Trump and Biden Go for Throat in First Debate

In a debate that amounted to little more than an hour-and-half-long harangue from both sides, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden savaged each other in the most personal terms, with Trump questioning Biden’s intelligence and Biden calling Trump a “clown.”

In a typical exchange, Biden told Trump: “You’re the worst president America has ever had.” Trump responded: “I’ve done more in 47 months than you’ve done in 47 years, Joe.”

On the whole Trump, who is well behind in the polls, was plainly more rattled during the entire night. He appeared to interrupt the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, as much as he did Biden, earning constant rebukes from Wallace.

Early reactions from pundits and polls suggested that the sometimes gaffe-prone Biden won the debate by merely standing up to the president and sounding coherent while a heavily sweating Trump seemed to unravel several times. An early CNN poll of debate watchers found that 60 percent thought Biden won, while only 28 percent believed Trump did, though the survey was skewed toward Democratic voters.

Foreign policy per se took up almost no time in the debate, and when it did Biden generally got in more zingers than Trump and with more aplomb, barely looking at the president as Trump cut into almost every answer. Regarding Trump’s largely unsuccessful attempt to correct trade deficits with China, Biden said: “He talks about the art of the deal. China has perfected the art of the steal.” He charged that the U.S. has suffered a higher trade deficit with China during Trump’s time in office, though that was only true in 2018.

In a final exchange, Biden committed to accepting the results of the election, while Trump did not, continuing to rant about largely unsubstantiated voting fraud charges even as Wallace was calling an end to the debate. Trump also refrained from condemning white supremacists when asked to do so, saying the radical left group Antifa was causing almost all the violence in American cities despite the FBI’s conclusion to the contrary. Trump merely suggested that a neo-fascist group that supports him, the Proud Boys, should “stand back and stand by.” 

The six topics chosen by Wallace were the Trump and Biden records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, urban race and violence, and electoral integrity. The two candidates stuck mostly to those topics, with a great deal of angry cross talk.

But Trump several times sought to attack Biden’s son Hunter for his business involvement in Russia and Ukraine, raising Biden’s hackles. ”My son did nothing wrong. … Everyone has discredited it,” Biden said. As Trump continued to interrupt, Biden said, “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown.”

Trump’s corruption charges against Hunter Biden have been largely debunked, even by members of his own party. Earlier this month two Republican-led Senate committees concluded that while Hunter Biden’s position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company was “awkward” and “problematic” at the time his father, Joe Biden, was serving as vice president, there was no clear evidence of wrongdoing. The 87-page report concluded that “the extent to which” his role “affected U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not clear.” 

Tuesday’s debate was not expected to affect the outcome of the presidential race in a serious way, especially since 86 percent of voters say their minds are made up about who they will vote for, and only 14 percent say they are still persuadable, according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll. Biden has maintained a consistent lead in the polls.

Only rarely in past elections has a presidential debate substantially tipped the race one way or another—for example in the first televised debate in 1960, when the less experienced John F. Kennedy showed he could stand up to Vice President Richard Nixon; and in the 1976 race between President Gerald Ford and then-little-known Democrat Jimmy Carter, when Ford flubbed a question on Soviet domination.

Still, the restrictions that COVID-19 has placed on normal campaigning—at least for Biden, while Trump has continued to hold rallies—could make the three presidential debates this cycle more important than usual.

Above all, Biden may have gotten the upper hand by putting down Trump in the sort of derisive terms that Trump has used successfully against his previous rivals. When Biden declared that Trump has no healthcare plan to replace Obamacare, and Trump interrupted yet again, the former vice president retorted: “Will you shut up, man. … This is so unpresidential.” At another point Biden said: “Donald, would you just be quiet for a minute?”

What was most surprising, perhaps, was how small a part new and potentially damaging questions about Trump’s business dealings revealed in the New York Times  played in the debate. The newspaper reported Tuesday that Trump “has huge balances on loans, soon to come due” from Deutsche Bank, which has been implicated in money laundering abroad and has worked closely with Russian state institutions. The biggest part of those include $160 million on his Washington hotel in the Old Post Office building and $148 million on the Doral golf resort—neither of which is profitable. The newspaper previously reported that Trump had avoided paying taxes for years and his businesses were chronic money losers. 

When Biden briefly challenged Trump during the debate, “Show us your tax returns,” the president did not respond, saying only that he had “paid millions of dollars of income taxes.” 

Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, a close Biden ally and potential secretary of state, on Monday called Trump’s huge debt “very much a national security concern,” saying “we don’t know who has leverage over him.” The Times reported that Trump is personally responsible for loans and other debts of $421 million, a substantial portion of which comes due in the next four years.

David Kris, a former assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, also said that debt was worrisome when carried by the president. “It is well understood that a U.S. government official in extreme debt creates leverage in the debt-holder,” said Kris, now a principal at Culper Partners consulting firm. “The leverage, and hence the national security risk, rise with both the likelihood of non-repayment.” 

Trump is already accused of multiple conflicts of interest in mixing his business interests with those of his office. Analysts believe that with the debt he needs to pay down, he could be motivated to carry those practices further in a second term.  Last week a report released by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group, said Trump has earned many millions of dollars for his personal businesses during his presidency, including making more than 500 visits with large entourages to the properties he owns and profits from. The president’s frequent travel to and from his properties has cost American taxpayers well over $100 million.

The debate was clearly haunted by tensions that have lingered since Trump was impeached by the House and ultimately acquitted by the Senate earlier this year for trying to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky into investigating the Biden family’s dealings in Ukraine.  Congressional investigations continue to look at Trump’s business ties abroad, so it was no surprise that some of the sharpest exchanges occurred over both candidates’s  overseas connections.

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