The Chaotic First Presidential Debate Is Done: The Highlights as Biden and Trump Went Head-to-Head

Tuesday night's debate was the first of three scheduled between Biden and Trump

After more than a year on the campaign trail for each of them, President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at last debated, one-on-one, on Tuesday night in Cleveland.

It was ... contentious, fiery and many other synonyms for ″argumentative."

The face-off was the first of three scheduled between the candidates ahead of the Nov. 3 election, with a separate debate next week between Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate.

Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace moderated and found himself in the role of trying to keep Trump from interrupting his rival, urging him to remember the rules of the debate.

Wallace, 72 — who also moderated a presidential debate four years ago, between Trump and then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — had said he would cover a range of topics including the Supreme Court, the novel coronavirus pandemic, the economy and the nationwide unrest sparked by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

In a reflection of the pandemic, the first of this year's debates included only a select group of audience members — who were reportedly tested for the virus and many of who entered the venue masked — and the candidates did not shake hands at the beginning.

first presidential debate
President Donald Trump (left) and former Vice President Joe Biden. CNN

Here's what you need to know about what led up to Tuesday's debate and the key moments once Biden and Trump took the stage.

Leading Up to the Debate

While Trump has signaled he hopes to depict Biden as both enfeebled and a figurehead for radicals — echoing his attacks since the summer — the debate is seen by the president's detractors as rich with opportunities to highlight his electoral vulnerabilities.

State and national polls have shown Trump trailing for months, including in must-win swing states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania. Biden aims to capitalize on his edge by hammering at the president's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and, also likely, spotlight a recent exposé about his secretive taxes.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's debate, Trump framed it as a test for his opponent, who he has often accused of appearing "sleepy" and "low energy" (or, conversely, drug-addled when Biden is energetic).

In the hours before the event, the Trump campaign conspiratorially claimed Biden had declined to prove he wouldn't wear an earpiece during the debate, which the latter's campaign denied — responding instead that Trump had allegedly tried to stop Wallace from mentioning the more than 200,000 people in the U.S. killed by the coronavirus so far.

Similarly, over the weekend, the Biden campaign hit back at Trump's speculation about his drug use, questioning whether Trump's ″best case is made in urine″ and accusing him of having ″pissed away" the ability to save the lives of those who died as a result of the pandemic.

An Argumentative Opening

The first few minutes of the debate were mostly civil, with the candidates answering questions in the order in which they were asked.

But less than 10 minutes after it began, the debate had devolved into a fractious back and forth, largely driven by Trump.

Biden, who has spoken openly about his childhood stuttering problem, did occasionally stumble over his own words, particularly when Trump directed accusatory demands toward him or made otherwise disproven claims.

While the former VP did, at times, implore voters directly, he also took Trump's bait, hurling insults back as he called the president a "liar" and saying he was "the worst president America has ever had."

Trump, meanwhile, continually interjected, interrupting Biden nearly every time he spoke and bringing up false claims lifted from right-wing websites (claims that seemed unlikely to resonate with the undecided swing voter).

Though the first question of the night was regarding the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the conversation quickly swerved to healthcare, with Biden saying "The fact is this man doesn't know what he's talking about" when it comes to introducing a healthcare plan.

During a particularly heated argument regarding a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Biden said, "I’m not here to call out his lies, everybody knows he’s a liar."

Trump, who has repeatedly promised to be on the cusp of introducing a comprehensive plan for replacing the Affordable Care Act has yet to release one, a fact noted by Wallace.

As Trump continued to interject, responding to questions that Biden had been asked to answer, Biden snapped. "Would you shut up, man? ... This is so un-presidential ... keep yapping, man."

A Pandemic Showdown

When the debate shifted to COVID-19, Biden attacked Trump for what he insinuated was a lack of planning for and a failure to adequately respond to the pandemic — and for spending time on the golf course when he should have been helping the American people.

“He told us what a great job Xi was doing," said Biden " … He then waited and waited and waited. He still doesn’t have a plan. … You should get out of the bunker and get out of the sand trap at your golf course and get into the Oval Office … and save lives.”

Biden also lambasted Trump for not being a trustworthy source of information regarding the novel coronavirus.

"And by the way, 'Maybe you can inject some bleach in your arm.' " said Biden, a sarcastic comment directed at remarks Trump made during an April press conference.

