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Trump and Biden clash in chaotic first debate

Aditya Sharma
September 30, 2020

The debate saw heated clashes between President Donald Trump and his Democrat challenger Joe Biden. The two sparred over healthcare and the COVID-19 pandemic — trading personal jabs as well. DW breaks down what happened.

Trump and Biden

With just weeks to go until the November 3 election, US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden went head-to-head in a debate that sought to energize supporters and win over undecided voters. Interruptions, tense exchanges and insults dominated the debate, with moderator Chris Wallace struggling to get a word in.

Tense moments included Trump declining to condemn white supremacist groups and failing to promise to uphold peace should initial election results be inconclusive. 

"This will be seen as another piece of evidence that American democracy is in a pretty tattered state," DW's chief international editor Richard Walker said in an analysis following the debate. 

"I think perhaps even more dangerous is [the perception of the debate] in non-democratic parts of the world," Walker continued. "China for instance, is holding up its system of authoritarianism as the better way. They can pretty easily point to this debate and say, 'Is that what you want? Is democracy what you want? Or isn’t our way better?"

This first debate mainly focused on US domestic issues, with the COVID-19 pandemic, a Supreme Court vacancy, the economy, and racial justice topping the agenda.

Where did the candidates stand?

The Supreme Court

President Trump defended his decision to nominate judge Amy Coney Barret to the US Supreme Court just weeks before the election. "I was not elected for three years, I'm elected for four years," he said.

Read moreWho is US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett?

Joe Biden and other Democrats have demanded that the seat on the top court be filled by the winner of the 2020 presidential race.

"We should wait, we should wait and see what the outcome of this election is," the former vice-president said.

Trump criticized Biden for deflecting the question on whether he would expand the Supreme Court in retaliation of Barrett's confirmation, if he won the upcoming election.


Joe Biden attacked Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic which has left more than 200,000 Americans dead.

"He panicked, or he looked at the stock market," Biden said, referring to Trump's call to reopen the economy as he played down the threat of virus. "You're the worst president America has ever had," he said.

Trump, in response, said his administration had done "a great job," and then hit back at his rival. "But I tell you, Joe, you could never have done the job we've done. You don't have it in your blood."


The Democratic nominee also criticized Trump on the economy, saying that unemployment is higher now than when he entered the White House four years ago.

Biden also accused Trump of failing to secure good trade deals, despite promising in his 2016 campaign to fix past agreements.

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs since the pandemic hit earlier this year, with joblessness reaching a record high.

In response, Trump accused Biden over his willingness to shut down the US economy again if coronavirus cases rise. "He will shut it down again, he will destroy this country," Trump said.

The president accused the Democrats of seeking to keep the economy shut until the elections to hurt his chances in the race.

Racial justice and civil unrest

Trump and Biden also had a heated exchange over racial justice and unrest across US cities, with the president accusing Democrats of being weak on law and order.  

Meanwhile, Biden accused the president of dog-whistling to white supremacist groups.

"This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division," he said.

Biden also acknowledged the systemic injustice in the US "in education and work and in law enforcement, and the way in which it is enforced."

Trump also refused to condemn far-right militia groups, including a group known as Proud Boys mentioned by the moderator.

"Proud Boys, stand back, stand by, but I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem."

Read moreUS election: Trump bets on law-and-order campaign, again

Integrity of the election and accepting the results

Trump did not commit to urging his supporters to maintain peace following the election, and instead raised doubts over the credibility of the ballots. He said that if he saw a manipulation of the ballots, he "can't go along with that."

Biden, on the other hand, said he will accept the result of the presidential election, even if it wasn't in his favor.

He also urged people to vote, either in-person or by mail-in ballots, expressing confidence that if people turned out to vote, he would win the election.

"You have it in your control to determine what this country is going to look like in the next four years," Biden said.

Joe Biden
Biden said he would accept the results of the election if he were to loseImage: Morry Gash/Reuters

Check out DW's rundown of the debate as it happened: 

All times in GMT/UTC

03:15 Trump's response to the question about denouncing right-wing militias and white supremacist groups has generated a lot of response on social media — including from one of the groups that was mentioned. The president had responded: "Proud Boys stand back and stand by" in reference to a far-right group that has been organizing against recent Black Lives Matter protests.

Members of the Proud Boys celebrated the debate call-out online, seeing it as and endorsement, noted DW correspondent Oliver Sallet.

02:45 The debate ended as contentiously as it began, with the candidates talking over one another and with a visibly winded and aggravated moderator attempting to bring the jabs to a halt.

02:30 When asked whether they would accept the results of the election, Trump deflected the question and said that the final result won't be known "for months." The US President once again took aim at mail-in voting, alleging a campaign of "fraud."

Biden said he would accept the result if he were to lose, but encouraged voters to make their voices heard — hitting out at Trump over what he said were efforts by the president to stifle the vote.

"You have it in your control to determine what this country is going to look like in the next four years," Biden said.

Joe Biden at the first US presidential debate
Image: Brian Snyder/Reuters

02:26 Trump blames wildfires in the Western United States on poor forest management.

"Every year I get calls that California is burning. If you had good forest management, you wouldn’t be getting those calls," he said.

