Biden and Trump Trade Insults, Accusations Of Lying In Acrimonious Presidential Debate

Jennifer Shutt and Jacob Fischler

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump pitched to undecided voters Thursday night during the first debate of the presidential campaign — trading insults over their policy differences, immigration and who represents a threat to democracy.

During the debate from CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta, the two men argued over who can do better for Americans during the next four years on a broad swath of issues, ranging from the economy to climate change to foreign policy. Each repeatedly accused the other of lying.

Biden early in the debate spoke softly at several points, coughed and gave several somewhat confusing answers. At one point, Biden appeared to lose his train of thought and ended an answer with the statement that “we finally beat Medicare.”

His performance, filled with stumbles, prompted immediate questions after the debate about replacing him with another Democrat.

Reporters swamped high-profile Democrats on hand to help the Biden campaign promote a post-debate message with questions about whether they regretted having Biden as a candidate or whether he should be replaced.

One top-tier potential candidate, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, told reporters he would not consider it.

“I would never turn my back on President Biden,” Newsom said in the post-debate spin room. “I don’t know a Democrat in my party that would do so. And especially after tonight, we have his back. We run not the 90 -yard dash. We’re all in. We’re going to double down in the next few months.”

Abortion, Jan. 6, election results

Biden and Trump disagreed sharply over access to reproductive rights, including abortion, with Trump arguing Democrats’ position is “radical” and Biden saying that leaving decisions up to the states has been “terrible” for women.

Biden, 81, and Trump, 78, did not shake hands at the beginning, a break from past debates. They walked their separate ways after the 90-minute debate wrapped up, minutes after attacking each other’s mental acuity, golf game and weight.

Near the end of the debate, Trump said political violence was “totally unacceptable,” though he went on to downplay the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, defending the conduct of his mob of supporters.

Trump initially did not directly answer a question about whether he would accept the results of the election if he lost. When pressed by moderator Dana Bash, Trump conditioned his answer.

“If it’s a fair and legal and good election, absolutely,” Trump said. He then repeated the oft-debunked claims that election fraud was a major issue in his 2020 loss.

Jabs over personal conduct

Even with rules meant to minimize crosstalk, the debate — moderated by Bash, anchor and chief political correspondent, and Jake Tapper, anchor and chief Washington correspondent — saw many moments of acrimony.

While Trump had harsh words about Biden’s border policy and Biden blasted his predecessor for appointing Supreme Court justices who overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, they saved their harshest criticism for the other’s personal conduct.

Referring to reports that, as president, Trump said veterans killed in action in France during World War II were “suckers and losers,” Biden, invoked his son, Beau, who was a National Guard veteran and later died of brain cancer.

“My son was not a loser and was not a sucker,” Biden told his predecessor, scowling. “You’re the sucker. You’re the loser.”

Trump denied he ever made the remark, first reported in The Atlantic and confirmed in other reports.

Biden at several times attacked Trump’s credibility and truthfulness, saying after one answer, “Every single thing he said is a lie.”

“I never heard so much malarkey in my whole life,” he said in response to another of Trump’s answers.

Trump brought up the conviction of Biden’s son, Hunter, on federal gun charges this year. And he said that Joe Biden could face prosecution for his performance on border security.

Trump and his legal team argued in front of the Supreme Court in April that presidents have absolute immunity from criminal prosecution.

Trump’s conviction

Thursday’s event was the first presidential debate where one participant was a convicted felon.

A New York state jury in May found Trump guilty of 34 felony counts for falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels for an affair she testified they had that Trump didn’t want to harm his 2016 election prospects.

Trump has denied the affair and it hasn’t affected his support within the GOP, though his sentencing July 11 could affect his campaign strategy.

Trump rejected his criminal conviction during the debate and reiterated his stance that he didn’t have a sexual relationship with an adult film star.

“I didn’t have sex with a porn star,” Trump said, marking the first time such words, or anything near them, have been uttered during a presidential debate.

“I did nothing wrong, we have a system that was rigged and disgusting,” Trump said. “I did nothing wrong.”

Trump also responded to the question by referring to Hunter Biden.

“When he talks about a convicted felon, his son is a convicted felon,” Trump said.

Jan. 6 disagreement

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to release a ruling within days in another trial involving Trump, this time on whether presidents enjoy complete immunity from criminal prosecution for their actions while in office.

The justices’ decision will determine whether a federal trial against Trump for election interference stemming from his actions on Jan. 6, 2021 can proceed.

During the debate, Trump said that “on January 6 we were respected all over the world,” but that changed after Biden took office.

Trump seemed to imply that the people who stormed the Capitol building were “innocent” and “patriotic,” saying that “you ought to be ashamed of yourself” for those people being in prison.

Biden said that Trump encouraged the “folks” who attacked the U.S. Capitol building and U.S. Capitol Police officers.

