Essential Politics: Chaos and consequences at the first debate

President Trump, left, and Joe Biden, right with moderator Chris Wallace, during the first presidential debate
President Trump, left, and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, with moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News during the first presidential debate in Cleveland.
(Associated Press)

This week began with heightened stakes for President Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden. After their raucous first presidential debate Tuesday, who knows how it will shake out.

In what’s been a remarkably stable race despite tumultuous times, Trump has been stuck for months on a losing trajectory, amid mounting COVID-19 deaths and new, bombshell revelations about his taxes and the extent of his debt. And while Biden has enjoyed the lead in polls both nationally and in swing states, it’s not a solid one, as reporter Brian Contreras wrote this week. The Trump campaign has spent months sowing doubts about Biden’s mental fitness.

Then they finally met, at the first of the three debates of 2020 — the stage for all that brewing electoral drama to play out. It got loud. It got ugly. At times, it devolved into chaos — provoked, not surprisingly, by the disrupter president.


Political strategists often say debates are overrated and rarely change a race, David Lauter and Janet Hook wrote this week. But this time? An unconventional debate in an unconventional year could yield unconventional results.

The Times’ staff, of course, was watching. Here are the big takeaways.

All the world’s a debate stage

Maskless but socially distant, the candidates met onstage for the first time this year. There were no handshakes, no large audience — mostly just a few family members and guests of each candidate — and so no partisan cheering for the applause lines.

Trump immediately began the debate on a biting, disruptive note that set the tone for the next 90 minutes. His frequent interruptions and the candidates’ heated exchanges led to all three men — Biden, Trump and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News — attempting to speak over one another for minutes at a time.

But if it wasn’t always clear what the candidates were saying, clear themes did emerge, offering a glimpse of where the race might be headed. Election reporters Mark Z. Barabak and Melanie Mason broke down the most important takeaways.

It was a vintage Trump performance. The bullying, the blustering, the lack of regard for timekeeping, rules and moderators are classic Trump, they write. But while the performance played to his supporters, it’s questionable whether he attracted much-needed new ones with his old tricks.

Joe was not so sleepy. Trump has attempted to cast Biden as “Sleepy Joe,” growing senile and unfit for office. Biden has in the past struggled on the debate stage, but he held his own on Tuesday. He had no major awkward moments, and several effective ones when he turned directly to the camera to address voters.

The pandemic isn’t going away. Wallace didn’t even have to ask before the coronavirus entered the conversation. Biden laid into Trump early and often, holding him personally responsible for the more than 200,0000 Americans who have died, Barabak and Mason write. Trump defended himself with unfounded claims that China unleashed the virus and argued Biden would have done worse in his position.


Taxes, taxes, taxes. Trump’s taxes have been a source of speculation and litigation for years, and a New York Times report this week based on leaked tax returns confirmed that he’s paid little or no income taxes in many years over the last two decades. During the debate, Trump denied the report he’d paid just $750 a year in federal income tax in two recent years, instead claiming he’d paid “millions.” Prove it, Biden challenged him: Release the returns.

Courting voters through the court. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened a new political front. Trump boasted of his recently announced nominee, appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and defended his right to name someone even as the voting for president has begun. The pending confirmation process is a rallying point for Republicans as well as Democrats. In opposing Barrett, Biden focused on healthcare, highlighting the threat he says she poses to abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act — an appeal likely to resonate with liberals and independents who are wary of an ultra-conservative high court, Barabak and Mason write.

Here’s what else you should know about the debate:

— Trump needed the debate to change a race he’s losing; instead, he doubled down and Biden shot back, Janet Hook writes in her analysis.

— From China to healthcare to the economy, many of Trump’s talking points and a few of Biden’s weren’t quite right. White House reporter Chris Megerian fact-checked the debate.

— Chris Wallace, the debate moderator, became a referee, breaking up tense squabbles between the candidates and chastising Trump for his frequent interruptions. Here’s what to know about the veteran Fox News anchor.

— Asked to condemn white supremacists, Trump instead told the far-right hate group Proud Boys to “stand by.”

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The latest from the campaign trail

— From Hook and Megerian: Biden’s campaign is capitalizing on the revelations that Trump has paid little or no federal income taxes for years, amplifying the Democratic nominee’s message that the 2020 election is a choice between the working class he came from and the wealthy elite the president personifies.

— Biden and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, released their latest tax returns ahead of the debate, 2020 reporters Matt Pearce and Michael Finnegan write. The Democratic candidates and their spouses paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes to the federal government in 2019.

— Biden and Trump are offering Latino voters different visions of America and of each other. Melissa Gomez, Vanessa Martínez and Rahul Mukherjee looked at the Spanish-language ads the campaigns are spending millions to run in states including Arizona and Florida.

The view from Washington

— The U.S. Postal Service must prioritize election mail and immediately reverse changes that resulted in widespread delays in California and several other states, a federal judge ruled Monday.

— On the healthcare beat, Noam Levey reports that U.S. employers are increasingly open to a bigger government role in healthcare, including regulating prices and expanding Medicare to more working Americans.

— The Trump administration is strengthening U.S. military and diplomatic ties with Greece. Tracy Wilkinson writes that it’s an unsubtle warning to Turkey, which is taking on what U.S. officials see as a more combative role in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

What’s happening in California

— Detainees at California’s for-profit ICE detention centers will soon be able to sue over abuse and harm after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill backed by immigrant-rights advocates, writes Times immigration reporter Andrea Castillo.

— A new poll from UC Berkeley finds Newsom’s response to the pandemic has put him in the good graces of California voters, with an approval rating among the highest of any governor in the last 50 years at the same point in office. But he’s also facing intense dissatisfaction over his handling of homelessness and housing costs, Phil Willon writes.

— Newsom vetoed a bill that would have authorized California to give low-income immigrants $600 to buy groceries. He said he could not sign it because of its “significant General Fund impact.”

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