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Debate Takeaways: Debate veers from ‘How you doing?’ to ‘Will you shut up?’

Reuters, AP

Published on September 30, 2020 at 07.31

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The following is a look at the key moments of the debate - the substance, the zingers and the insults:
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TRUMP’S TAXES


Trump didn’t mince words when moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked him, point-blank, what he paid in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, after the New York Times reported that his tax returns showed only a $750 payment in each year.


Offering no evidence, Trump said he had paid, “millions of dollars. And you’ll get to see it,” despite his refusal to release any returns since he became a candidate in 2015, breaking with decades of tradition.

“Show us your tax returns,” Biden interjected.

Trump attempted to walk a fine line, claiming he owed a hefty tax bill while also defending his efforts to pay as little taxes as possible — and blaming Biden and former President Barack Obama for helping him to do so via the tax code.

When Wallace turned to Biden, the Democrat quickly pivoted to his economic plan, saying he would repeal Trump’s tax cuts that largely benefited corporations and the wealthy, and the discussion turned to the trillions of dollars those proposals represent.

Left unmentioned were many of the allegations in the Times report: tax deductions for hair styling and private jets, no income tax paid in 10 of the last 15 years, a massive $72.9 million tax refund that is the subject of a long-running audit.


It may have been a missed opportunity for Biden. He has worked hard to reach out to the working-class white voters at the heart of Trump’s base who might be particularly offended by Trump’s miniscule tax payments.

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‘WILL YOU SHUT UP, MAN?’


Trump is used to sparring with reporters, and he kicked off Tuesday’s debate by using the same tactic he uses in the White House briefing room: interrupting.


Trump repeatedly interrupted or sought to talk over Biden and Wallace during a discussion about the Supreme Court and the Affordable Care Act.


Throughout the event, the debate split-screen showed the two candidates talking simultaneously while Wallace pleaded for order.


“Please let the vice president talk,” Wallace admonished Trump during one of his interruptions after earlier making clear that he was the moderator. “Will you shut up, man?” Biden eventually said to Trump.

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GUEST LIST


Presidential candidates invite guests to debates with a calculated purpose: to emphasize a core campaign theme.

Ann Dorn, whose retired police officer husband was killed amid anti-racism protests in St. Louis in June, is among Trump’s guests, a month after appearing in a video on his behalf at the Republican National Convention. Trump has hammered away at a “law-and-order” message in response to widespread civil unrest over police brutality and racism and accused Democrats of failing to support law enforcement.

Another Trump guest is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who played an integral role in trying to find dirt on Biden’s son Hunter and his business dealings in Ukraine. Although the effort helped lead to Trump’s impeachment, Giuliani’s presence underscored Trump’s strategy of repeatedly attacking Hunter Biden during the debate.

Biden’s guests include Kristin Urquiza, whose father, a Trump supporter, died of the coronavirus after dismissing its deadliness. The former vice president has sought as much as possible to turn the campaign into a referendum on Trump, and specifically on his handling of the outbreak, which has killed more than 205,000 Americans.

Biden’s other guests included two local residents: Gurnee Green, a small-business owner, and James Evanoff, a steelworkers union member, who both represent the working families Biden is fighting for, his campaign said.

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TRUMP CAN’T ESCAPE THE VIRUS

Trump has wanted the election to be about anything but the coronavirus pandemic, but he couldn’t outrun reality on the debate stage.

“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Biden told the president, referring to Trump’s months of downplaying Covid-19 while he said privately he understood how deadly it is.

But Trump didn’t take it quietly. He proceeded to blitz Biden with a mix of self-defense and counter-offensives. 200,000 dead? Biden’s death toll would have been “millions,” Trump said. A rocky economy? Biden would’ve been worse. Biden wouldn’t have manufactured enough masks or ventilators.

The kicker: “There will be a vaccine very soon.”

Biden fell back on his bottom line: “A lot of people died, and a lot more are going to unless he gets a lot smarter.”

For voters still undecided about who’d better handle the pandemic, the exchange may not have offered them anything new.

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QUESTION ABOUT COURT, ANSWER ABOUT HEALTH CARE

Trump defended his decision to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court just weeks before Election Day, saying “elections have consequences.”

Biden said he was “not opposed to the justice,” but said the “American people have a right to have a say in who the Supreme Court nominee is.”

