Donald Trump was asked to denounce white supremacists, and didn’t. Here’s what else happened at the first presidential debate
The first presidential debate of the 2020 US election campaign is over.
In a bitter, 90-minute whirlwind, US President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden traded barbs over everything from coronavirus to tax policy.
But it was the lack of decorum that may have stolen the show in the end.
Here are the key takeaways.
Donald Trump battled the moderator
This was supposed to be a debate between Trump and Biden.
But it frequently featured testy exchanges between Donald Trump and the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
“Mr President, please” was a phrase heard often during the night, as Wallace battled to restrain a President who wasn’t interested in following debate rules.
Constant interruptions, personal attacks and answers that strayed far from questions meant little was learned about the substance of the two candidates.
Trump came to brawl with Biden and set the tone early, but the former vice-president resisted, only letting his frustration show a couple of times.
“It’s hard to get a word in with this clown,” Biden said at one point.
A frustrated Wallace appealed to the President during the debate to let each candidate speak uninterrupted.
“I think the country would be better served if you let both parties speak,” Wallace said to the President.
After the debate, the President made his feelings about the debate moderation clear:
Trump delivered a few ‘check the transcript’ moments
The struggle didn’t stop Wallace from asking difficult questions though, and he managed to extract a promise from the President that “you’ll get to see” his tax returns and that those tax returns would show he paid “millions” in federal income taxes.
Whether it’s different from the same promise the President has been making since 2016, we’ll have to see.
In another exchange, Wallace asked Trump if he would outright condemn white supremacists in Portland, Oregon.
Trump began by saying that he would, but quickly added that “I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing.”
“I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace,” Trump said.
“Then go ahead sir,” Wallace said.
“Who do you want me to condemn? Give me a name,” Trump said back.
“White supremacists and right-wing militias,” Wallace said.
Biden interjected to mention the Proud Boys, a violent far-right group.
The meaning of the words “stand back and stand by” were slow to come into focus on social media, but the comments were heard loud and clear in the Proud Boys’ chat groups, according to several journalists who track the group.
As one put it, the group saw the comments “as acknowledgement and a call to arms.”
An entirely different section, on election integrity, provoked similar accusations the President is inciting violence.
Wallace asked Trump if he would urge his supporters “to stay calm and not engage in civil unrest” in the event that the election result was delayed or contested.
When Wallace asked Trump to clarify whether he’d urge people to take to the streets, all the President had to say was that he expected it would be “a fraudulent election”.
Asked the same question, about whether he would urge his supporters to stay calm, Biden answered:
Biden wasn’t inspirational. He didn’t have to be
All the jostling between Trump and Wallace left far less attention on the former vice-president, who rarely deviated from the policy points Americans have been hearing from him since the primary race.
His most discussion-worthy lines came not from his rehearsed policy jabs but from his reactions to being interrupted.
When Trump attacked his son, Hunter, for the second time of the night, Biden delivered a defence about drug addicts that felt relatable.
Biden telling Trump to “shut up” was applauded by some left-leaning social media users.
And even Republicans agreed that Biden’s general patience through Trump’s interruptions played right into the strategy the campaign has run for months — let Trump implode.
Whether letting the President speak will be effective is another question entirely. It may not matter for the greater America — one so polarised that it can make two completely different narratives out of the same event.
The cable news chyron running on the Republican-leaning network Fox News immediately after the debate had a succinct message: Biden stumbles through first debate.
Pundits, and the public, were not impressed
The debate had barely finished before the judgement started rolling in.
Pundits on American cable news channels didn’t hold back.
ABC America’s George Stephanopoulos called it “the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life.”
Former Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie (and member of the Trump debate prep team) said the debate was “too hot”.
CNN’s Dana Bash was blunt.
“I’m just going to say what it is. That was a sh*tshow.”
Quick polling after the debate by CBS found most Americans agreed
The wild nature of the debate left some pondering whether a second and third are even useful in an election that already has the temperature turned up to 11.
But with the Biden campaign racking in a record-setting $3.8 million in a single hour, the former vice-president already confirmed he isn’t missing a chance for round two.