First US presidential debate marked by heated clashes over national crises

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CLEVELAND – The first debate between US President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden deteriorated into bitter taunts and near chaos on Tuesday night as Trump repeatedly interrupted his opponent with angry – and personal – outbursts that at times eclipsed the very different visions of each man. for a nation facing historic crises. In the most tumultuous presidential debate in recent memory, Trump refused to condemn the white supremacists who backed him, telling such a group known as the Proud Boys to “step back, stand up.” There have also been heated clashes over the President’s handling of the pandemic, the integrity of the election results, deeply personal attacks on Biden’s family, and how the Supreme Court will shape the future of healthcare. from the country.

But it was the belligerent tone that was persistent, somehow suited to what has been an extraordinarily ugly campaign. The two spoke to each other frequently, Trump pausing, almost screaming, so often that Biden ended up cracking him, “Are you going to shut up, man?” ”

“The point is, everything he says so far is just a lie,” Biden said. “I am not here to expose his lies. Everyone knows he is a liar.

The presidential race has been remarkably stable for weeks, despite the historic crises that have plagued the country this year, including a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and an account of race and police brutality. With just five weeks to go on election day and voting already underway in some key states, Biden has maintained a lead in national polls and on many battlefields.

It is not known if the debate will do much to change this dynamic.

Time and time again, Trump tried to control the conversation, interrupting Biden and repeatedly speaking to Fox News’ moderator, Chris Wallace. The president has tried to deflect the tough questions – whether it’s his taxes or the pandemic – to sharpen the air against Biden.

The president drew a lecture from Wallace, who begged the two to stop talking to each other. Biden tried to push Trump away, sometimes looking straight at the camera to speak directly to viewers rather than the president and slamming, “It’s hard to get a word out with that clown. ”

Again refusing to pledge to honor the election results, Trump has been spreading lies about postal voting. Without evidence, he suggested the process – which was growing in popularity during the pandemic – was ripe for fraud and falsely declared an irregularity at a Pennsylvania voting site.

But despite his efforts to dominate the discussion, Trump has often been put on the defensive and attempted to sidestep when asked if he is prepared to condemn white supremacists and paramilitary groups.

“What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name, ”Trump said, before Biden mentioned the violent, far-right group known as the Proud Boys. Trump then clearly did not condemn the group, saying instead, “Proud Boys, step back, stay away. But I’ll tell you what, someone has to do something against the antifa and the left because it’s not a right-wing issue. It is a left problem. ”

Biden attacked Trump’s handling of the pandemic, saying the president “waited and waited” to act when the virus hit U.S. shores and “still has no plan.” Biden told Trump to “get out of your bunker and out of the sand trap” and go in his golf cart to the Oval Office to work out a bipartisan plan to save the people.

Trump growled a response, stating, “I’ll tell you Joe, you could never have done the job we did. You don’t have it in your blood. ”

“I know how to do the job,” was the solemn response from Biden, who served as Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years.

The effects of the pandemic were clearly visible, with the candidates’ lecterns widely spaced, all the small crowd guests tested and the traditional opening handshake removed. While none of the candidates wore masks to take the stage, their families covered their faces in sports.

Trump struggled to define his ideas for replacing the Affordable Health Care Act in the early stages of the debate and defended his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, saying, “I haven’t been elected since. three years, I am elected for four years ”.

“We won the elections. Elections have consequences. We have the Senate. We have the White House and we have a phenomenal candidate, respected by all. ”

Trump has criticized Biden for the former vice president’s refusal to say whether he would try to expand the Supreme Court in retaliation if Barrett is confirmed to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This idea gained momentum on the party’s left flank, but Biden tried to distance himself from the liberal wing, refusing to endorse the Green New Deal and dismissing the claim that he was under the control of the radicals saying, “I am the Democratic Party now. ”

The scattered debate rebounded from topic to topic, with Trump once again refusing to embrace the science of climate change while Biden accused Trump of straying from America’s promise of fairness for all and making a race-based appeal.

“He’s a president who used everything like a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist divide,” Biden said.

The last few months have seen large protests after the deaths of blacks at the hands of the police. Biden said the country faces a problem of systemic racism and that while the vast majority of police officers are “honest and honorable men and women,” there are “bad apples” and people need to be held accountable.

Trump in turn claimed that Biden’s work on a federal crime bill treated the African American population “about as bad as anyone in this country.” The president turned to his harsh focus on those protesting racial injustice and accused Biden of being afraid to use the words “law and order,” for fear of alienating the left.

“Violence in response is never appropriate,” Biden said. “Never appropriate. A peaceful protest is. ”

The attacks got deeply personal when Trump slipped back on a campaign attack line by saying Biden’s son Hunter inappropriately took advantage of his father’s connections while working in Ukraine. Biden rarely looked at Trump overnight, but turned to the president when he defended his sons, including son Beau, an army veteran who died of cancer in 2015, after the insults reported by the commander-in-chief against those who served in the military.

A new report from two Republican-led Senate committees alleged that Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine, while his father was vice president, raised conflict of interest concerns for the Obama administration, but the report did not link Joe Biden to no wrongdoing. or a fault. Trump was removed from office for pushing Kiev to investigate the Biden family.

The debate was arguably Trump’s best chance to try and reframe the campaign as a choice between candidates and not as a referendum on his handling of the virus that has killed more people in America than in any other nation. Americans, according to polls, have soured over his leadership in the crisis, and the president has struggled to launch consistent attacks on Biden.

In the hours leading up to the debate, Biden released his 2019 tax returns just days after successful revelations about Trump’s long, hidden tax history, including the fact that he was only paying US $ 750 a year. federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing for many more years. . The Bidens paid nearly $ 300,000 in taxes in 2019.

Trump, during the debate, insisted he paid millions in taxes – but declined to say how much he paid in federal income taxes – and insisted he had took advantage of legal tax incentives, another angry exchange that led Biden to declare Trump the “worst president” the nation has ever had.

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Lemire reported from New York. Price reported from Las Vegas. Additional reporting by Associated Press editors Jill Colvin in Cleveland and Zeke Miller in Washington.

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