CLEVELAND – Joe Biden and Donald Trump exchanged heated barbs on Tuesday, attacking each other’s competence and credibility, in a fiery first presidential debate 35 days ahead of the most tense US election in recent memory.
There was no handshake as the two men took the stage and while this was due to COVID-19 restrictions, the absence of the traditional greeting symbolised the bitterness engulfing the country in the final countdown to November 3.
Just minutes in, the debate turned into an all-out and personal brawl as they raced through issues from a Supreme Court vacancy to the coronavirus pandemic to the US health care system.
“Everything he’s saying so far is simply a lie. I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar,” former vice president Biden said.
Biden — taking on a feisty, aggressive tone despite Trump’s taunts that he had low energy — then told the US president: “Will you shut up, man?”
“It’s hard to get a word in with this clown,” Biden snapped at one point.
Biden, who is leading in polls, sought to tie Trump squarely to the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives in the United States, more than in any other country.
“How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID?” Biden said.
Mocking the 74-year-old Trump for one of his more notorious statements from the White House podium, Biden said: “Maybe you could inject bleach in your arm and that would take care of it.”
– ‘Nothing smart about you’ –
Trump hit back that his bleach remark had been in jest and quickly tried to land punches on Biden.
He attacked both his track record as Barack Obama’s vice president and even questioned the 77-year-old’s educational record.
“Don’t ever use the word smart with me. Don’t ever use that word with me. There’s nothing smart about you, Joe,” Trump said.
Trump at one point charged that the “radical left” has Biden “wrapped around their finger.”
He also attacked Biden’s insistence on wearing a mask to prevent COVID, a decision in line with medical experts’ advice.
“You have to understand, I have a mask right here. I put a mask on when I think I need it,” Trump said.
“I don’t wear a mask like him, every time you see him, he’s got a mask.”
Before they even appeared for the first of three 90-minute TV showdowns, barbs were flying.
Biden, seeking to eat into Trump’s crucial support among blue-collar voters, capitalised on bombshell revelations that the billionaire Trump managed to avoid paying almost any federal income taxes for years.