A combative President Trump and an exasperated Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden attacked each other constantly in Tuesday night’s first presidential debate, disagreeing bitterly on everything from street crime to health care from start to finish in their high-stakes confrontation.
In a contentious 90-minute-plus contest in which the candidates talked over each other repeatedly and hurled insults frequently, the president and Mr. Biden sparred heatedly over law and order, the sweetheart deals of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, the president’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic recovery.
As the president interrupted Mr. Biden time and again, the Democrat grew visibly frustrated, even telling Mr. Trump, “Shut up.”
“You’re the worst president America has ever had,” Mr. Biden told him. “Come on. Keep yapping, man.”
Mr. Trump accused the Democrat of being a puppet for his party’s extreme left on health care, immigration and criminal justice.
“You’re going to extinguish 180 million people with private health care,” the president told Mr. Biden. “Your party wants to go socialist. They’re going to dominate you, Joe, you know that.”
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Mr. Biden replied hotly, “That’s very simply not true. I am the Democratic Party right now.”
“Folks, do you have any idea what this clown’s doing?” Mr. Biden asked the prime-time audience. “He is not for any help for people needing health care. He doesn’t have a plan. This man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Everybody knows he’s a liar.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper called the debate “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” His colleague, Dana Bash, called it “a sh—show.”
The president, 74, came into the debate determined to show undecided voters that he is better able to lead another economic revival and that Mr. Biden has failed American workers over decades in Washington.
Coronavirus shutdowns this spring demolished economic gains from the first three years of Mr. Trump’s presidency by throwing 22 million Americans out of work, and COVID-19 caused the deaths of more than 200,000 people in the U.S.
The showdown likely was the president’s single best chance to shift momentum. His first debate against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 drew a record 84 million TV viewers.
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Mr. Biden, 77, took the stage with the more modest goals of a front-runner. He aimed to show a steady bearing, as a contrast with what he calls Mr. Trump’s unpredictable nature, and to hold the president accountable for the health care crisis.
Mr. Trump and the former vice president squared off in Cleveland as the incumbent sought to gain ground on his Democratic challenger, who has held a roughly 7-point lead in national polls during the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic and an economic recovery that shows signs of slowing.
The president defended his record on health care, saying he has cut drug prices and eliminated the individual mandate of Obamacare.
The two candidates also disagreed heatedly over Mr. Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
“The governors said I did a phenomenal job,” the president said. “We’ve done a great job.”
Mr. Biden replied, “This is his economy that he shut down. How many of you folks got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID?”
On the racial-justice demonstrations that have roiled the country this year, Mr. Biden said of the president, “He just pours gasoline on the fire.” He accused Mr. Trump of sending racist “dog whistles” to his White supporters.
The president hit back hard, accusing Mr. Biden of being fearful of offending violent leftists.
“This is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem,” he said.
Mr. Biden cut in, “Antifa is an idea, not an organization.”
The president replied, “When a bat hits you over the head, that’s not an idea. Antifa is bad. Antifa is a dangerous, radical group. They’ll overthrow you if you’re president.”
Even the audience of about 80 in the debate hall was visibly polarized. Mr. Biden’s family and supporters wore masks while seated; the president’s family and supporters didn’t.
The president again raised objections to expanded mail-in balloting in several states.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” he said. “If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that. They cheat.”
In the hours before the highly anticipated battle, both sides tried to tilt the playing field in their favor.
Mr. Biden released his tax returns for 2019, which showed that he and wife Jill paid $346,204 in taxes on income of $944,737. The filing showed that they obtained a refund of $46,858.
It was an obvious taunt at the president, who paid only $750 in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017, according to a New York Times report this week.
Trump advisers said they were prepared for the tax question to be one of the first issues raised in the debate. Mr. Trump has said the report isn’t accurate but refuses to release his tax returns. He said he has been under an IRS audit for a decade over a $72.9 million refund he received.
The audit does not preclude Mr. Trump from releasing his tax returns.
Mr. Trump said he has paid “millions” in taxes, but didn’t answer directly Mr. Wallace’s question of how much income tax repaid in 2016 and 2017.
