the Supreme Court justice. We should wait and see what the outcome of this election is. What is at stake as the president made it clear, is the president wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act [Obamacare],” Mr Biden said. “I’m not opposed to the justice. She seems like a very fine person. But she’s written that she thinks the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. The president’s made it clear he wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. He’s been running on that.”

The pair moved on to health care with Mr Trump jibbing at his rival: “You want to socialise medicine like Bernie Sanders.”

Mr Trump is used to sparring with reporters and he kicked off Tuesday’s debate by using the same tactic he uses in the White House briefing room: interrupting.

He repeatedly interrupted or sought to talk over Mr Biden and the debate’s moderator, Wallace, during a discussion about the Supreme Court and the Affordable Care Act.

At times the debate split-screen showed the two candidates trying to talk over one another while Wallace spoke at the same time, pleading for clarity.

“Please let the vice president talk,” Wallace admonished Mr Trump during one of his interruptions after earlier making clear that he was the moderator. “Will you shut up, man?” Mr Biden eventually said to Mr Trump.

Mr Biden: “I’m not here to call out his lies – everyone knows he’s a liar.”


“Joe, you could never have never done the job we did, you don’t have it in your blood,” Mr Trump told Mr Biden, saying that if he had been president more than two million would be dead. Mr Trump also accused Mr Biden of a poor track record on handling H1N1 swine flu while vice president.

“The president has no plan. He hasn’t laid out anything, he knew all the way back in February how serious this crisis was. He knew it was a deadly disease,” Mr Biden said.

Wallace pushed the president on the timeline for a vaccine while Mr Biden brought up previous statements by the president on ingesting bleach to cure Covid-19 or hoping it would disappear with warm weather.

“If you could get the crowds you would have done the same thing,” Mr Trump replied to Mr Biden when pushed on holding mass rallies during the pandemic.

“He didn’t want to close the economy. It would be two million dead with him – 200,000 is too many, one is too many … it should never have happened with this plague from China,” Mr Trump said of his rival. He repeated numerous previous talking points about lockdowns and accusing democrats of wanting to close the entire country “and destroy it”.

After enduring Mr Biden’s criticism of his coronavirus response, Mr Trump seized on a remark that his rival’s management of the crisis would be “smart”.

“Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me,” Mr Trump said, accusing Mr Biden of forgetting where he went to college.

Mr Biden chuckled. “Oh, give me a break.”

“There’s nothing smart about you, Joe,” Mr Trump said.

It took only 40 minutes for Mr Biden to mention revelations this week by the New York Times, which published the president's financial records showing Mr Trump paid only $750 in tax.

Mr Trump tried to jump in to respond but Wallace cut him off, reminding the president that both candidates have the same allotted time.

But the moderator picked up the issue.

“Is it true you paid just $750 in federal income tax?” Wallace asked.

“I’ve paid millions in tax,” Mr Trump replied before extolling his financial solvency.

Wallace insisted Mr Trump clarify if the president paid only $750 in 2016 and 2017.

“I paid millions,” Mr Trump repeated. Mr Biden jumped in to ask when the president was going to release his tax returns, as is customary of candidates – but which Mr Trump has never done.

“When it’s ready,” Mr Trump replied.


“You treated the African-American community about the worst of anyone … you called them super-predators – look back at your record over the years,” Mr Trump said of Mr Biden.

Asked whether he thought African-Americans face a different system of justice than white Americans, Mr Biden said there must be a system where officers are held accountable and good officers rejected the few “bad apples”, the same as anyone.

Wallace asked the president why he decided to end racial sensitivity training and whether he believes there is systemic racism. Mr Trump said the policy itself was racist and costly. “They were teaching people to hate our country and I’m not going to let that happen.”

Wallace also plans to discuss the two candidates’ records; the economy; racism and violence in US cities; and the integrity of the election.

Law and order 

“Violent crime went down 17 per cent under our administration,” Mr Biden said of the Obama administration. “Went down much more in ours,” Mr Trump replied.

Wallace pointed out to Mr Trump that violent crime is on the rise in both Democratic and Republican cities, at which point the president pivoted to discussing shootings in Chicago.

Wallace asked Mr Biden what his proposal of “reimagining policing” means and whether he supports the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We need community policing like we had before – that’s when crime went down,” Mr Biden said, and clarified he is against defunding the police. Mr Trump pressed his rival: “He has no law enforcement support. Name one law enforcement group that came out and supported you,” he asked Mr Biden.

’Will you condemn white supremacists?’ 

Wallace said: “Are you willing to condemn white supremacists and militias and tell them they need to stand down?

The president said he was willing to do anything, asking Wallace for the name he wants condemning. Both Mr Biden and Mr Wallace chimed in: “Then do it”.

Wallace clarified: “White supremacists and right-wing militias.”

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by but I tell you what someone needs to do something about Antifa,” he said, referring to the prominent far-right neo-fascist organisation and the movement to combat fascism.

Why vote for me?

Mr Biden said: “Under this president, we become weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided and more violent. When I was vice president, we inherited a recession, I was asked to fix it and I did we left him a booming economy and he wrecked it.”

Trump then cut the segment off, pressing Mr Biden on his son’s drug addiction and business dealings. Mr Biden said he was proud of his son Hunter Biden for overcoming addiction and pointed out investigations including by Republicans into his son’s business deals in Russia and China had found discredited reports he was handed millions.

Climate change

“If you look at our numbers, we’re doing phenomenally but we didn’t kill our businesses,” Mr Trump said.

He said the global Paris Accord on emissions was bad for America. Mr Trump said he wants to do all he can to ensure “crystal-clean water and air”.

Asked if he believes in the science regarding human-caused climate change Mr Trump said: “I think, to an extent, yes –but a lot of things do.”

Mr Biden said under him no one would build another coal or oil-fired power stations because renewables would be as cheap. “We can get to net zero in terms of electricity production by 2035 not costing jobs but creating jobs,” he said, and pledged to rejoin the Paris Accords.

Voting integrity 

Mr Biden pointed out that there is no evidence of Mr Trump’s claims postal ballots are insecure. “Millions of people because of Covid who are going to be voting by mail-in ballot, like he does by the way – sits behind the Resolute Desk and sends his ballot to Florida,” Mr Biden said of Mr Trump.

“If I win that will be accepted, if I lose that will be accepted, when he says he’s not sure if he will accept that doesn’t matter because if we get the votes it doesn’t matter – he can’t stay in power,” Mr Biden said of the results.

“As far as the ballots are concerned it’s a disaster … there’s fraud, they found them in creeks, they found one – just happened to have the name Trump – in a waste paper basket,” Mr Trump said, reiterating his claims that the mail-in electoral system is open to tampering.

Mr Trump came under attack for his handling of the pandemic and for not handing over his tax returns.

The president has attracted criticism for his finances, after a bombshell report by The New York Times on Sunday reported he paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, and none in 10 of the previous 15 years, after years of reporting sharp losses from his businesses.

Increasing the pressure on Mr Trump, Mr Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris on Tuesday released their 2019 tax returns and urged the sitting president to do the same.

In the debate, Mr Trump challenged Mr Biden on law and order issues and his relationship with the Left of the Democratic Party.

Tonight’s meet was the first of four – with two more on October 15 and 22, and a vice-presidential debate on October 7.

Eighty-four million people watched the September 27, 2016, debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, reported Nielsen, which monitors TV ratings.

Speaking to MSNBC minutes before this debate, Ms Clinton said she planned to watch to see Mr Trump being held accountable for his first term as president.

“I’m going to watch it with real interest and a certain level of expectation because, unlike four years ago, Donald Trump now has a record,” she said.