NEW YORK: It was more of a brawl than a debate. President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden faced off in a series of heated cross-talks and putdowns.
Each sought to undermine the other’s personality and fitness to lead.
They both denigrated the intelligence of their rival, with Trump repeatedly attacking Biden as a puppet in the hands of the radical left, which he claimed is trying to steal the election.
Biden called the president a “clown,” “racist,” and “a liar.”
“I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar,” he said.
The clashes marked a new low in American presidential debates: never, in recent memory, have so many personal insults been exchanged between two candidates on national television.
The debate was the first chance for voters to compare the candidates side by side as they sparred for 90 minutes.
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Moderator Chris Wallace was left exasperated at times, as he tried to rein the rivals in, get them to observe speaking times, and put a stop to the constant interruptions.
At one point, the Fox News anchor had to raise his voice and ask the president to let his opponent finish his sentence.
Biden called Trump “the worst president America has ever had,” and he repeatedly told the president to “just shut up, man.”
Biden claimed that more people would die from the coronavirus pandemic unless Trump got “a lot smarter.”
Mocking Biden’s college class rank, Trump said: “Did you use the word ‘smart’? Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me.”
The debate took place at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. With five weeks to go until the election, there were heated clashes over Trump’s handling of the pandemic, the Supreme Court nomination, the future of the nation’s health care, and the integrity of the election.
Biden blamed the US COVID-19 death toll on Trump. He looked into the camera and asked: “How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the table because someone died of COVID-19?”
“You could never have done the job we’ve done,” Trump responded. “You don’t have it in your blood.”
The two candidates’ families were present, socially distanced and some wearing masks.
Things became even more heated when the topic of race and law-and-order was breached.
Biden accused Trump of stoking racial divisions.
“He’s just a racist. This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racial hatred, racial division.”
When asked by the debate moderator if he would denounce white supremacists and paramilitary groups, the president replied: “What do you want me to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name.”
Biden interjected with “Proud Boys,” referring to the far-right violent group. Trump did not condemn the hate group, but said instead “Proud Boys, stand back, stand by.”
The Proud Boys celebrated online the president’s refusal to denounce white supremacy and the fact that he mentioned them.
They immediately shared a logo emblazoned with the phrase: “stand back and stand by.”
Biden later tweeted an image of the Proud Boys praising the president’s remarks and wrote: “This is Donald Trump’s America.”
For its part, Biden’s campaign began selling T-shirts with the phrase: “Shut Up Man.”
Trump went after the former vice-president’s son Hunter Biden and accused him of profiting in China while his father was vice-president.
“China ate your lunch, Joe. And no wonder your son goes there and takes out billions of dollars.”
He also accused Hunter Biden of receiving more than $3 million from a Russian billionaire.
Days after he refused to commit to conceding the election if he loses, Trump repeated that he expected the large number of mail ballots due to the pandemic would result in a massive fraud.
“This is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen,” Trump said. “We might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over.”
Mr Biden looked into the camera and told voters they hold in their own hands the power to vote the president out. “If we get the votes, it’s going to be over. He can’t stay in power.”
The second of the three presidential debates is slated for Oct. 15.
The first vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris will take place on Oct. 7.