02:20 On the subject of civil unrest and widespread protests in the US, Trump was asked if he would condemn white supremacy and right-wing extremist groups.

"Sure, I am willing to do that," Trump responded, without specifically making the statement. He then pivoted his answer to take aim at far-left groups, blaming them for instigating violence.

02:10 Biden says he is "totally opposed to defunding the police," a call by anti-racism protesters in the aftermath of police brutality against Black Americans.

"What I support is police having the opportunity to deal with the problems they face…They need more assistance," he said.

"We have to have community policing where the officers get to know the people in the communities. That's when crime when down," the former vice-president said. 

01:51 Trump responds to the New York Times report that alleged that he paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017.

He claimed he paid "millions of dollars in taxes."

"It was the tax laws. I don’t want to pay tax. Before I came here, I was a private developer. Like every other private person, unless they are stupid, they go through the laws and that's what it is."

"(Biden) passed a tax bill that gave us all these privileges for depreciation and for tax credits, which by the way was given to me by the Obama administration," Trump said.

US President Donald Trump gestures as he participates in the first 2020 presidential campaign debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden held on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic
Donald Trump blamed left-wing groups for instigating violence in US cities during anti-racism protestsImage: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

01:40 Trump mocks Biden over wearing masks. "I wear a mask when needed. I don’t wear a mask like him. Every time you see him he's got a mask," the president said. "He could be speaking 200 ft away and he'd show up with the biggest mask I've seen."

Joe Biden responds to him saying masks "make a big difference." 

"(Trump's) own head of CDC said if everybody wore a mask and (maintained) social distancing between now and January, we would save 100,000 lives," Biden said.

01:35 Things quickly became heated between Trump and Biden while discussing the topic of healthcare and whether to dismantle the Affordable Health Care Act — also known as Obamacare.

As Trump interrupted his opponent's answers, Biden fired back at the president: "Will you shut up, man!"

1:30 President Trump on making a coronavirus vaccine available to the American public: "We can have it a lot sooner. It is a very political thing."

Trump said has spoken to drugmakers about developing a vaccine, and said they can "go faster than that by a lot."

01:21 Joe Biden declined to say whether would end the filibuster or pack the Supreme Court if the US Senate goes ahead with judge Barret's confirmation. He called on people to reach out to their senators instead, to halt the confirmation process. 

01:15 Joe Biden on judge Barret's nomination:

"She seems like a very fine person... (but) she thinks the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is not constitutional," Biden said.

01:05 Donald Trump on picking judge Amy Coney Barret as Supreme Court justice:

"We won the election. Elections have consequences," Trump said. "We have a phenomenal nominee. She will be as good as anybody who has served on the Supreme Court," he said.

"We won the elections, we have the right to do this." 

01:00 Fox News journalist Chris Wallace was charged with picking the six topics which were announced by the Commission on Presidential Debates last week.

The topics are:

  • The records of President Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden
  • The Supreme Court
  • COVID-19
  • Economy
  • Race and violence
  • The integrity of the election

00:55 The debate will be moderated by veteran journalist Chris Wallace who is known to be a straight shooter. Wallace also moderated a presidential debate in 2016, favoring direct questions to get the candidates talking.

He said before the 2016 debate that he did not believe it was his job "to be a truth squad," and he largely avoided fact-checking the candidates.

00:45 Asian stocks opened lower and the dollar edged down in the runup to the first presidential election.

Japan's Nikkei was down 0.3% and Australia's ASX 200 fell 1.3%, while markets in Seoul rose 0.8%.

00:30 Around 100 million people are expected to tune in to the first presidential debate, according to US television networks.

This would be significantly up from the rating in 2016 when 84 million people are estimated to have watched the first debate between Trump and the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

CBS and other networks reported the expectation hours before the first debate of this election cycle.

00:25 Joe Biden released his 2019 tax returns hour before the debate, amid revelations that Donald Trump allegedly paid little to no taxes for 15 years. In contrast, Biden and his wife, Jill paid federal income taxes of nearly $288,000 (€245,000). The issue is likely to come up in the first presidential debate.

Read more: US: Joe Biden releases tax returns ahead of debate with Trump

00:15 Joe Biden tweeted a photo of iPhone headphones and ice cream, hitting back at the Trump campaign's allegation that the former vice-president will try to cheat using a secret earpiece — presumably to give him answers in the debate — while on performance-enhancing drugs.

"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 spokesman Tim Murtaugh.

The Trump campaign has been attacking 77-year-old Biden as senile and physically unfit for office.

00:10 Social distancing at the venue:

The first presidential debate will be held at the Case Western Reserve University. Unlike presidential debates in the past, there won't be large crowds or much pageantry this time due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

While Trump and Biden won't be required to wear masks, they are mandatory for the 100 audience members who have also been tested for the virus.

The chairs at the venue are mostly placed next to one another but the rows have been spaced out and signs have been posted on some chairs that read: "Thank you for not sitting here in observance of social distancing."

00:00 Both US President Donald Trump and his challenger Joe Biden have landed in Cleveland, Ohio where the first presidential debate of the campaign is being held. Voters and political analysts alike will be watching closely to see how each candidate makes their case.