First Presidential Debate Goes Off the Rails

By Rahem Hamid – Senior Political Correspondent

President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden engaged in a heated, furious, and occasionally unintelligible debate on Tuesday night at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. The Vice President at one point told Mr. Trump, “you’re the worst President America has ever had.” A CBS News poll released late Tuesday night showed that 48% of people thought the Vice President won the debate, with 41% saying the President did.

The first question related to the Supreme Court. When moderator Chris Wallace of FOX News asked President Trump about his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mr. Trump said that he and the Republican Senate won the election and that “elections have consequences”. He then argued that had the Democrats been in his position, they would have done the same thing. Vice President Biden argued in response that the American people have a right to have a say in the choosing of a Supreme Court justice, especially now that the election has already started in effect. More than one million ballots across the country have already been cast.

The Trump campaign is also dealing with the fallout after a bombshell New York Times report on Sunday showed that he paid just 750 dollars in taxes in 2015 and 2016. Trump flatly denied the allegations, saying he’s paid “millions of dollars” in federal income tax. Vice President Biden repeatedly called on him to release his tax returns, which Trump said he would do eventually – a promise he has been making since his first election campaign in 2016. Biden remarked that he hoped Trump would actually do so, saying “insha’allah”. Mr. Biden himself released his tax returns just hours before the debate.

Mr. Biden repeatedly turned to the camera and addressed the Americans directly throughout the night, often to attack his opponent or to discuss the effects of the COVID crisis on the American people. More than 205,000 Americans have died as of September 29, and 26 million have filed for unemployment. These are numbers Mr. Biden brought up repeatedly, with Mr. Trump arguing that had his opponent been in charge, millions would have died. He also said his claims about injecting bleach to cure COVID were “sarcastic,” and that he disagrees with both his CDC Director and his director of Operation Warp Speed on when a vaccine will be widely available. He says his conversations with drugmakers Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson tell him the vaccine will be here much sooner. 

Both candidates were asked about race in the United States. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer sparked protest across the country and across the world. Mr. Biden said that “we’ve never walked away from trying to acquire equality,” and that though we’ve never accomplished it, we have not walked away as “[President Trump] has”. The President attacked Mr. Biden for his role in the 1994 crime bill, which is widely criticized for unfairly targeting African Americans. Mr. Biden emphasized that he believed in systemic racism in the United States. He added that he believed that “the vast majority of police officers are good, honorable…men and women” who risk their lives every day but there are some bad actors who must be held accountable. He pledged to work with civil rights groups and police chiefs to tackle the issue if elected. Mr. Trump repeatedly challenged Mr. Biden to name any law enforcement group backing him, claiming that he had the support of, among others, “the Portland sheriff”. The Multnomah County sheriff released a statement during the debate saying he has “never supported Donald Trump and will never support him.” 

The debate also saw the first question about climate change ever asked in a presidential debate. Mr. Biden pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, and Mr. Trump agreed that humans contribute to climate change “to an extent” but that Obama-era regulations were driving energy prices “through the sky”. In response to attacks from the President, Mr. Biden repeatedly emphasized that the Green New Deal is not his climate plan, saying he supports the “Biden plan.” 

The final minutes of the debate were spent arguing over the integrity of the election on November 3rd. Mr. Wallace asked both nominees if they would pledge to urge their supporters to stay calm and not engage in civil unrest during the tallying and pledge to not declare victory until certification of the results. Mr. Trump said he is urging all his supporters to go watch the polls, and that he cannot go along with the election results if “thousands of ballots are manipulated”. Mr. Biden argued that mail in ballots have extremely low levels of fraud and that the President’s own FBI and DHS chief said the same. He pledged to accept the results of the election.

But despite the few minutes of policy discussion, the debate was ugly throughout. Moderator Chris Wallace got into numerous arguments with President Trump over the speaking time, at one point saying that he would raise his voice but then he would not be any better than the two nominees. Wallace and Trump sparred on Trump interrupting Biden several times throughout the night. Mr. Trump told Mr. Wallace early in the night, “I guess I’m debating you, not [Joe Biden].” Mr. Trump attacked the Vice President on his intelligence, claiming he graduated “among the lowest” at the University of Delaware. The Vice President repeatedly called him a clown, at one point saying “shut up, man”. At the end of the debate, CNN anchor Jake Tapper said it was the worst debate he has ever seen, calling it a “disgrace”. The election is still more than 30 days away, but it remains to be seen what effect, if any, this debate will have on the results.

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