Trump and Biden Square Off On Pandemic, Racism in First Presidential Debate

Topics for tonight's debate include the records of the candidates, the Supreme Court, the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, “race and violence in our cities,” and election integrity.

President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden squared off Tuesday night in their crucial first debate of the 2020 campaign, the most pivotal opportunity yet for them to outline starkly different visions for a country facing multiple crises.

It began with a contentious exchange over the Supreme Court with Trump defending his nomination of a new justice barely a month before the election. Declaring that “I was not elected for three years, I’m elected for four years," Trump insisted he had every right to select Amy Coney Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died earlier this month.

“We won the election. Elections have consequences," said Trump. “We have the Senate. We have the White House and we have a phenomenal nominee, respected by all.”

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden later said he is the leader of his party, making the comment during Tuesday night's debate after President Donald Trump accused him of supporting abolishing private insurance.

Biden noted that he won the Democratic nomination partly by arguing against single-payer health care that many of his rivals sought. The former vice president has instead proposed expanding the Affordable Care Act to provide a public option that people could buy into.

Trump responded that Democrats still want to abolish private health insurance and suggested the party would force Biden to do its bidding.“My party is me,” Biden replied. “Right now, I’m the Democratic Party.”

Trump and Joe Biden also sparred over Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, with Biden saying “a lot more people are going to die” unless Trump gets “smarter a lot faster.”

Biden later charged that Trump “has no plan” to deal with the virus and noted that the president praised Chinese President Xi Jinping’s initial actions in dealing with the outbreak. Biden told Trump to “get out of your bunker and get out of the sand trap on your golf course” and bring Democrats and Republicans into the Oval Office to cut a deal on a coronavirus aid package.

Trump, in response, is offering a number of erroneous claims, charging falsely that Biden opposed shutting down travel to China and claiming that the U.S. is “weeks away” from producing a vaccine. He also said that Biden’s handling of the H1N1 outbreak during the Obama administration was a “disaster," though the number of H1N1deaths in the U.S. was less than 1% of the deaths from the coronavirus.

Biden also noted that Trump misled the public on the severity of the virus and said that rather than owning up to the American people, the president “panicked or just looked at the stock market.”

Trump added he’s had “no negative effect” from massive campaign rallies with thousands of attendees not adhering to social distancing recommendations amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Trump added that he thought masks “are OK,” pulling one out from his pocket and saying, “I wear masks when needed.”

But Trump also bragged that he’s drawn “35 to 40,000 people” at his campaign rallies, saying he brings such large crowds to outdoor events “because people want to hear what I have to say.” Trump portrayed Biden’s socially distanced events as insignificant affairs where the Democrat “has three people some place.”

Former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who attended one of Trump's rallies in June without wearing a mask or social distancing, tested positive for the coronavirus nine days after the rally and died a month later. Neither Trump nor Biden mentioned him.

Biden has held smaller campaign events, requiring attendees to spread out and at times sit in taped-off circles. Calling Trump “totally irresponsible” on managing COVID-19, Biden said the president is “a fool on this” and said Trump only worried about masks in the interest of protecting his own health, not others.

As the two made their pitches to win over Black voters in the coming election, Biden mockingly questioning: “This man, this man is a savior of African Americans? This man has done virtually nothing.”

Biden says that 1 in 1,000 African Americans has died because of the coronavirus, and if Trump doesn’t do something quickly, it will be 1 in 500.

Trump turned the discussion from COVID-19 to a crime bill passed in 1994 that Biden helped write and get passed that, among other things, increased the penalties for certain drug offenses.

Trump says “I’m letting people out of jail now,” and asserted that Biden had treated the Black community “about as bad as anybody in this country.”

President Donald Trump then danced around a question from moderator Chris Wallace about whether he was willing to condemn white supremacists and military groups.

“I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing,” Trump responded. “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”

When pressed further, Trump said, “What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name?”

Finally he said, “Proud Boys — Stand back, stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not right-wing problem..... This is a left wing problem."

Trump infamously said there were good people “on both sides” after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of a counterprotester.

Biden's son Beau was evoked by the former vice president during the debate as he criticized President Donald Trump for reportedly calling members of the American military who lost their lives “losers” and “suckers.”Raising his voice at Tuesday night's debate, Biden described his son as a hero. Beau Biden died of cancer in 2015.

Trump responded by pivoting to a familiar attack, on Biden’s other son, Hunter.

The president said, “I don’t know Beau. I know Hunter,” and accused Hunter Biden of having collected millions of dollars from oversees interests, including China, while working as a consultant during his father’s tenure as vice president. It echoed attacks the president made earlier in the debate in Cleveland, but have little basis in fact.

Trump also opened a new line of attack when he said Hunter Biden was dishonorably discharged from the military for cocaine use. Biden responded that his son wasn’t dishonorably discharged.

He addressed viewers directly and said that, like a lot of Americans, Hunter had a drug problem but was “working on it” and had “fixed it.”

Biden added “I’m proud of my son.”

At the end of the debate, Trump and Biden painted a very different picture of the reliability of the upcoming election.

Biden urged voters to cast their ballots and not be intimidated by Trump’s suggestions he might not accept a loss. Trump has been groundlessly casting doubt on the reliability of mail ballots and elections in general.“

Vote whatever way is the best way for you,” Biden said. “Because he will not be able to stop you from determining the outcome of this election.”

