Biden stumbles amid fierce attacks from Trump

President Biden and former President Trump hammered each other in their first debate Thursday night, with furious exchanges about immigration, foreign policy and abortion dominating a discussion between two men who clearly loathe each other and insist the other poses a mortal threat to America.

Abundant disdain between the two men overflowed at several moments over a little more than 90 minutes before a national television audience during their first face-off this election year. The Republican challenger called the Democratic president a “criminal” and an incompetent, who he said couldn’t pass a cognitive test. Biden called Trump a “sucker” and a “loser” — labels that one of Trump’s former staff members said he had once applied to veterans killed in war.

The two men also presented diametrically opposite views of the condition of the country. Trump depicted America as beset by crime, overrun my murderous immigrants and mocked by leaders overseas. Biden said the U.S. was on the right track, recovering from the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s divisive leadership.

Trump said repeatedly that America was being “destroyed” by Biden and had become an “uncivilized” place — an outcome he suggested was largely due to foreign countries sending former prisoners and mental patients to the U.S. There has been no evidence presented to prove that any nation has emptied lockups or psychiatric hospitals and sent those released to America.

Biden countered that America remains “the most admired country in the world,” adding, “There’s nothing beyond our capacity. We have the finest military in the history of the world. … No one thinks we’re weak. No one wants to screw around with us.”

The two men bickered over everything from who helped the economy more to who was better in golf. After an exchange about their relative skills on the links, Trump muttered: “Let’s not act like children.” Retorted Biden: “You’re the child.”

A sharp contrast between the two candidates emerged from the first moments. Biden, 81, appeared hesitant and stammered in some of his answers, his eyes often cast downward or appearing to focus in the distance, as Trump castigated him. Trump, 78, looked straight ahead and spoke more forcefully as he carried the fight to the man who took his job.

Those initial impressions could hurt Biden, according to one nonpartisan observer.

“The largest television audience for presidential debates historically occurs at the beginning of the evening before many tune out and possibly even go to sleep on the East Coast,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and co-author of “Debating the Donald.” “Anyone that watched the first 15 minutes of tonight’s debate would have been extremely concerned by President Biden’s meandering slog through the early questions.”

Kall said the middling performance by Biden probably would not assuage concerns of some voters about his ability to fill the most powerful post in the world. He speculated that Biden might have been impaired by a cold that struck him before the debate.

“The highlights from tonight that go viral and are shared on social media will not likely be very kind to the president,” Kall said.

The chatter on cable television after the debate centered on Biden’s weak performance, with some pundits raising the question of whether the Democratic Party would seek to find another candidate to take on Trump. Others said that was absurd and that Biden had plenty of time to recover in the four-plus months that remain in the campaign.

Elizabeth Ashford, a longtime California political consultant, said the debate should remind people what an “unmitigated disaster” Trump’s presidency was for “for democracy.”

But Ashford added: “I don’t think that tonight helped. I don’t think Biden had the kind of performance they wanted him to have, or that his policy and his politics or positions really merit. That’s really unfortunate. Do I think this fundamentally changes anything about what this election is about? No, I don’t.”

Others noted that past presidents running for reelection, including Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, recovered from poor performances in initial debates to defeat their general election opponents.

Greeting customers in an Atlanta restaurant after the debate, Biden answered “No” when asked whether he had any concerns about his performance. “It’s hard to debate a liar,” he said. “The New York Times pointed out he lied 26 times.”

The only small measure of civility was the relative lack of interruptions and cross talk that prevailed in their first debate four years ago. This time, they abided by the time limits.

The debate, the earliest between major-party candidates for president, was broadcast by CNN from its Atlanta studios, with anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash moderating.

In a departure from the first debate four years ago, Trump adhered to the rules and, unlike the repeated interruptions of 2020, even asked for permission to respond to one of the first questions. Biden also stayed within the two-minute limit for answers and one minute for rebuttals.

Trump lied repeatedly during the debate, saying at one point — for example — that Biden had directed the criminal prosecutions against him, though there has been no evidence to support that assertion. Trump also made the false claim that Biden was one of many Democrats who favor late-term abortions — even suggesting that some babies might not be allowed to live after they were born.

Trump also asserted that Americans overwhelmingly supported his position on abortions and allowing individual states to set policy. Multiple polls have shown that Americans opposed the overturn of Roe vs. Wade and blame Trump for making abortion much less accessible in many states.

The abundant disdain between the current president and his predecessor became evident from the opening moments, with Trump going on the offensive first and often putting Biden on his heels with fierce attacks on Biden’s leadership.

Tapper opened the night with a question about the toll from inflation, saying that groceries that had cost $100 four years ago now went for $120.

Biden blamed the condition of the economy on Trump.

“We had an economy that was in free fall,” the president said. And “a pandemic that was so badly handled. Many people were dying. All he said was, ‘Inject a little bleach in your arm, you’ll be all right.’

“So what we had to do is try to put things back together and that’s exactly what we began to do,” Biden added, before quickly attempting to whip through a series of statistics to prove the economy was on the right track. He gave stats on job creation and then segued into a discussion of drug prices, noting that his policies had cut the prices overall and reduced insulin to “$15 a shot.”

Trump scoffed at those assertions. He said that he had created “the greatest economy in the history of the world,” adding at another point that everything in America was “rocking good” when he was in the White House. He blamed Biden’s pandemic policies, in part, for triggering inflation.

The former president then launched into the first of a series of sharp attacks on undocumented immigrants.

“The only jobs he created are for illegal immigrants and bounce-back jobs that bounced back from the COVID,” Trump said. “He has not done a good job. He’s done a poor job and inflation is killing our country. It is absolutely killing us.”

The tone of the evening did not improve from there.

Biden started the back-and-forth, recounting what a military general reportedly told him: that Trump called veterans “a bunch of losers and suckers.”

“My son was not a loser. He’s not a sucker,” Biden said, referring to his deceased son, Beau, who served in the military in Iraq. Then, jabbing his finger in the air at his opponent, Biden added, “You’re the sucker. You’re the loser.”

Trump said the quote was a lie.

“To think that I would, in front of generals and others, say, ‘Suckers and losers,’” Trump said. “He made up the suckers and losers. So he should apologize to me right now.”

Biden and Trump then sparred over the criminal cases that have embroiled the former president and Biden’s other son, Hunter. A jury recently found Hunter Biden guilty of three counts: lying on a federal background check form, giving a false statement and possessing a gun while using drugs.

“When he talks about a convicted felon, his son is a convicted felon. At a very high level,” Trump said. “His son is convicted, going to be convicted probably numerous other times …, should have been convicted before, but his Justice Department let the statute of limitations lapse.”

The Republican then asserted that Biden could be convicted once he leaves office, though he offered no charge or evidence.

“This man is a criminal,” Trump said. “This man, you’re lucky. You’re lucky. I did nothing wrong. We have a system that was rigged and disgusting. I did nothing wrong.”

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