Looking Back on the First Presidential Debate


The White House & Library of Congress

The first presidential debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump was a chaotic affair. Biden and Trump communicated their stance on a number of polarized issues, including the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race, and election integrity.

The first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was a chaotic clash in Cleveland, Ohio. The debate focused less on the issues that the country is facing and more on insults and personal arguments between the two candidates. The moderator, Chris Wallace from Fox News, was unable to bring order throughout the debate. Trump, Biden, and their families entered shortly before the start of the debate. Some wore masks for the duration of the debate, notably on the former Vice President’s side, while most members of President Trump’s staff and family entered in masks and removed them once seated. 

The debate started off with the topic of the Supreme Court and the controversy around the Senate confirmation for the replacement of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. Biden stated that the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett was a violation of power, explaining that the American people have the right to choose who is on the court. He felt that the people’s choice in the election is their voice on who should select the next justice.

Thousands of millions of Americans are already voting by mail. In the opinion of Biden and the Democrats the nomination must happen after America’s voice is heard. Trump stated that when elected, “You are President for four years and not three.” He believes that as the current President he has the full right to nominate a justice and place Amy Coney Barrett on the court. 

The Democrats have stressed the importance of the Affordable Care Act, which Amy Coney Barrett would supposedly vote to repeal. They also said that Amy Coney Barrett would be a threat to the women’s rights for which Justice Ginsburg fought so hard to protect. When the issue of healthcare was broached, Trump interrupted Wallace several times. Wallace was forced to state, “I’m the moderator of this debate, and I would like you to let me ask my question and then you can answer the question,” after several interruptions from the President. He noted that Trump has previously said he would come up with an alternate plan to Obamacare but has failed to establish one. When asked, “What is the Trump healthcare plan?” Trump failed to answer the question. Instead, he fixated on the fact that he had lowered drug prices. Trump also continually interrupted Biden. When Wallace asked Biden if he would pack the court, Biden spoke broadly about voting. Trump continued to push for Biden to directly answer the question about the court. “Will you shut up man?” Biden stated after four interruptions. Biden failed to answer the question on packing the court, before Wallace moved on to the subject of COVID-19. 

Although Trump claimed that he has handled COVID-19 better than anyone else would, Biden said Trump has no plan. The Woodward tapes with President Trump were Biden’s reference point, where Trump knew about the danger of the virus in February, but did not give people a warning because he wanted people to “stay calm.” Trump reiterated his belief that COVID-19 was and remains China’s fault. He said that since he has learned a lot about COVID, it is safe to reopen the economy. “I put a mask on when I need it,” Trump stated. Biden, saying Trump opposes mask-wearing, referred to the CDC director, Dr. Redfield. “If everyone wore a mask, America could save over 100,000 lives,” Biden quoted.  

 Trump continued to talk about the economy, stating that he has the greatest economy in American history and he only closed it because of the “China plague.” Trump said that his administration has already put 10.4 million people back into the workforce. “He [Biden] will destroy this country,” Trump claimed. Biden thought that the country is in a K-shaped recovery due to millionaires and billionaires gaining money instead of hard-working middle class families. “You can’t fix the economy until you fix the COVID crisis,” said Biden. 

The New York Times released an investigation on September 29th revealing the “financial myths” of Trump’s taxes just before the debate. The New York Times report found that Trump had not paid federal income taxes in 11 of the past 18 years. Trump defended himself while Biden questioned him about his tax returns and their publicity. Biden also said he would eliminate the Trump tax cuts that have caused millionaires and billionaires to get richer at the expense of middle class families.

“Equity, equality, decency and the Constitution” were the words that Biden brought up when asked why voters should trust him in the upcoming election with regards to the topic of race. He said that he has never walked away from defending those concepts. Biden went all the way back to the incident in Charlottesville where Trump said, “There were very fine people on both sides.” This is the incident, supposedly, that prompted Joe Biden to run. “This is a president who has tried to use everything as a dog whistle,” stated Biden.

 Law enforcement was the next issue discussed, as both candidates had their own views. Trump believes that protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement are not peaceful. Biden contradicted the point by bringing up the time that Trump tear gassed protestors, crossed Washington to the nearest church, and held up the Bible. When asked about law enforcement, Biden made the case that the police officers are good, hard working people, but there are “bad apples” that have to be held accountable. When asked if he would condemn white supremacists, Trump said, “Stand back and stand by,” directed towards the Proud Boys, a statement which was later celebrated by the group.

On June 1st, 2017, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Accord. Trump claimed that America was losing millions of dollars when it came to the alliance, stating that it was a disaster. Biden explained that rather than following the rather utopian Green Deal, which is the plan to reduce carbon emissions and other emissions in just 8-10 years, he would use the Biden Plan, which would take things at a much more “realistic” pace.  

At the end of the day,  many analysts and specialists claimed that the debate was a disaster. “That was the worst debate I’ve ever seen,” said Jake Tapper of CNN. Chris Wallace stated on Fox News after the debate that over time, he understood this was “something different.” No doubt, the constant interruptions and lack of clarity on the stage made it look different from debates in the past. Out of 139 total interruptions, Trump interrupted Biden and the moderator 125 times. It was an unrepeatable debate.