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Donald Trump plunges debate into chaos as he repeatedly talks over Joe Biden

The first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden deteriorated into an ugly display of contempt on Tuesday night, as the president relentlessly interrupted and attacked his Democratic rival during clashes over the coronavirus pandemic, race, the economy and the future of the supreme court.

Over the course of an extraordinarily combative and chaotic 90-minute performance, a fitting coda to what has been one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in recent memory, Trump interjected so frequently that Biden at one point lost his patience and snapped: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”

With just five weeks left until election day, Trump is trailing in national and battleground state polls. Amid accusations that he has mishandled the pandemic and damaging reports about his finances and past comments on the military, the debate was perhaps Trump’s best opportunity yet to shift the dynamics of the race, which has been remarkable steady throughout an exceptional turbulent summer.

Donald Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists at presidential debate

Dominating the conversation appeared to be Trump’s central strategy, but he did on occasion return to the themes he has pressed on the campaign trail.

When Biden accused him of being the “worst president America has ever had”, Trump shot back that he had done “more in 47 months than you’ve done in 47 years”, an indictment of the former vice-president’s long career in Washington.

But even as Trump attempted to pin Biden, he trampled his own message with a stunning refusal to condemn white nationalism and commit to a peaceful transition of power.

Prompted by the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, to denounce white supremacist violence after two anti-racist activists were killed during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the president said “sure” and asked which group he should condemn. Biden named the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group.

“Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” Trump said, before blaming the violence on the left. Social media users who identify as members of the group immediately celebrated the remark.

Trump once again declined to honor the results of the election and continued to undermine the integrity of mail-in balloting, which is already underway in many states. Without evidence, he asserted that the process of voting by mail, which states have expanded in response to the pandemic, was rife with fraud.\
The first debate took place in Cleveland, Ohio, against the backdrop of a nation in crisis: the pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 204,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs, while racial justice protests and climate-induced disasters demand urgent responses.

In a sign of the times, there was no public audience, handshakes were omitted, the podiums were staged a safe distance apart and empty seats separated the campaign staff and the candidate’s family members in attendance. In a striking contrast, Biden’s family and guests wore masks for the duration of the event, while the first lady, Melania Trump, and the rest of the president’s family removed theirs after being seated.

The debate opened with a question on the supreme court, about Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump defended his decision to advance the nomination just days after Ginsburg’s death and just weeks before election day.

“We won the election, and therefore we have the right to choose her,” he said.

Biden said Ginsburg’s replacement should be chosen by the winner of this November’s presidential election and warned that the confirmation of Barrett – whom he called a “very fine person” – would lead to the gutting of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

Trump jumped in to accuse Biden of wanting to pave the way for “socialist medicine” and attempted to tie the former vice-president to his former Democratic presidential rival Bernie Sanders.

“I beat Bernie Sanders,” Biden snapped. Forcefully denying the accusation that he is under the control of his party’s leftwing, he asserted: “I am the Democratic party now.”

“He just lost the left,” Trump quipped.

Biden refused to directly answer a question about court-packing, an idea gaining traction on the left that would expand the number of supreme court justices to even out the political leanings of the bench, poised to have a 6-3 conservative majority if Barrett is confirmed.

Pressed on new revelations that he avoided paying any federal taxes for years and paid only $750 in 2016 and 2017, Trump claimed without evidence that he had paid “millions of dollars” in taxes in those years, but he did not commit to releasing his returns as proof. He also bragged that he took advantage of tax loopholes and that as a successful businessman he didn’t “want to pay taxes”.

In the hours before the debate, Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, released their 2019 tax returns. According to the documents, the Bidens paid nearly $300,000 in taxes in 2019.

In a segment on the coronavirus crisis, Biden hammered Trump over his handling of the pandemic, in which the US has seen far more cases and deaths than any other country.

“Do you believe for a moment what he’s telling you, in light of all the lies he’s telling you, about Covid?” Biden asked.

Trump later cast doubt on evidence that humans are the primary driver of climate change and intensifying extreme weather, including record wildfires in the US west.

Despite the array of topics discussed, the debate will probably be remembered for the unsparing insults. Biden called the president a clown, a liar and a racist. Trump said Biden “doesn’t have it in his blood” to be a strong, decisive leader and claimed that his opponent avoided holding campaign ralliesbecause “nobody would show up”.

Trump also tangled with the moderator, who struggled to keep the proceedings intelligible amid the crosstalk and interruptions. At one point, Wallace attempted to ask Trump why he hadn’t released a healthcare plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. Displeased with the query, Trump shot back: “I guess I’m debating you, not him, but that’s OK. I’m not surprised.”

Moderators of presidential debates typically do not fact-check the candidates, and Wallace made clear well in advance that he did not view that as his role. That left no one on stage to correct the president’s misstatements, overstatements and falsehoods, which were plentiful. Biden, who was more truthful, employed a favorite catchphrase – “Here’s the deal” – to try to set the record straight, but Trump’s hectoring made a rebuttal difficult. On occasion, Biden just smiled and shook his head in amazement.

“The fact is that everything he’s said so far is simply a lie,” Biden said. “I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar.”

As expected, Trump raised unfounded accusations about Biden’s son, Hunter, related to his business dealings in Ukraine. Trump was impeached for pushing government officials in Kiev to investigate the Biden family. Despite no evidence of wrongdoing, Republican allies of the president have continued to fixate on the manufactured controversy.

Biden said the accusations were false and attempted to redirect the conversation back to the pandemic, but Trump refused to let it go.

Trump heckled, bullied and lied through the debate. It won’t help him beat Biden

He returned to the subject, reminding viewers of Hunter Biden’s past drug use. Biden, looking directly into the camera, explained that like many Americans, his son had struggled with addiction.

“My son had a drug problem, but he’s overcome it and I’m proud of him,” Biden said.

Ahead of the debate, Trump’s allies attempted to cast Biden as incoherent and fanned baseless online conspiracy theories that Biden requires cue cards or an earpiece to answer questions.

Biden’s campaign flatly denied the accusations.

The looming question is whether Tuesday night’s performance will sway voters. While nearly three in four voters said they planned to watch the debate on Tuesday night, according to a recent Monmouth University poll, just 3% of voters said it was “very likely” to affect their vote in November.

“It’s been an interesting hour and a half,” Wallace said, with a chuckle that seemed to acknowledge his own understatement.

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