CLEVELAND (BP) – President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden squared off Tuesday night (Sept. 29) in a presidential debate that proved noteworthy for its combativeness and chaos.
In the first debate of the 2020 general election, the candidates, especially Trump, frequently interrupted each other during a 90-minute event. They regularly talked over each other and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News. Each candidate called his opponent a liar.
The debate also included refusals by both candidates to make certain positions clear. Trump gave a confusing response in which he did not appear to denounce white supremacy. Biden, the former vice president, declined to say whether he would support ending the Senate filibuster or packing (expanding) the Supreme Court if elected.
The first of three presidential debates took place the same day a new survey from LifeWay Research reported 61 percent of Americans who espouse evangelical Christian beliefs intend to vote for Trump while 29 percent plan to vote for Biden.
Abortion and racial justice – two issues of importance to many evangelical voters – were brought up as topics, the former far less so than the latter. Religious liberty, another topic of great concern to evangelicals, was not debated.
Biden brought up abortion in a discussion about the current effort by Trump and Senate Republicans to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. Barrett is considered a conservative judge, while Ginsburg was a liberal.
In defending his decision to nominate a justice near the election, Trump said, “We won the election. Elections have consequences. We have the Senate; we have the White House; and we have a phenomenal nominee respected by all.”
Biden countered, contending Americans “have a right to have a say in who the Supreme Court nominee is, and that say occurs when they vote” for senators and the president.
“They’re not going to get that chance now because we’re in the middle of an election already,” Biden said. “The election has already started. We should wait and see” on the outcome of the election.
The Democratic nominee, who supports abortion rights, then argued Trump opposes Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court opinion that legalized abortion. Roe “is on the ballot as well … and so that’s also at stake right now,” Biden said.
Trump replied, “Why is it on the ballot? It’s not on the ballot. You don’t know (Barrett’s) view on Roe v. Wade.”
Wallace asked Biden if he would tell Americans during the debate if he would support “packing the court,” a term that refers to expanding the high court beyond nine members. Biden declined to say.
“Whatever position I take on that, that’ll become the issue,” he said. “The issue is the American people should speak. You should go out and vote.”
Later, Wallace asked Trump if he is willing “to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence” in such cities as Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis. Trump has criticized Biden for “not specifically calling out Antifa and other left-wing extremist groups,” Wallace said.
Trump said, “Sure, I’m willing to do that.” But when asked by Wallace to do it, the president said, “I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing not from the right wing.”
When Trump asked whom Wallace wanted him to condemn, the moderator said, “White supremacists and right-wing militia.” Biden offered, “Proud Boys,” a far-right, male-only group.
In reply, Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what – somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem; this is a left-wing problem.”
Trump told Wallace his administration recently ended racial sensitivity training involving white privilege and critical race theory “because it’s racist.”
“[W]e were paying people hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach very bad ideas and, frankly, very sick ideas,” Trump said. “They were teaching people that our country is … a racist place. And they were teaching people to hate our country. And I’m not going to allow that to happen.”
Biden contended “there is racial insensitivity. People have to be made aware of what other people feel like, what insults them, what is demeaning to them.”
He alleged Trump “has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division.”
Trump also did not make it clear regarding the election whether he would wait to declare victory or whether he would call on his supporters to wait peacefully for the results if the winner is not known for days or weeks because of a large increase in mail-in ballots. “[I]f I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” Trump said.
Biden said he would wait for the results and accept them.
On other topics:
- Trump denied a recent report by The New York Times that he paid only $750 a year in federal income taxes during 2016 and 2017. “Millions of dollars,” Trump said when Wallace asked him how much he paid in those two years.
- The president said he disagreed with public health officials in his administration who have said a vaccine for COVID-19 will not be generally available until next summer.
The debate – held at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic – will be followed by debates between Trump and Biden on Oct. 15 and 22. The vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will be held Oct. 7.