Trump set a low bar for Biden in their first debate, after months of calling him ‘Sleepy Joe’.
The first debate between US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden was tense from the beginning. And it quickly devolved into a chaotic litany of criticisms and a cascade of insults with each interrupting the other, though moderator Chris Wallace said Trump was more disruptive.
The two candidates traded barbs about the coronavirus response, health care, the economy, among other topics while weaving in references to their opponent’s job performance and even dragging their families into the fight.
Here’s our play-by-play commentary of the night’s events:
Al Jazeera Digital Managing Business Editor Patricia Sabga:
The subject of jobs was raised several times during tonight’s debate. Notably, Biden pointed out that more jobs were created during the last three years of former President Barack Obama’s presidency than during Trump’s first three years in office. This is true, but it is important to bear in mind that the unemployment rate continued to trend down under Trump to hover near a 50-year low before COVID-19 struck.
What matters more than what has passed is where the jobs market stands now. The economy has recovered roughly half of the 22 million jobs lost in March and April when coronavirus lockdowns swept the nation. The unemployment rate has come down from a pandemic peak of 14.7 in April to 8.4 in August.
That is an impressive comeback but well short of a V-shaped recovery Trump has touted. And there are signs that the economic recovery is starting to plateau, signalling there is a long road back to pre-pandemic strength. Keep in mind that the unemployment rate in February – before lockdowns – was 3.5 percent.
Millions of Americans are unemployed right now, wondering if they have lost their jobs for good or whether they can find a new one. For struggling Americans who just want to support themselves and their families, tonight’s debate offered little by way of concrete policies either Trump or Biden would take to keep moving the jobs market forward.
Trump was asked whether he would condemn white supremacists and militia groups and instead of directly answering the question, Trump instead blamed the months of violence in US cities on “left-wing groups.”
“Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence or the number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha, and as we’ve seen in Portland?” moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump.
“I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right,” Trump responded. “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”
“Then do it sir,” Wallace urged Trump before his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, chimed in. “Do it, do it. Say it,” said Biden.
Trump shot back, “You want to call them. What do you want to call them? Give me a name.” Biden said, “Proud Boys,” referring to a right-wing group.
“Proud Boys. Stand back and stand by,” responded Trump.
Wallace asked both candidates if they would urge their supporters to remain calm and not take to the streets if the election is close and counting continues. Trump said he was urging his supporters to be vigilant about the actual voting on election day. “I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” Trump said. Biden said Trump “has no idea what he’s talking about”. “Once the winner is declared after all the ballots are counted, that will be the end of it,” Biden said.
Trump and Biden, prompted by a question on election integrity from Wallace, argued over whether the mail-in ballots can be counted properly. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the accuracy of mail ballots and has recently begun to point to local incidents as evidence of fraud.
“Look at what’s happening in West Virginia. They have mailmen selling the ballots. They are being sold. They are being dumped in rivers. This is a horrible thing for our country.” Trump added that mail-in ballots will lead to “fraud like you’ve never seen”.
Biden retorted that Trump is “just afraid of counting the votes.”
“No one has established that there’s fraud,” Biden said.“Some of these ballots can’t even be opened until election day. And if there’s thousands of ballots, it’s going to take some time.”
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 30, 2020
Debate expert Alan Schroeder says: “Here’s how we know Trump was either under-coached before the debate or didn’t heed the coaching he got. His advisers must have warned him not to repeat his line about ‘forest cities,’ yet he couldn’t resist. These two words are likely to spark a thousand memes at Trump’s expense.”
Trump recently referred to “forest cities” in Austria that are not susceptible to forest fires like those California is experiencing. Austria’s leaders debunked Trump’s notion.
During a back-and-forth exchange, Trump shifted gears and accused Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, of being “thrown out of the military”.
Biden firmly responded, “My son, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem, he’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him.”
Debate expert Schroeder: “Trump’s style as a debater relies heavily on the repetition of catch-phrases like ‘radical revolution’ that sound ludicrous outside the confines of the right-wing echo chamber.”
“This rhetoric is undoubtedly effective with those who already support him, but does it resonate with anybody else?”
