Presidential Debate 1: Chaos and Controversy

Statesman breaks down top moments of first presidential debate.

On Tuesday, September 29, the first presidential debate between Democratic candidate Joe Biden and current Republican President Donald Trump was full of controversy, interruption, and fiery moments. As the first of three presidential debates for the upcoming election, the debate was an opportunity for the candidates to make their stance to the American people and attack the opposition head-on. 


What ended up happening was a spectacle of “chaos and acrimony,” as described by the Washington Post. Over the course of the debate, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News struggled to maintain order on the stage, with interruptions prevalent by Trump. At one point, Biden even told Trump, “Will you shut up, man?”


The disorder presented to the American public on Tuesday was so startling that Dana Bash of CNN called it a “sh*tshow” in her reaction to the debate. The chaos and negative reaction has led The Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan organization that has sponsored the debates since 1988, to consider “additional structures” for the upcoming debates that would benefit the electorate.

Nevertheless, multiple topics were still discussed: the Trump and Biden records, the Supreme Court, the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, race and violence in American cities, and the integrity of the election. All of these are controversial issues facing the nation today, but a large portion of the debate was composed of personal attacks between Trump and Biden.



Didn’t watch the debate? We watched it for you. Here are a few key moments:

Trump Addressed White Supremacy: 

In what may be the most defining moment of the evening, Wallace asked Trump: “Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacist and militia groups, and to say that they need to stand down?” Trump remained unable to say anything definitive, while Biden pressured him to say it in the background. After a few minutes of back and forth, Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about ANTIFA and the left… this is a left wing problem.” Trump’s hesitation to condemn white supremacists led to severe backlash on social media.


Mail-in Voting: 

In the last segment of the debate, Wallace asked both Trump and Biden about voting over mail. Trump spewed falsehoods and misinformation regarding mail-in voting, like when he claimed that unsolicited ballots were “swamping” state officials. With no evidence, he claimed that Democratic state leaders were allowing their citizens to vote after election day. He called a mail-in election “rigged” despite the fact that the rate of voting fraud in the United States is estimated between 0.00004% and 0.0009%, according to a 2017 study by the Brennan Center for Justice. Trump called on his voters to be wary of fraud, telling them that they should watch their ballots on election day. Biden reminded viewers that Trump votes over mail. Neither candidate presented a definitive answer to Chris Wallace’s question asking if they would encourage their supporters to peacefully accept the result of the election. Trump said that he would not accept the election under certain circumstances and reminded viewers that the Supreme Court could back him up in that situation. 


The Supreme Court: 

Biden and Trump continued their fight on filling the newly open SCOTUS seat following the sudden passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Using the same argument that Republicans did in 2016 (nine months before the election), Biden argued that the American people must have a say on the seat by voting for both the president and senators in the 2020 election. Trump asserted that he has the right to fill the seat, and repeatedly said, “I’m elected for four years, not three.”



Trump came into the debate with most polls saying that Americans were unhappy with his COVID-19 relief efforts and the US recently hitting a death toll of 200,000. When Biden kept bringing up the death toll, Trump focused on his early efforts banning travel from China and, at one point, claimed that had Biden been president, there would be far more deaths. Trump also mocked Biden for wearing a mask, saying that it was too big, just moments after taking a mask out of his own pocket to prove he is pro-mask. Both candidates argued on whether Dr. Anthony Fauci has approved the President’s response to the pandemic, even though Fauci has disagreed with the degree of Trump’s testing/quarantining and the lack of mask mandates. Trump and Melania tested positive for the virus on October 1.    


Climate Change:

While both presidential candidates managed not to give very many straightforward answers to questions regarding climate change, their deflections brought up some key points. When Wallace asked a question about climate change, he referenced the forest fires in the west and Trump’s previous statement of “I don’t think the science knows” in regards to climate change. Since the question was directed to Trump, he responded by saying “I want crystal clear water and air” even though he has denied this progress from occurring while in office. 


One of Trump’s deflections to the topic of forest fires in California was blaming California forest management. “The forest floors are loaded up with trees, dead trees that are years old, and they’re like tinder, and leaves and everything else, you drop a cigarette in there, the whole forest burns down” Trump said. Another significant point of this section of the debate was his rollbacks on environmental policies and withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. 


Although many of Wallace’s questions were critical of Trump’s attitude towards climate change in office, most of Wallace’s questions for Biden asked about his future plans. “I will rejoin the Paris Accord,” Biden said. Biden also mentioned how he wants to run on electric vehicles, he wants buildings to be weatherized, and how he wants international accountability for progress in climate change for the future. Biden ended this segment by defending the Green New Deal from Trump’s criticism, even though he explicitly said he does not support it and supports his own climate change plan. 


Family Issues: 

Although officially the debate centered on policy-related matters, it was also filled with personal attacks from both candidates. Trump, in a move heavily criticized, made comments about Biden’s sons. “This is not about my family or his family. It’s about your family, the American people,” Biden said while looking at the camera in response to Trump comments. Later on in the debate, Trump made another comment on Biden’s son.He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged… for cocaine use. And he didn’t have a job until you became vice president,” Trump said about Hunter Biden. Biden then went on to defend his son from Trump’s comments. The back and forth over Biden’s sons lasted a few minutes, and turned away from a discussion of policy and into an uncomfortable discussion over family.