First Presidential Debate Highlights: Trump and Biden Square Off - Rolling Stone
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The 5 Exchanges That Defined the Most Disgraceful Debate in Presidential History

Joe Biden did his best to make his case as President Trump refused to condemn white supremacy before urging his supporters to go to the polls to “watch very carefully.”

Hours before Tuesday night’s debate, Donald Trump’s campaign accidentally sent its post-event cash-call email early. Subject line: “I just stepped off stage.” “This debate will go down in HISTORY,” the Donald Trump of the future wrote to his supporters. And he was right, though probably not in the way he’d hoped. The early reviews of the first 2020 presidential debate are in, they are unanimous, and, folks, it was not good!

  • “The worst presidential debate in history.” — Wolf Blitzer
  • “A train-wreck.” — Chuck Todd
  • “A hot mess inside dumpster fire inside a train-wreck.” — Jake Tapper
  • “What was that?” — Savannah Guthrie
  • “A shit show.” — Dana Bash
  • “A complete disaster on all fronts.” — Abby Phillip
  • “The worst presidential debate I’ve ever seen.” — George Stephanopolous
  • “Tough debate.” — Lou Dobbs

For 90 minutes on Tuesday night, a bronzed and belligerent President Donald Trump taunted and talked over former Vice President Joe Biden, unmoved by moderator Chris Wallace’s emphatic pleas to abide by the rules of the debate. 

Here are five exchanges plucked from the pandemonium that took place inside Cleveland’s Samson Pavilion at Case Western Reserve University.

“Would you shut up, man?”

The night that would go down in infamy kicked off with a question about the Supreme Court seat recently opened by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death less than two weeks ago. President Trump has nominated Ginsburg’s ideological antithesis, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, to fill it. Wallace asked Biden, should Barrett be confirmed, if he would end the filibuster — a Senate rule that allows the minority to block legislation — or add justices to the Supreme Court. 

Trump prodded Biden as he addressed the camera, telling the American people to call their senators and oppose the nomination, and to vote and make their voices heard. (He also, somewhat pointedly, refused to answer Wallace’s question.) An exasperated Biden spoke for everyone watching (Wallace included) when he growled “Would you shut up, man?” 

He was barely getting a word in edgewise, but Biden did manage a somewhat garbled answer, noting Barrett’s confirmation would be a threat both to the Affordable Care Act’s protections for preexisting conditions and to women’s reproductive rights.

“That was really a productive segment, wasn’t it?” Biden asked. “Keep yappin’, man.” 

And that, friends, summed up the 75 minutes that followed.

“He shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen!”

Some of Biden’s strongest early moments came as he attacked Trump’s response to the pandemic. He did so, again, while staring directly into the camera, explaining in detail to the American people how Trump is responsible for more than 200,000 deaths, millions of lost jobs, and a decimated economy.

It is what it is because you are who you are,” the former vice president said, arguing the president is fundamentally incapable of shepherding the United States through the crisis.

Trump didn’t have much recourse, so he attacked. “I think masks are OK,” Trump said. “I don’t wear masks like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

Chris Wallace later asked Trump if he was worried about people getting sick at his rallies, which have been packed with mask-less supporters.

“So far we’ve had no issues whatsoever,” Trump replied. (Former presidential candidate and Trump booster Herman Cain died in July after testing positive for Covid following Trump’s rally in Tulsa a month earlier.)

“Proud Boys: Stand back, Stand by.”

Instead of discussing what either of them would do for communities of color during the next four years, white savior-ism took precedence Tuesday night during the debate’s exchange on “the issue of race” — otherwise known as racism.

The former Vice President called Trump a racist, which, duh; while the “shithole countries” president tried to shame Biden with the same “superpredators” attack he used on Hillary Clinton four years ago — the only problem is Biden never actually used the term.

Wallace framed the topic poorly — around Trump’s ludicrous assertion that he has been the best president in history for African Americans — and only barely redeemed himself when he asked the president to condemn white supremacy and the increasing violence being done in service of it. His answer should, by all rights, be the headline moment of the night.

How did Trump respond, you ask? By refusing to renounce. He went on to refer to the terroristic, far-right Proud Boys, encouraging them to “stand back and stand by” in the midst of the action.

Enough talk about “dog whistles.” This was a bullhorn siren to violent white supremacists, unleashing voter intimidation at the very least. Understand that the blood of anyone hurt or killed by this band of bigots will be on Trump’s hands. (And the message seems to have been received: before the debate was even over, Proud Boys groups embraced their orders from Trump on social media, incorporating this new presidential motto into a graphic featuring their logo.)

“I don’t know Beau, I know Hunter.”

Earlier this year, the Atlantic reported that on a 2018 trip to Europe, Trump refused to visit a cemetery where American service members were buried, calling those who died in combat “losers” and “suckers.” Biden invoked that report while remembering his own son, Beau, on Tuesday night.  

“My son was in Iraq. He spent a year there, he got the Bronze star, he got the conspicuous service medal. He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind there were heroes,” Biden said. (Beau Biden, who went on to become the attorney general of Delaware, died of brain cancer in 2015.) 

‘”Really? Are you talking about Hunter?” Trump taunted. 

Trump, who’d earlier attacked Hunter Biden for his work in Ukraine and China, said Hunter Biden was “thrown out of the military, dishonorably discharged” for cocaine use. (Hunter Biden was dismissed from the Navy Reserve in 2014 after failing a drug test.) Biden disputed that the discharge was dishonorable. 

“My son, like a lot of people,” Biden said, turning again to the camera, “had a drug problem,’ but “he’s fixed it, he’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him.”

“I urge my supporters to go to the polls and watch very carefully.”

Trump has repeatedly suggested he may not accept the results of the election if he loses, attempting to manufacture doubt and suspicion of widespread voter fraud that has not materialized. To close the night, Wallace asked Trump point-blank if he would pledge to not declare victory until the election has been independently verified. The fact that this even needs to be asked at a presidential debate says a lot about the disgraceful state of Trump’s campaign. That instead of simply saying “yes” Trump immediately condoned voter intimidation says a lot about what we could be in for in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

“I urge my supporters to go to the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said.

The president then complained that Tuesday in Philadelphia his supporters “went in to watch” and were thrown out of the polls. In reality, the Trump campaign does not have anyone approved to watch polls in Philadelphia, where mail-in votes are currently being processed in satellite election offices, which were stormed by Trump’s supporters.

The false claim was one of several he made regarding mail-in ballots and election security, including a contention that mailmen in West Virginia are selling ballots, which along with just about everything else he gurgled up on the subject, is not even remotely true.

Biden wasn’t quite as long-winded when asked if he would pledge not to declare victory until the election results were certified independently.

“Yes,” the former vice president said. 


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