But rather than litigate Republicans’ 2016 blocking of Merrick Garland to the high court, Biden quickly pivoted to the issues that will potentially come before the court: healthcare and abortion. It’s an effort by the Democrat to refocus the all-but-certain confirmation fight for Trump’s third justice to the Supreme Court into an assault on Trump and his record.


Biden said Barrett, who would be the sixth justice on the nine-member court to be appointed by a Republican, would endanger the Affordable Care Act and tens of millions of Americans with preexisting conditions, and would imperil legalized abortion. It was a reframing of the political debate to terms far more favorable to the Democrat, and one Trump played into. Trump said of the conservative Barrett, “You don’t know her view on Roe vs. Wade” and he defended his efforts to try to chip away at the popular Obama-era health law.

Biden has tried to press Democrats to use the court confirmation fight as a rallying cry against Trump, and the debate discussion largely played out on his turf.

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‘INVISIBLE’ WALLACE STRUGGLES TO CONTAIN TRUMP

Debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News tried mightily to hold his ground Tuesday after saying beforehand that it was not his job to fact-check the candidates, especially Trump, in real time.

But Wallace struggled to stop Trump from interrupting and at times seemed to lose control of the debate.

“Mr. President, as the moderator, we are going to talk about Covid in the next segment,” Wallace said.

Soon after: “I’m the moderator, and I’d like you to let me ask my question.”

Minutes later: “I have to give you roughly equal time. Please let the vice president talk.”

And when Wallace noted that Trump hasn’t come up with his health care plan in nearly four years, Trump turned the question back on Wallace.

“First of all, I’m debating you and not him. That’s okay. I’m not surprised.”

Wallace said he wanted to be “invisible.”

Well, that was impossible.

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FAMILY BUSINESS

As expected, Trump found a way to bring up Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, and recycle allegations about the younger Biden’s international business practices. Biden called Trump’s litany “discredited” and fired back, “I mean, his family we can talk about all night.”

But Biden sidestepped any of the specifics of Trump’s international business dealings and instead turned straight to the camera. “This is not about my family or his family,” Biden said as Trump tried to talk over him. “This is about your family.”

In a later exchange, Trump interrupted Biden when he was talking about his late son, Beau Biden, who died of cancer in 2015 after having served in Iraq.

“I don’t know Beau, I know Hunter,” Trump said.

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TRUMP’S SERIAL INTERRUPTIONS

Trump is no stranger to going on offense, but his aggressive posture on stage left his Democratic opponent fighting to complete a sentence. Trump frequently interrupted Biden mid-sentence, sometimes in intensely personal ways.

“There’s nothing smart about you,” Trump said of Biden. “47 years you’ve done nothing.”

While Trump played into his reputation as a bully, it may have been effective at breaking up the worst of Biden’s attacks — simply by talking over them.

Trump aides believed before the debate that Biden would be unable to withstand the withering offensive on style and substance from Trump, but Biden came with a few retorts of his own, calling Trump a “clown” and mocking Trump’s style by asking, “Will you shut up, man?”

Trump’s supporters may have been cheered by his frontal assault. Whether undecided voters, who watched the debate to try to learn about the two candidates, were impressed is another matter.

Moderator Chris Wallace was none too amused, delivering a pointed reproach to Trump for his interruptions. “Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting,” Wallace said, appealing to Trump to let his opponent speak.

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BODY LANGUAGE

There was no opening handshake on Tuesday night because of Covid-19, but the body language between Trump and Biden still took center stage.

Trump scowled at his rival for much of the debate, or wagged his finger or waved his hand to dismiss his Democratic opponent.
Biden, meanwhile, regularly gazed into the camera when Trump interrupted him to make a direct appeal to the American people.

Trump “doesn’t want to talk about what you need - you, the American people. It’s about you,” Biden said at one point.

While Trump spoke, Biden shook his head, sometimes broke into a smile or a laugh, and occasionally simply stopped speaking and kept silent in exasperation.

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‘STAND BACK AND STAND BY’

Trump deflected a question asking him to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, instead calling on one group to “stand back and stand by” and then attacking left-wing activists.


Senior federal officials, including at the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, this month warned that white supremacist groups pose a rising threat of violence in the United States.

 
 
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