Missed the US presidential debate? Here are five key takeaways from a chaotic evening

300920 Trump Biden presidential debate AP
Joe Biden and Donald Trump clashed in a stormy presidential debate with their families watching. Credit: AP

President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden squared off for 90 minutes after more than a year of circling around each other.

In a memorable debate – perhaps for all the wrong reasons – the two struggled to articulate their points while interrupted by the other.

Mr Trump, in particular, had to be reeled in by moderator Chris Wallace more than once.

It was a fiery and chaotic event with little in the way of constructive debate or discussion around policy, with each differing starkly in style and substance.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the first of three presidential debates.

Donald Trump would not stop interrupting Joe Biden

Mr Trump is no stranger to going on offense, and his gung-ho style left his Democratic opponent fighting to complete a sentence. Mr Trump frequently interrupted Biden mid-sentence, sometimes in intensely personal ways.

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

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

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

The president’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.

The president refused to condemn white supremacists

Mr Trump infamously said there were good people “on both sides” after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of a counter-protester.

When questioned by Mr Wallace about whether he was willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, the president sidestepped the issue and tried to deflect attention.

“I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing,” he responded. “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”

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When pressed further, he said, “What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name?”

Finally, he said: “Proud Boys - stand back, stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not right-wing problem... this is a left wing problem.”

Antifa followers have appeared at anti-racism protests, but there’s been little evidence behind Republican claims that Antifa members are to blame for the violence at such protests.

Their different attitudes to the election result

President Trump and Mr Biden painted a very different picture of the reliability of the upcoming election.

Mr Biden urged voters to cast their ballots and not be intimidated by Mr Trump’s suggestions he might not accept a loss. The president has been groundlessly shrouding doubt on the reliability of mail ballots and elections in general.

“Vote whatever way is the best way for you,” Mr Biden said. “Because he will not be able to stop you from determining the outcome of this election.”

Mr Biden agreed not to declare victory before the ballots are counted and to accept voters’ verdicts.

Mr Trump, however, continued to spread falsehoods about mail voting. He said falsely that his campaign’s poll watchers were improperly turned away at a Philadelphia early voting site on Tuesday – the truth is the poll watchers had not yet been accredited to observe.

He suggested widespread Democratic fraud because a handful of ballots were improperly thrown in the trash last week, but didn’t mention it occurred in a Republican-controlled elections office and was quickly reported to authorities.

Mr Biden urged viewers not to worry about his scare tactics.

“I will accept it, and he will, too. You know why?” Biden said. “Because once the winner is declared once all the ballots are counted, that’ll be the end of it.” Family is not off-limits

As expected, Mr 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.

Mr Trump said Hunter Biden reaped millions in ill-gotten profit from China and other overseas interests, accusations that have been repeatedly debunked.

Mr Biden shot back, “none of that is true.” He then added of Trump: “His family, we could talk all night.”

But Mr 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,” he said as Mr 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. And Donald Trump just cannot escape Covid-19

Donald Trump took out a mask from his blazer in the debate before mocking Joe Biden for constantly wearing one. Credit: AP

Mr 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,” Mr Biden told the president, referring to Mr Trump’s months of downplaying Covid-19 while he said privately he understood how deadly it is.

But Mr Trump didn’t take it quietly.

He proceeded to blitz Mr Biden with a mix of self-defence and counter-attacks. 200,000 dead? Mr Biden’s death toll would have been “millions,” he said.

A rocky economy? Mr Biden would’ve been worse. Mr Biden wouldn’t have manufactured enough masks or ventilators.

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

Mr 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 anything new.

Watch the presidential debate in full