Jarrett Renshaw and Steve Holland
Cleveland - President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden battled fiercely over Trump's record on the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare and the economy in a chaotic and bad-tempered first debate marked by personal insults and Trump's repeated interruptions.
Trump bulldozed his way through the 90-minute debate, trying to goad Biden, claiming that Democrats were trying to steal the November presidential election and declining to condemn white supremacist groups when asked to do so.
Moderator Chris Wallace never established control of the debate, with Trump repeatedly ignoring his calls to let Biden speak. The two White House contenders talked over each other and lobbed insults in a breathtaking political brawl that made it hard for either to make a point.
At one point, an exasperated Biden said after Trump's repeated interruptions: "Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential."
Wallace tried in vain to reel in Trump, who ignored his time limits and talked over Biden.
"I think that the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I'm appealing to you, sir, to do that," Wallace said.
When Trump said he should tell Biden the same thing, Wallace said: "Well, frankly, you've been doing more interrupting."
As of Tuesday evening, 1.4 million Americans already had cast early ballots. With time running out to change minds or influence the small sliver of undecided voters, the stakes were enormous as the two White House candidates took the stage five weeks before the November 3 Election Day.
For Trump, 74, Tuesday's debate represented one of the few remaining chances to change the trajectory of a race that most opinion polls show him losing, as the majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of both the coronavirus pandemic and protests over racial injustice.
Biden, 77, has held a consistent lead over Trump in national opinion polls, although surveys in the battleground states that will decide the election show a closer contest. It was hard to determine whether the debate would move the needle.
Trump, asked if he was willing to condemn white supremacists and tell them to stand down, initially said he would be willing to do anything for peace but then said most of the violence was from the left wing.
"This is not a right-wing problem. This is left wing," he said.
He also repeated his unfounded complaints that mail-in ballots would lead to widespread fraud in the election and declined to commit to accepting the results of the election orcommit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election.
"If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that," he said. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen."
Biden urged Americans to make a plan to vote and assured voters that Trump would be gone if Biden won. He said he would not declare victory until the outcome was validated.
"If we get the votes, it's going to be all over. He's going to go," he said, adding Trump's complaints about mail-in ballots was that Trump was "afraid" to count the votes.
BIDEN ASSAILS TRUMP ON VIRUS RECORD
Biden was sharply critical of Trump's record on the coronavirus pandemic which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, accusing him of failing to protect Americans because he was more concerned about the economy.
"He panicked or he looked at the stock market," Biden saidof Trump, who has pushed for states to reopen their economies and played down the threat of the pandemic.
"A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker," Biden said.
Trump objected to Biden using the word "smart" and defended his approach on the pandemic. "We have done a great job."
Biden also brought up a recent report that Trump had called members of the military "losers" and "suckers." Biden, whose son Beau died of cancer, had served in the military.
"He was not a loser, and he was a patriot," Biden said.
The two contenders did not shake hands as they entered the debate, adhering to protocols on social distancing because of the coronavirus.
DEFENDING COURT PUSH
Trump defended his effort to swiftly fill a U.S. Supreme Court seat, saying "elections have consequences" and he had the right despite Democratic objections.
"I will tell you very simply we won the election, elections have consequences. We have the Senate and we have the White House and we have a phenomenal nominee respected by all," Trump said in defence of his nominee, conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Biden said the seat of the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be filled after the election, when it was clear who the president would be.
"We should wait, we should wait and see what the outcome of this election is," Biden said, adding a more conservative Supreme Court would endanger the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.
Trump is moving quickly to fill Ginsburg’s seat in hopes of cementing a 6-3 conservative majority on the court, a key priority for social conservatives.
Democrats have argued Republicans are being hypocritical for moving quickly to fill the seat given they had blocked then-President Barack Obama's nomination to the Supreme Court in2016, arguing it should wait until after that November election.
Hours before the debate, Biden released his 2019 tax returns and his campaign called on Trump, who has come under fire for not releasing his returns, to do the same.
Biden took the step two days after the New York Times reported Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016and 2017 - and none in 10 of the previous 15 years - following years of reporting steep losses from business enterprises.
Trump had long sought to keep his personal financial records secret.
Biden's taxes showed that he and his wife Jill paid more than $346,000 in federal taxes and other payments for 2019 on an income of nearly $985,000 before seeking a refund of nearly$47,000 they said they had overpaid the government.