Biden and Trump Debate: Personal Attacks and a Shaky Performance By Biden

The first of two planned presidential debates.
The first of two planned presidential debates. Screenshot

For President Joe Biden, this debate was a bid to get two things across to voters: that he’s sharp, not too old and is fit for the job – and that Trump is unfit for another term in the White House.

Meanwhile, former-President Donald Trump was intent on proving that it’s Biden who shouldn’t be commander and chief, and to persuade voters they’ll have a better outlook with another round under his tenure instead.

Arguably, neither of them managed to achieve their goals.

At one point, things got personal. Biden jabbed at Trump for allegedly having sex with a porn star while his wife was pregnant.

“I didn’t have sex with a porn star,” Trump insisted.

Trump, angry, called Biden the worst president in history. Biden said that more than 100 historians have dubbed Trump the worst U.S. president.

And all the while, debate CNN’s moderators, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, just let it all unfold. It was certainly a debate unlike any we’ve ever seen before.

Admittedly, some of the weirdness can be chalked up to how this debate was structured based on a number of rules negotiated between the teams of the two candidates.

For starters, since 1987 these debates have been organized by the Committee for Presidential Debates. They also have never been held before both candidates formally accepted their respective party nominations. (In July, for Trump, shortly after he’ll be sentenced for his conviction of 34 felony counts in the Manhattan hush money case. The DNC is slated to hold their convention in August.)

But both the Biden and Trump teams opted to go their own way for 2024. In May Biden announced his terms for debating his predecessor, issuing a challenge that was swiftly picked up by his opponent, leading the two campaigns to agree to two debates, this one and another in September.

The teams also worked out the details of tonight’s debate over the past weeks, agreeing to no audience, or members of the press in the room during the 90-minute debate. (That last decision led White House Press Corps journalists to issue a letter publicly requesting that one presidential pool reporter be allowed in the hall, a request CNN and company denied.) The two sides agreed that the microphone would be cut off whenever the other candidate was speaking.

With all the rules in place, on Thursday night promptly at 8 p.m. CST, Tapper and Bash took their places. Then, the current U.S. president, and the former U.S. president assembled behind their respective podiums in a studio at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters and we were off to the races.

They started off with the economy. Trump claimed he “greatest economy in the history of our country,” denying that his plan to impose a 10 percent tariff on all imported goods will raise prices for those goods.
Biden hit back noting that more jobs were lost on Trump’s watch than any other president, including Herbert Hoover, of Great Depression-fame. “He rewarded the wealthy,” Biden said as Trump nodded. “If you take a look at what he did with his administration, he didn’t do much at all. What he left was chaos, absolute chaos.”

“There was no inflation when I left office,” Trump crowed.

“There was no inflation when I became president,” Biden responded. “You know why? Because the economy was flat on its back when I came into office. He decimated the economy.”

Things really began to heat up when Tapper brought up abortion. Trump and Biden really got going.

“We did a great thing,” Trump said, insisting that the Dobbs decision that SCOTUS dropped a year ago this week, reversing Roe v. Wade and allowing Texas and other conservative states to enact stringent abortion bans that have made it difficult if not impossible to obtain an abortion in those states.

“It’s been a terrible thing, what you’ve done,” Biden shot back. “For 51 years that was the law, for 51 years constitutional scholarship said that was correct.” His voice, which had been hoarse since the start of the debate, strengthened as he vowed to restore Roe if he is re-elected come November.

Then they moved to immigration, followed rapidly by the border. “Every single thing he said is a lie,” Biden responded, coming after Trump for his claim that Biden doesn’t care about veterans.

When Biden brought up how Trump opted not to visit an American World War I cemetery in France Trump – who denied and outright lied about a range of things as the debate wore on-- even started denying that he had said the soldiers buried there were “suckers and losers.” (John Kelly, a four-star Marine general and Trump’s former chief-of-staff confirmed that Trump said that in 2023.) “My son was not a sucker or a loser. You’re the sucker. You’re the loser,” Biden said angrily.

Ultimately, anyone on the fence who watched this debate hoping for some clarity probably didn’t get it, but it wasn’t a great night for Biden.

Traditionally, the performance of incumbent presidents on the first debate tends to be weaker than expected, sending party members into a tizzy. This time around has most likely proved to be no exception.

Suffering from a cold, Biden’s hoarse voice and sometimes unfocused answers just were not the performance he needed to convince voters that are on the fence about his age to look past it.

Trump came off with more energy and more focus – despite insisting he wasn’t doing any debate prep, he clearly did plenty. But at the same time, he spent a lot of his time on stage insulting Biden, making false claims and declining yet again to pledge to accept the election results if he doesn’t win.

In other words, he did well, but he is still exactly who he was and who he has always been.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray