Column: Biden came for a debate. Trump arrived ready to heckle

President Trump participates in the first presidential debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
At the first presidential debate Tuesday in Cleveland, Joe Biden came for a debate. President Trump came for a slugfest.
(Getty Images)

The first of three scheduled debates between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was ugly and unwatchable almost from the start.

There was no handshake — because of COVID-19, of course — but that lack of simple comity became an apt metaphor for the verbal brawl that followed.

Within minutes, Trump began his trademark juvenile taunting, and he kept it up during the entire 90-minute encounter. He interrupted. He talked over. He flung insults.


Trump cut off his opponent so frequently that Biden finally snapped, “Will you shut up, man?”

And that was barely 18 minutes in.

It never got any better.

Biden came for a debate. Trump came for a slugfest.

“They are going to dominate you, Joe. You know that,” said Trump of the “radical left” he kept insisting owned Biden.

“You could never have done the job that we did,” said Trump. “You don’t have it in your blood.”

Biden got in a few licks, but it’s really not his style.

He called Trump a “fool” and a “clown.” He said Trump was “the worst president America has ever had.”

But he was bulldozed from the start. And any serious policy talk was almost incidental to the fusillade of bullying and antipathy shooting out of Trump’s yap.

“I’m not here to call out his lies,” Biden said. “Everyone knows he’s a liar.”

“You graduated last in your class,” retorted Trump in a non sequitur designed to throw Biden off a balance he never really was able to establish in the first place.


“Take a look at what he’s actually done,” said Biden. “He’s done nothing. He talks about the art of the deal, and we have the highest trade deficit we’ve ever had with China.” (That’s not true; the trade deficit with China has fallen, but the country’s overall trade deficit has been climbing.)

“China ate your lunch, Joe,” said Trump, who then pivoted and asked Biden, “Why, just out of curiosity, did the mayor of Moscow’s wife give your son $3.5 million?”

Again and again, Trump kept trying to derail any semblance of an actual debate by dragging in Biden’s son Hunter, a onetime consultant to a Ukrainian oil company, raising his drug addiction as a cudgel against Biden, a supremely low blow even for a man whose lack of decency has no bottom.

“We want to talk about families and ethics?” asked Biden. “His family, we could talk about all night. It’s not about my family or his family, it’s about your family.”

This was a nice line, probably rehearsed, but what he should have hammered on is the record number of arrests and convictions among advisors of Trump, who promised in his first campaign to “drain the swamp.”

Poor Chris Wallace, the moderator from Fox News. He was not only asking questions but trying to manage the president’s logorrhea. Many exchanges with the president went like this: “Mr. President, please! Mr. President, let him answer!”

At one point, when Trump interrupted with, “Can I be honest?” “No,” Wallace said, determined not to let Trump interrupt again. “The answer to the question is no.”


Finally, in exasperation, Wallace said to Trump, “Your side agreed to two minutes of uninterrupted statements. Why can’t you abide by that?”

“He never keeps his word,” retorted Biden.

In the end, I don’t think anyone can have a meaningful debate about the issues with Donald Trump. He is simply impervious to truth and honesty, and he has no real interest in the issues.

“He has no plan for healthcare,” said Biden.

“Of course we do,” said Trump, in one of his most blatant and oft-repeated lies.

When Wallace asked if he would condemn white militant groups, Trump responded, “Who would you like me to condemn?”

There were a few moments of clarity in this debacle of a debate.

Trump refused to condemn the white militants who drove the violence in Charlottesville, Va. He does not take the threat of climate change seriously. He takes no responsibility for his mishandling of the pandemic, which has led to the loss of millions of jobs in the U.S.

While I watched the debate and cringed, I thought about a famous family story recounted by Trump’s niece Mary Trump in her bestselling memoir, “Too Much and Never Enough.”

Many years ago, a 7-year-old Donald Trump bullied his little brother Robert, hiding his toys and making him cry.


Trump would not stop tormenting his brother until, finally, according to his niece, their older brother Freddy, 14, picked up a bowl of mashed potatoes and dumped it on Donald’s head.

All I could think watching this awful debate on Tuesday night was this: Where is that bowl of mashed potatoes when you need it?