Biden agreed not to declare victory before the ballots are counted and to accept voters’ verdicts.

Trump continued to spread falsehoods about mail voting. He said falsely that his campaign's poll watchers were improperly turned away at a Philadelphia early voting site Tuesday -- the poll watchers had not yet been accredited to observe. He suggested widespread Democratic fraud because a handful of ballots were improperly thrown in the trash last week -- but didn’t mention it occurred in a Republican-controlled elections office and was quickly reported to authorities.

Biden urged viewers not to worry about Trump’s scare tactics.

“I will accept it, and he will, too. You know why?” Biden said. “Because once the winner is declared once all the ballots are counted, that’ll be the end of it."

Trump and Biden arrived in Cleveland hoping the debate would energize their bases of support, even as they competed for the slim slice of undecided voters who could decide the election. It has been generations since two men asked to lead a nation facing such tumult, with Americans both fearful and impatient about the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 of their fellow citizens and cost millions of jobs.

The pandemic’s effects were in plain sight, with the candidates’ lecterns spaced far apart, all of the guests in the small crowd tested and the traditional opening handshake scrapped. The men did not shake hands and, while neither candidate wore a mask to take the stage, their families did sport face coverings.

“How you doin', man?" Biden asked the president as they entered.

The two continued into the evening by trading barbs about each other's relatives.

While Biden was making a point during the first presidential debate in Cleveland about the Trump administration’s trade deals with China not having the desired effect, Trump jumped in. He resurrected past claims about the former vice president’s son Hunter working overseas.

Trump said Hunter Biden reaped millions in ill-gotten profit from China and other overseas interests, accusations that have been repeatedly debunked. Biden shot back, “None of that is true.”

He then added of Trump, “His family, we could talk all night.”Trump interrupted to respond that his children gave up lucrative jobs to join government and “help people,” which left moderator Chris Wallace pleading, “Mr. President, please stop” trying to restore order on the stage.

Biden then turned to the camera and addressed the audience directly, something he did frequently Tuesday night. “This is not about my family or his family,” Biden said. “It’s about your family.”

With just 35 days until the election, and early voting already underway in some states, Biden stepped onto the stage holding leads in the polls — significant in national surveys, close in some battleground states — and looking to expand his support among suburban voters, women and seniors. Surveys show the president has lost significant ground among those groups since 2016, but Biden faces his own questions encouraged by Trump’s withering attacks.

Trump had arguably his best chance to try to reframe the campaign as a choice between candidates and not a referendum over his handling of the virus that has killed more people in America than any other nation. Americans, according to polling, have soured on his leadership in the crisis, and the president has struggled to land consistent attacks on Biden.

Leaving the White House for Cleveland, Trump pumped his fist for supporters gathered on the White House lawn but did not address reporters. He spent the morning in informal debate preparations while a more formal session was set for the afternoon once he arrived in Ohio. Biden held an umbrella to ward off the Delaware rain as he boarded a new, bigger campaign plane en route to Cleveland. He, too, did not address reporters.

Though some Trump aides involved in the preparations urged the president to adopt a measured tone while selling his own accomplishments, Trump had told advisers he was preparing an all-out assault on Biden, claiming that the former senator’s 47 years in Washington have left him out of touch and that his family, namely his son Hunter, has benefited from corruption.

Biden’s performances during the primary debates were uneven, and some Democrats have been nervous as to how he would fare in an unscripted setting. But his team also viewed the night as a chance to illuminate Trump’s failings with the pandemic and economy, with the former vice president acting as a “fact checker on the floor” while bracing himself for the onslaught that was coming.

The tumult of 2020 was difficult to overstate: COVID-19 has rewritten the rules of everyday life; racial justice protests have swept into cities after several highly publicized killings of Black people by police, and the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg allowed Trump to nominate a conservative jurist to replace a liberal voice and perhaps reshape the high court for generations.

But the impact of the debate — and the two to follow — remained unclear. Despite the upheaval, the presidential race has seemed largely unchanged since Biden seized control of the Democratic field in March and opened a steady lead over Trump.

Both sides looked to one-up each other in the hours before the debate.

Biden released his 2019 tax returns just days after the blockbuster revelations about Trump’s long-hidden tax history, including that he paid only $750 a year in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing in many other years. The Bidens paid nearly $300,000 in taxes in 2019.

Meanwhile, trying to hammer home a claim that Biden is not up to the job of president, Trump’s campaign pushed out a number of pre-debate accusations, including that the former vice president asked for numerous breaks during the 90-minute debate and had backed out of a search meant to rule out that either man was wearing an earpiece from which he could be fed answers.

The Biden campaign denied the accusations and, in a conference call Tuesday afternoon, chided reporters for biting on a Trump gambit.

“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” Biden senior campaign adviser Symone Sanders said. “Is this what you all would really like to spend your time on, these false, crazy, random, ridiculous assertions by the Trump campaign?”

The president’s handling of the coronavirus was likely to dominate much of the debate. The pandemic’s effects were in plain sight, with the candidates’ lecterns spaced far apart, all of the guests in the small crowd tested and the traditional opening handshake scrapped.

The scene in Cleveland was notably understated compared to typical election years, with none of the pomp and pageantry. Instead of the usual auditorium, the debate was held in an atrium on Case Western University's campus — one that had been temporarily converted into a COVID-19 hospital this spring — and signs were placed on two of every three chairs reading, “Thank you for not sitting here in observance of social distancing.”