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Trump's Strategy Made The First Presidential Debate Unwatchable

Trump seemed determined to make his debate with Biden as incomprehensible as possible.

Posted on September 30, 2020, at 12:37 a.m. ET

Mario Tama / Getty Images

A broadcast of the first debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden is played at the Abbey on September 29, 2020, in West Hollywood, California.

“Vote now.”

“Are you going to pack the court?”

“Make sure you in fact let people know, your senators—”

“He’s not going to answer the question.”

“I’m not going to answer the question—”

“Why wouldn’t you answer the question?”

“Because the question is—”

“A lot of new Supreme Court Justices—”

“The question—”

“Radical left—”

“Will you shut up, man?”

“Who is on your list, Joe?”

“This is—”

“Who’s on your list?”

“This is so unpresidential.”

“Gentlemen, no, no. We have ended the segment.”

The first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden descended within minutes into incomprehensible, rambling bouts of crosstalk and bitter personal attacks, leaving moderator Chris Wallace begging Trump to stop a barrage of interruptions of Biden over the hour and a half long debate.

A few moments cut through the chaos that Trump was intent on sowing. Trump refused to condemn white supremacist groups and right-wing groups of armed civilians who have turned up at protests throughout the summer, deflecting repeated requests from Wallace.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by!” Trump said. “But I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left."

And as Biden spoke about his son Beau, who died in 2015, Trump interrupted with an attack on the substance abuse problems of Biden’s younger son, Hunter.

"I'm talking about my son Beau Biden!" Biden said.

"I don't know Beau,” Trump interjected. “I know Hunter."

But especially in the debate’s early moments, where voters often form their impressions, a debate that felt especially climactic in a historically consequential election — and which Trump, especially, badly needed to help reverse a deep nationwide polling deficit — was for long stretches virtually unwatchable, and at the very least untranscribable.

Trump’s heckling was a constant background of many of Biden’s two-minute answers, including some where he addressed the American people directly to the camera, a stream of interjections from Trump in the background.

After Trump raised allegations of corruption — which have been largely discredited — against Biden’s son Hunter, another bout of muddled cross talk ensued.

"None of that is true. Totally discredited,” Biden said, while Trump talked over him. “My son did nothing wrong at Burisma. He doesn't want me to answer, because he knows that I have the truth.”

Biden looked directly at the camera.

“We want to talk about families and ethics? I don't want to do that. His family, we could talk about all night,” he said, as Trump again talked over him. “This is not about my family or his family, it's about your family, the American people. It's about you,” he said to the camera.

And Trump interrupted Wallace nearly as frequently as he did Biden, leaving Wallace to beg the president to let Biden speak, and sometimes finding himself caught in lengthy back-and-forth arguments with the president.

“You’re going to have— Gentlemen! I hate to raise my voice!” Wallace snapped at one point.

Trump spent much of the debate attacking a vision of Biden — a far-left candidate controlled by socialist factions of the party — that was at odds with the moderate Democrat on the stage next to him. Biden repeatedly condemned violent protests and said he was opposed to “defunding the police,” two areas where Republicans have sought to present him as closely aligned with progressives and protesters.

Biden stumbled and stuttered, at times, in the face of Trump’s attacks, often appearing baffled by the president’s instant, out-of-the-gate interruptions. Sometimes lines that seemed intended for a big moment were mumbled or subdued.

But in months of attacks on Biden, Trump had set a low bar for his own opponent to clear, accusing him without evidence of having cognitive problems and even being unable to complete a sentence.

As in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Biden cut through the fray as he spoke about the losses incurred across the country from the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed 200,000 Americans.

“Look, you folks at home, how many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID?” Biden said, turning away from Trump to address the camera directly. “How many of you are in a situation where you lost your mom or dad and you couldn't even speak to them, you had to have a nurse holding the phone up so you could in fact say goodbye?”

Trump interrupted.

“You would have lost far more people,” Trump said. “Far more people. You would have been months late.”

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