Trump accused Biden of not supporting law enforcement.
“If he ever got to run this country and they ran it the way he would want to run it … Our suburbs would be gone,” Trump said, noting that law enforcement unions have been endorsing him. Biden pushed back, accusing Trump of racism.
“I was raised in the suburbs. This is not the 1950s. All these dog whistles and racism don’t work any more. The suburbs are by and large integrated,” Biden said. Trump wants to “rile everybody up. He doesn’t want to calm things down. I’m saying let’s get everybody together, figure out how to deal with this. What he’s doing, he just pours gasoline on the fire constantly at every single solitary time,” Biden said.
Unsurprisingly, Trump brought up Biden’s son Hunter, whose business dealings in China and Ukraine have been the focus of Republican criticism. Trump mentioned a finding from a recent Senate Republican investigation saying that the mayor of Moscow gave Hunter Biden $3.5m.
“What did he do to deserve it?” Trump asked Biden.
“Totally discredited,” Biden said. “My son did nothing wrong.”
Biden then shot back saying if Trump wanted to drag family into this debate, they could talk about the Trumps “all night.”
Trump responded saying what he has said throughout his presidency: that he and his family have “lost a fortune” with their public service.
Moderator Chris Wallace asked why Trump’s administration had ended racial-sensitivity training and whether he believed there was systemic racism.
Trump replied he ended the training because it was “racist” and that it was “teaching people to hate our country” and that “I’m not going to let that happen”.
Biden said of Trump: “He’s the racist” and said: “There is racial insensitivity, people have to be made aware what other people feel like, what insults them”.
Trump says he ended racial sensitivity training because it's "racist" and "they were teaching people to hate our country".
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 30, 2020
The job of moderating a presidential debate has become exponentially more difficult in recent cycles, debate expert Schroeder points out.
“With Trump in the mix, it has become nearly impossible,” says Schroeder. “Wallace will take a lot of heat for calling out Trump’s interruptions, but it needed to be done.”
Biden said the Trump administration has no coronavirus plan. PolitiFact, a non-partisan fact-checking group, says that claim is false.
“In Sept, the Trump admin announced its most detailed plan to date regarding how it will distribute vaccines,” PolitiFact explains. “The plan shows that the federal government aims to make the two-dose vaccine free of cost. States will submit their plans to the feds in Oct.”
— PolitiFact (@PolitiFact) September 30, 2020
Debate expert Alan Schroeder: “Joe Biden’s look of incredulity is getting a real work-out in this debate. Biden has always had a knack for knowing what to do with his facial expressions when his opponent is talking.”
Trump accused Biden of wanting to shut down the country to deal with the pandemic and said states should reopen. “People know what to do, they can social distance they can wear masks they can do whatever they want. We have got to open these states,” Trump said. “This guy will shut down the whole country,” Trump said.
“He’s going to be the first president of the United States to leave office having fewer jobs than when he first got elected,” Biden said. “You can’t fix the economy until you fix the COVID crisis,” Biden said.
As Trump interrupted Biden shot back: “You’re the worst president the country has ever had”.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 30, 2020
It is a claim he has said repeatedly throughout his presidency, but as Al Jazeera Digital Senior Business Editor Patricia Sabga points out: “We built the greatest economy in history” before COVID-19 shut it down is a false claim Trump has made again and again.
Though the economy was doing well pre-pandemic, with an unemployment rate hovering near a half-century low, annual economic growth on his watch was not the strongest stretch on record and well short of the 4- to 6-percent growth he had promised voters he would deliver.
“If the Fox News crowd was expecting a slobbering, doddering Joe Biden to show up for this debate, they must be disappointed,” says debate expert Alan Schroeder.
“Both candidates seem sharp and on top of the exercise, at least in the first half-hour.”
Biden cites the statistics, slams Trump for saying: “It is what is.”
“It is what it is because you are who you are. That’s why it is. The president has no plan.”
Trump responds: “If we would have listened to you the country would have been left wide open. Millions of people would have died not 200 thousand. One is too many”.
Trump continued: “We are weeks away from a vaccine. We are doing therapeutics. Already fewer people are dying when they get sick. Far fewer people are dying. We’ve done a great job”.