Trump responded that he was ″being sarcastic″ about the bleach comment.

″A lot of people died, and a lot more people are gonna die if he doesn't get a lot smarter, a lot quicker," Biden continued.

"Did you use the word 'smart'?" asked Trump, before making claims that appeared to be lifted directly from right-wing websites, and not rooted in truth. "So, you said you went to Delaware State but you forgot the name of your college. You didn't go to Delaware State. You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class."

Biden once said he got his ″start″ at Delaware States, having announced his 1972 run for Senate on its campus, but did not claim to attend college there. The accusation, however, has proliferated on right-aligned social media channels and websites.

Trump went on to insult Biden's intelligence, saying "There's nothing smart about you, Joe," and adding that his administration has "learned a lot" in the months since COVID-19 first began to sweep the country.

What, exactly, he's learned was less clear. At one point, Trump remarked that young children aren't susceptible to the virus (a claim disputed by scientists and medical professionals). He also attempted to poke fun at Biden for wearing "the biggest mask you've ever seen," despite the fact that his own coronavirus task force has recommended mask-wearing for months.

When asked why he has continued hosting large-scale campaign rallies — in which participants are often seen huddled close together and not wearing a mask, Trump claimed Biden would do the same thing, but can't "get the crowds" that he can.

″If you could get the crowds you would have done the same thing," said Trump. "But no one cares."

On Climate Change

The candidates demonstrated clear differences when it came to their plans regarding climate change.

Pressed for his views, Trump instead discussed forest management and defended his decisions to roll back environmental protections introduced by the Obama administration. He did, however, concede that human activity contributes, "to an extent," to global warming.

Biden, meanwhile, pledged a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 and a re-commitment to the Paris Accord if elected President. He added that he does not support the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution by progressives laying out an overarching plan for tackling climate change.

Race, Civil Unrest and 'the Suburbs'

In another heated exchange — this time regarding issues of race — Biden accused Trump of using "everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division."

Rather than touching on race, Trump directed his ire at Biden, who he claimed lack support from law enforcement groups.

“You can’t even say the word ‘law enforcement,’ because if you say those words, you’re going to lose all of your radical left supporters,” Trump said. “And why aren’t you saying those words? Why don’t you say the words ‘law enforcement?’ ”

After Trump claimed that American suburbs "would be gone" if Biden were to be elected president, Biden said, "He wouldn't know a suburb unless he took a wrong turn," insinuating that Trump's continual references to "suburbs" are coded language meant to stoke division and fear.

"This is not 1950," said Biden. "All these dog whistles on racism don't work anymore."

Trump also refused to condemn white supremacist organizations when asked directly by Wallace to do so, instead blaming "the left" for violence.

"Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups ... Are you prepared to specifically do that?" asked Wallace.

"Sure, I'm prepared to do that," said the president. "But I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing."

All About Hunter Biden

In one of the most fiery exchanges of the night, Trump attacked Biden's son, Hunter, accusing him of being kicked out of the military for cocaine use and accepting millions of dollars from Ukraine.

Raising Hunter Biden's work for Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings, Trump alleged that the former VP's son had profited while his father worked in the Obama administration.

"China ate your lunch, Joe," said Trump. "And no wonder, your son goes there, he takes out billions of dollars. Takes out billions of dollars to manage. He makes millions of dollars."

Saying the claims were "totally discredited," Biden swiftly turned the conversation from Hunter to his late son, Beau, raising recent allegations that Trump had called members of the military "losers" and "suckers."

"My son was in Iraq," said Biden. "He spent a year there ... He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind there were heroes ... I'm talking about my son Beau Biden."

"I don't know Beau," said Trump. "I know Hunter."

"We want to talk about families and ethics?" responded Biden. "I don’t want to do that. His family, we could talk about all night."

A Political Food Fight

The back-and-forth between Trump and Biden was far from the more traditional debates of years past, often veering — in the eyes of many viewers — into cringeworthy territory.

CNN's Dana Bash called it a ″s-------,″ while NBC News' Lester Holt said it was ″a new low point in American political discourse."

With the president continually interrupting and speaking over his opponent, many of the topics that were meant to be up for discussion — including the COVID-19 pandemic — ultimately got less-than-planned air time.

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