Takeaways from first US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden

September 30, 2020 - 10:29 AM
U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their first 2020 presidential campaign debate held on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., September 29, 2020. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, are meeting in Cleveland on Tuesday for the first of three debates ahead of the Nov. 3 election, when Trump is seeking a second term in office.

Here are takeaways from the matchup:

Trump’s taxes

Trump didn’t mince words when moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked him, point-blank, what he paid in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, after the New York Times reported that his tax returns showed only a $750 payment in each year.

Offering no evidence, Trump said he had paid, “millions of dollars. And you’ll get to see it,” despite his refusal to release any returns since he became a candidate in 2015, breaking with decades of tradition.

“Show us your tax returns,” Biden interjected.

Trump attempted to walk a fine line, claiming he owed a hefty tax bill while also defending his efforts to pay as little taxes as possible – and blaming Biden and former President Barack Obama for helping him to do so via the tax code.

When Wallace turned to Biden, the Democrat quickly pivoted to his economic plan, saying he would repeal Trump’s tax cuts that largely benefited corporations and the wealthy, and the discussion turned to the trillions of dollars those proposals represent.

Left unmentioned were many of the allegations in the Times report: tax deductions for hair styling and private jets, no income tax paid in 10 of the last 15 years, a massive $72.9 million tax refund that is the subject of a long-running audit.

It may have been a missed opportunity for Biden. He has worked hard to reach out to the working-class white voters at the heart of Trump‘s base who might be particularly offended by Trump‘s miniscule tax payments.

‘Will you shut up, man?’

Trump is used to sparring with reporters, and he kicked off Tuesday’s debate by using the same tactic he uses in the White House briefing room: interrupting.

Trump repeatedly interrupted or sought to talk over Biden and Wallace during a discussion about the Supreme Court and the Affordable Care Act.

Throughout the event, the debate split-screen showed the two candidates talking simultaneously while Wallace pleaded for order.

“Please let the vice president talk,” Wallace admonished Trump during one of his interruptions after earlier making clear that he was the moderator. “Will you shut up, man?” Biden eventually said to Trump.

Guest list

Presidential candidates invite guests to debates with a calculated purpose: to emphasize a core campaign theme.

Ann Dorn, whose retired police officer husband was killed amid anti-racism protests in St. Louis in June, is among Trump‘s guests, a month after appearing in a video on his behalf at the Republican National Convention. Trump has hammered away at a “law-and-order” message in response to widespread civil unrest over police brutality and racism and accused Democrats of failing to support law enforcement.

Another Trump guest is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who played an integral role in trying to find dirt on Biden’s son Hunter and his business dealings in Ukraine. Although the effort helped lead to Trump‘s impeachment, Giuliani’s presence underscored Trump‘s strategy of repeatedly attacking Hunter Biden during the debate.

Biden’s guests include Kristin Urquiza, whose father, a Trump supporter, died of the coronavirus after dismissing its deadliness. The former vice president has sought as much as possible to turn the campaign into a referendum on Trump, and specifically on his handling of the outbreak, which has killed more than 205,000 Americans.

Biden’s other guests included two local residents: Gurnee Green, a small-business owner, and James Evanoff, a steelworkers union member, who both represent the working families Biden is fighting for, his campaign said.

—Reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington and Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Cynthia Osterman