Biden on Trump’s healthcare policies: “He has no plan for healthcare. He sends out wishful thinking. He has executive orders that have no power. He hasn’t lowered drug costs for anybody”.
“The fact is this man doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Biden then responds to Trump, interrupting him: “Will you shut up, man.”
Biden to Trump about 20 minutes into the presidential debate: “will you shut up man?”
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 30, 2020
“In his 2012 vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan, Biden deployed an arsenal of smiles, chuckles and guffaws as lethal weapons. We are seeing that again, and I expect we’ll see it all evening long,” says presidential debate expert Alan Schroeder.
Presidential debate expert Alan Schroeder: “Moderators get too hung up on the rules. Who cares if we have ‘now moved into open discussion?’ Just let the candidates have a normal, organically flowing conversation, then move on to the next topic when it feels right.”
As Trump attempted to cut off the debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace, Wallace said: “I am the moderator of this debate and I would like to ask my question.”
Trump shot back: “I guess I’m debating you not him.”
Trump said he was the president and he had the authority to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Biden focused on the Affordable Care Act and made the argument that it would be in peril under a conservative court led by Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Following his explanation of the debate’s ground rules and introductions of the candidates, moderator Chris Wallace posed the first questions to Biden and Trump about Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett: “Why are you right?” and the other wrong regarding her nomination and asked: “Where do you think a Justice Barrett would take the court?”
Because of the need to distance for COVID-19, the debaters’ lecterns will be spaced further apart than normal, presidential debate expert Alan Schroeder points out. This means the director may find it difficult to take a 2-shot that shows both candidates inside the same frame. As a result, look for more split-screens with the debaters appearing in separate boxes.
Because of coronavirus precautions, the in-person audience will be small at tonight’s debate – about 80 people in total. Aside from campaign staff, family and a few journalists, the campaigns have each invited a few guests.
Among Trump’s guests are Alice Marie Johnson, an advocate for criminal justice reform that Trump pardoned last month; UFC fighter Colby Covington and Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Biden’s guests include Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father to COVID-19 in June and criticised Trump at the Democratic National Convention last month; Ohio clothing shop owner Gurnee Green and Ohio union steelworker James Evanoff Jr.
FactCheck.org, a non-partisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, dug into claims made about Biden on Facebook and Twitter leading up to tonight’s debate. They concluded that claims that Joe Biden “got tonight’s debate questions in advance” and that he will be wearing an earpiece are baseless.
Unsubstantiated posts spreading on Facebook and Twitter claim that Biden “got tonight’s debate questions in advance” and that he will be wearing an earpiece. There is no evidence for either assertion. https://t.co/ZI7yELyIoF #FactCHAT
— FactCheck.org (@factcheckdotorg) September 29, 2020
As a COVID-19 safety measure, Trump and Biden have agreed not to shake hands at the start of tonight’s debate in Cleveland.
Presidential debate expert Alan Schroeder points out that back in 1980, also in Cleveland, former Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and former President Jimmy Carter agreed in advance to dispense with an opening handshake at their debate, but Reagan violated the agreement, marched up to Carter’s lectern and shook his hand anyway, hoping to throw Carter off his game. Could a similar move be attempted tonight?
About three in four US voters (74 percent) plan to watch the first presidential debate live, according to a Monmouth University Poll released this week. The twist? Only 13 percent say that they are very or somewhat likely to hear something that will affect their decision for whom to vote, while 87 percent say that is not likely.
Before the first debate in September 2016, 75 percent of voters planned to watch and 12 percent said it would likely or somewhat likely affect their vote.
“These results underscore the fact that the audience for these debates are voters who already have a rooting interest in one side or the other,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “The spin and media framing after the fact is more important for potentially moving the small group of persuadable voters who remain.”
Watch Al Jazeera’s live debate coverage here.
Our debate expert Alan Schroeder points out the extreme contrasts Trump and Biden will display during their first debate meeting:
“One candidate who plays by the rules, another who does not. One candidate who has spent weeks preparing, another who has not. One candidate with fresh debate experience, another whose most recent debate took place four years ago.”
Read Alan’s full analysis here.