When pressed by the president on another matter of private finances, Mr. Biden insisted that his son Hunter “did nothing wrong” in his sweetheart deal with a Ukrainian energy company, while Mr. Trump hounded the Democrat repeatedly about his son’s alleged payments from Russia.
“My son did nothing wrong at Burisma,” Mr. Biden said of Hunter Biden’s $4 million payment from the company.
“Why did he deserve $3.5 million from Moscow?” Mr. Trump demanded, referring to a report by Senate Republicans that Hunter Biden got the money from the wife of an ex-mayor of Moscow.
Mr. Biden said his son didn’t get money from Russia.
“None of that is true,” Mr. Biden said, shaking his head.
As the president pressed him again about the alleged deal, the Democrat said, “He doesn’t want me to answer because he knows I have the truth. It’s hard to get any word in with this clown.”
Moderator Chris Wallace cut in at numerous point, saying at one early point, “Gentlemen, I hate to raise my voice. But why should I be different than the two of you?”
Meanwhile, a Trump ally, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, released declassified information Tuesday that was sure to put former Obama administration officials, Mr. Biden included, on the defensive about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
A letter from Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe showed that the CIA asked the FBI in 2016 to investigate whether Mrs. Clinton’s campaign had approved a plan to distract voters from her email troubles by “stirring up a scandal” in an effort to link Mr. Trump to Russian interference.
In their pre-debate gamesmanship, Trump campaign officials hammered on their theme that Mr. Biden had lost some cognitive ability and energy. They said Mr. Biden refused their request to have a third party inspect his ears for electronic devices before taking the stage, implying that they were concerned about possible coaching by a handler offstage.
“Joe Biden’s handlers several days ago agreed to a pre-debate inspection for electronic earpieces but today abruptly reversed themselves and declined,” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.
He said Mr. Biden’s handlers asked for “multiple breaks” during the debate, which Mr. Trump doesn’t need.
“We have rejected that request,” Mr. Murtaugh said.
Trump ally Rudolph W. Giuliani went a step further by asserting Tuesday on Fox News that the Democrat is suffering from dementia.
Biden campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield countered that the Democrat wasn’t wearing an earpiece and never asked for breaks. She said the Trump campaign requested that debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News not mention the number of deaths from COVID-19.
Mr. Murtaugh retorted on Twitter, “This is a lie and it never happened. This is the height of playing politics with a public health crisis. Biden is trying to distract from the facts that he won’t submit to an inspection for earpieces, won’t take a drug test, and needs multiple breaks during the 90-minute debate.”
The debate site was the health education campus of Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic. The event was moved from the University of Notre Dame because of coronavirus concerns.
Several other concessions were made. Attendance in the debate hall was restricted; the candidates were allowed only 20 guests each. Swag bags included hand sanitizer and guidelines for social distancing.
Among the president’s guests were Mr. Giuliani, who helped Mr. Trump prepare by playing Mr. Biden in rehearsals; UFC fighter Colby Covington; and Alice Johnson, a grandmother and convicted drug offender who received a commutation and pardon from the president.
Mr. Biden’s guests included Kristin Urquiza of San Francisco, who lost her father to COVID-19; Gurnee Green, a small-business owner from Cleveland Heights, Ohio; and James Evanoff Jr., a steelworkers union member from Cleveland.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump did not engage in the traditional handshake during introductions as they walked to the podiums. Because of adequate social distancing in the arena, neither the candidates nor Mr. Wallace wore masks.
The stakes of the race also were unfolding in Washington. Hours before the debate began, Mr. Trump’s third nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, began meeting with Republican senators at the Capitol ahead of her confirmation hearing.
Mr. Biden has objected to the nomination. He said the vacancy should be filled after the presidential election. Judge Barrett, of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, would replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of pancreatic cancer on Sept. 18 at age 87.
If confirmed by the Senate, Judge Barrett would give the high court a firm conservative majority.
The president has said he wants a full complement of nine justices in case the election is too close to call and ends up in the Supreme Court. His campaign is challenging the expansion of mail-in ballots in several states.
Judge Barrett also could provide a deciding vote on the fate of Obamacare if she is seated in time for arguments on Nov. 10.
The other two presidential debates will be held on Oct. 15 and 22.