US elections: 90 minutes of interruptions marks fiery first head to head

Exasperated moderator calls on candidates to let the other speak at first debate between President Donald Trump and rival Joe Biden

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The first meeting of the campaign between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was always going to be a spectacle.

The unorthodox president has branded his rival for the 2020 election “sleepy Joe”, and accused his family of corruption and of trying to crash the economy. Mr Biden, too, has hit back at campaign events and in the media, accusing Mr Trump of being a liar and the worst president in history.

Tuesday night’s meet, however, managed to be both tense and halting.

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.

The president was repeatedly admonished by Fox News moderator Chris Wallace, who said to Mr Trump, “Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting,” despite agreeing to the format allowing each other to speak for two minutes on a subject.

But Mr Biden also cut in repeatedly – and the two bickered for much of the hour and a half debate, weaving from topic to topic regardless of Wallace’s questioning.

Within 15 minutes, the interruptions and talking over one another at Tuesday’s presidential debate had deteriorated to the point that Mr Biden blurted out: “Will you shut up, man?”

There were no handshakes to start the first presidential debate of the 2020 general election. The traditional nicety was one of several formalities abandoned because of the pandemic.

The 90-minute face-off played out in a makeshift debate hall with a crowd of under 100 people due to coronavirus safety restrictions, in an atrium previously set up for use as a hospital for Covid-19 patients.

At other points, the two candidates dialled down their rhetoric, but then the interruptions would spring up again. When Mr Trump was fielding a question about reports he paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, Mr Biden was the one interjecting: “Show us your taxes. Show us your taxes.”

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The reaction from the mask-wearing crowd was inaudible on television as Mr Trump frequently talked over Mr Biden. There was no discernible response when the former vice president called the sitting president a “clown” and frustratedly told him to “keep yapping.”

Mr Trump also hit back at his rival. “There’s nothing smart about you,” he said of Mr Biden. “Forty-seven years you’ve done nothing.”

While Mr Trump played into his reputation for bullying, it may have been effective at breaking up the worst of Mr Biden’s attacks – simply by talking over them.

Mr Trump wanted the election to be about anything other than the coronavirus, but he couldn’t outrun reality on the debate stage.

“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Mr Biden told the president, referring to Mr Trump’s months of downplaying Covid-19 while he said privately that he understood how deadly it is.

But Mr Trump didn't take it quietly. He proceeded to blitz Mr Biden with a mix of self-defence and counteroffensives. 200,000 dead? Mr Biden's death toll would have been "millions," Mr Trump said. A rocky economy? Mr Biden would've been worse. Mr Biden wouldn't have manufactured enough masks or ventilators.
The kicker: "There will be a vaccine very soon."

Mr Biden fell back on his bottom line: “A lot of people died, and a lot more are going to unless he gets a lot smarter.”

On race, swiftly becoming one of the most divisive issues in America with mass Black Lives Matter protests in cities across the country, the pair showed their stark difference.

President Donald Trump argues with debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News Channel during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden held on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., September 29, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Mr Trump said Mr Biden was the politician who helped put millions of black Americans in prison with the 1994 crime law. Mr Biden called Mr Trump “the racist” in the Oval Office.

Mr Biden didn’t capitalise when Mr Trump refused to condemn armed militias and insisted, against the guidance of his own FBI director: “This is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Mr Trump said when pressed on the far-right group. “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.”

Mr Trump defended his decision to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court just weeks before Election Day, saying “elections have consequences.”

Mr Biden said he was “not opposed to the justice,” but said the “American people have a right to have a say in who the Supreme Court nominee is.”

But rather than litigate Republicans’ 2016 blocking of Merrick Garland to the high court, Mr Biden quickly pivoted to the issues that will potentially come before the court: healthcare and abortion. It’s an effort by the Democrat to refocus the all-but-certain confirmation fight for Mr Trump’s third justice to the Supreme Court into an assault on Mr Trump and his record.

As expected, Trump found a way to bring up Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, and recycle allegations about the younger Biden’s international business practices. Biden called Trump’s litany “discredited” and fired back: “I mean, his family we can talk about all night.”

But Biden sidestepped any of the specifics of Trump’s international business dealings and instead turned straight to the camera. “This is not about my family or his family,” Biden said as Trump tried to talk over him. “This is about your family.”