“If they’re convicted, he says he wants to commute their sentences,” Biden said, criticizing Trump’s behavior that day. “These people should be in jail. They should be the ones held accountable.”

Biden rejected the idea that the people who attacked the police and disrupted the electoral certification were patriots.

Divide on abortion rights

Reproductive rights — including access to abortion — sharply divided Biden and Trump, who sparred over which political party’s stance is better.

Trump said that he agreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month to leave access to mifepristone, one of two pharmaceuticals used in medication abortion, in place. And he said he wouldn’t seek to limit access if elected president in November.

“I agree with their decision to have done that, and I will not block it,” Trump said, adding that the Supreme Court’s earlier decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion was a good thing.

“We brought it back to the states and the country is now coming together on this issue,” Trump said. “It’s been a great thing.”

Trump said he supports exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the woman.

Biden rejected Trump’s classification that Democrats are “radical” on abortion policy and said he supports reinstating the protections that existed under Roe v. Wade.

“It’s been a terrible thing,” Biden said of leaving decisions about abortion access up to state lawmakers, comparing it to leaving civil rights decisions up to the states.

Trump said during an interview with Time magazine released in April that his campaign was on the brink of releasing a policy regarding mifepristone, one of two pharmaceuticals used in medication abortion. The campaign has yet to release that policy.

Trump suggested that he would be okay with states limiting or barring access to contraception during a May interview with a Pittsburgh TV news station. But he quickly walked back those comments in a social media post.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank, has suggested that another Trump administration could block the mailing of mifepristone by enforcing the Comstock Act.

The group included the proposal along with dozens of others in Project 2025, its 920-page blueprint for a second Trump administration.

The 1873 anti-obscenity law hasn’t been enforced in decades and is referred to as a “zombie law” by reproductive rights organizations, but it is still technically a law.

A future Republican attorney general seeking to enforce the law to block the mailing of mifepristone would likely see the law challenged in court, likely working its way up to the Supreme Court.

Mifepristone is one of two pharmaceuticals used in medication abortions, which are approved for up to 10 weeks gestation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The two-drug regimen accounts for about 63% of all abortions within the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

First of two debates

The two presidential debates this year are a departure from past years, with both candidates ditching the proposed schedule from the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

Biden and Trump later agreed to two debates, the one held Thursday by CNN and another one on Sept. 10 that will be hosted by ABC News.

CNN opted to hold its debate at its studios in Atlanta, Georgia, without an audience. Thursday night’s debate was also earlier than any other presidential debates, which have traditionally begun in September or October.

The television news network created frustration ahead of the debate with the White House Correspondents Association when it decided to keep the pool, the group of journalists that travel everywhere with the president, out of the room.

Kelly O’Donnell, president of the WHCA, released a statement Thursday afternoon that the organization was “deeply concerned that CNN has rejected our repeated requests to include the White House travel pool inside the studio.”

“The pool is there for the ‘what ifs?’ in a world where the unexpected does happen,” wrote O’Donnell, who is also the senior White House correspondent for NBC News. “A pool reporter is present to provide context and insight by direct observation and not through the lens of the television production.”

CNN’s rules also said that neither Biden nor Trump was allowed to bring props or pre-written notes into the debate area.

Each stood behind “a uniform podium” and was not allowed to interact with campaign staff during the two commercial breaks.

Biden was scheduled to travel with first lady Jill Biden to Raleigh, North Carolina, immediately after the debate wrapped. They’re set to participate in campaign events on Friday morning before traveling to New York later in the day.

The Bidens are then expected to travel to Red Bank, New Jersey, on Saturday for more campaigning before heading back to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

Trump will attend a campaign rally Friday afternoon in Chesapeake, Virginia. In a release announcing the event, Trump criticized Biden on inflation, crime and drug addiction, and immigration.

Reaction in the spin room

While Democrats were pelted with questions about Biden inside the spin room following the debate, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat, focused on Trump.

“The American people got a chance tonight to be reminded about the character of Donald Trump, a man who stood there and lied for 90 minutes straight,” Warnock said. “But what I was also struck by was by what he did not say. Every time he was asked a question that had something to do with the lives of the ordinary working-class people that I represent here in the state of Georgia, did you notice he never answered the question?”

Trump allies declared victory for the former president.

“People who have not made up their mind, if you were watching this debate, you’re voting for Donald Trump,” South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican whom Trump is considering as his running mate, said. “It was one of the greatest contrasts between two politicians I’ve ever seen in my life. The dominance of Donald Trump is undeniable.”

Scott and fellow potential Trump vice presidential pick Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York declined to comment on the possibility they could be asked to join the Trump ticket.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said he would “very seriously” consider an offer if Trump made it.

Ross Williams and Jill Nolin contributed to this report.

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