Biden’s verbal stumbles, Trump’s ‘morals of an alley cat’: 6 debate takeaways

Debate watchers are silhouetted against a large video screen showing Biden and Trump.
People watch the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden at XR Studio on Thursday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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In their first televised debate, President Biden and former President Trump called each other criminals and liars and looked at each other with open disdain.

Biden was hoping to get a boost in polls, which show Trump has a slight edge, particularly in battleground states. But Biden’s early struggles with his words and the lack of timbre in his voice have instead created panic among Democrats. Here are some takeaways:

Biden comes out flat

Biden walked out slowly and stiffly and had a hoarseness to his voice. Trump sounded like a slightly toned down version of himself — less bombastic — as he declared that under his administration “everything was rocking good.”

President Joe Biden speaks
President Joe Biden speaks during Thursday’s debate with former President Trump in Atlanta.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Voters looking for signs of vitality from Biden in the opening rounds probably had a hard time finding it. He fumbled with his words — he’s had a lifelong stutter that he works to control — and looked down often as he appeared to take notes. He recovered as the 90-minute debate from Atlanta wore on, but the early impressions were rough.

President Biden and former President Trump are razor-close in the polls, with four months to go before the presidential election.

June 27, 2024

Before the debate, Trump had complained about the lack of a live audience. But it may have helped him stay under control while it appeared to zap Biden’s energy.

Biden’s age, 81, is a top political liability and this debate may have made it worse. Trump recently turned 78, a fact Biden alluded to when he called Trump “three years younger, and a lot less competent.”

Abortion brings the first heat

After a slow start, Biden perked up when moderators asked about abortion.

Trump went with a well-worn line about how he had turned the issue back to the states, which he falsely claimed is “something everyone wanted” and said that “the country is now coming together on the issue.”


Biden, showing a bit of emotion, fired back that “no politician should be making that decision,” referring to when to get an abortion.

Former President Trump gestures
Former President Trump gestures during the debate with President Joe Biden.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Trump then tried another falsehood — that some states allowed infants to be killed after birth.

Trump and Biden went after each other’s stance on abortion at Thursday night’s debate. But where does each candidate stand?

June 27, 2024

“That is simply not true,” Biden said, adding, “We are not for late-term abortion. Period, period, period.”

The exchange ended with Biden promising to veto any national abortion ban that comes across his desk, warning that Trump would probably sign one. For young women and single issue voters, that pledge may carry weight.

Trump hits on immigration but dodges on deportations

Trump was eager to play offense on the border and immigration, the animating issue of his campaign and one where he has a polling advantage over Biden.


“We had the safest border in the history of our country,” Trump said. “All he had to do was leave it.”

President Joe Biden, right, Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, in a presidential debate
President Joe Biden, right, and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, participate in a presidential debate hosted by CNN, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Biden has tried to tackle immigration in recent months, proposing a bipartisan border bill that Trump tanked and, more recently, executive actions that included new restrictions on asylum claims.

Trump, who has used demonizing language against migrants throughout the campaign, claimed that “we are living in a rat’s nest” and that “we’re literally an uncivilized country now.” But he did not give an answer on how he would carry out mass deportations.

‘Morals of an alley cat’

It started with a question to Trump about his culpability for the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and the potential that he would provoke another such incident.

Trump bobbed, weaved and made sure to not answer, instead claiming that the reputation of the United States under Biden had plummeted around the world and was now “horrible,” and that Biden should be “ashamed” for how the insurrectionists have been held accountable by courts.


Biden shot back that there was only one person onstage who was a convicted felon, pushing Trump to proclaim, “I have done nothing wrong.”

Biden came back with what will probably be a viral moment, pointing out that Trump slept with adult film star Stormy Daniels (which Trump also denies) and declaring, “You have the morals of an alley cat.”

The exchange marked a moment in which Biden abandoned his ivory tower approach to politics and got into the ring, something many have said is necessary against a talented verbal pugilist like Trump — even if Biden’s barb sounded like it came straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie.

Trump won’t promise to accept results

Trump, who egged on the Jan. 6 insurrection, was asked three times whether he would accept the results of the election after court challenges are exhausted. He refused to give an unqualified answer.

“If it’s a fair and legal and good election, absolutely,” he said.

Biden, who is running on Trump’s attack on democracy, took a shot.

“You’re a whiner,” he said. “You can’t stand the loss. Something snapped in you when you lost last time.”

This shouldn’t be a debate

The final takeaway may be that “this shouldn’t be a debate,” as Trump said at one point.

Both candidates failed to answer the questions, instead rambling on with confusing talking points, including a bizarre exchange about their golf handicaps.

This combination of photos shows Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, & President Joe Biden
This combination of photos shows Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden during a presidential debate hosted by CNN, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Trump focused on fearmongering, warning Biden would “drive us into World War III” and alleging that “we are a failing nation.” Even when answering a question on child care, he returned to his main themes of immigration, taxes and bashing Biden as the “worst president” in history. Biden countered by saying polls of historians declare Trump the worst president in American history.

Neither man gave any vision of the future of America or took the opportunity to lay out a plan of hope or strength for America, as has been common in past elections — perhaps leaving voters wondering what just happened and what to look forward to under a second term for either one.