U.S. President Donald Trump refused to denounce far-right, white supremacist organizations that have been involved in violent altercations across the United States in recent months as he faced off against Democratic rival Joe Biden in their first presidential debate on Tuesday.
When asked by debate moderator Chris Wallace if he is willing to denounce white supremacists and the far-right “Proud Boys.” Trump said they should “stand back and stand by.”
Wallace asked Trump: “Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacist and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha and Portland?”
Trump replied, “I’m willing to do that but I would say almost everything I see comes from the left-wing, not from the right-wing” – ignoring the violence from far-right supporters that has spiked in recent months.
Wallace continued, “then do it, Sir" as former Vice President Joe Biden joined in saying, “just do it, say it.”
Trump replied: “You want to call them… what do you want to call them? Give me a name.”
Wallace quickly responded, “white supremacists” and Biden specifically mentioned the “Proud Boys”, to which Trump responded: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, someone's gotta do something about Antifa and the left.”
Biden responded by clarifying that Trump’s own FBI director has stated that far-right violence is the main problem.
A post-debate poll by CBS News revealed 48 percent of viewers believe Biden won the contest, with 41 percent backing the president, and 10 percent saying the night ended in a tie. Meanwhile, an instant poll by CNN gave Biden a more decisive victory: 60 percent to Trump's 28 percent.
At times, moderator Chris Wallace tried in vain to control the fiery debate, as the two White House contenders talked over each other and lobbed insults in a breathtaking political brawl that made it hard for either man to make a point.
"Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential," said an exasperated Biden after repeated interruptions during only the first segment of the debate on the Supreme Court.
Biden called Trump a "clown" and a "racist" and told him: "You're the worst president America has ever had."
Trump for his part said: "There's nothing smart about you, Joe."
Biden questioned Trump's leadership on the coronavirus pandemic, saying Trump had panicked and failed to protect Americans because he was more concerned about the economy.
"He panicked or he looked at the stock market," Biden said of Trump, who has pushed for states to reopen their economies and played down the threat of the pandemic.
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"A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker," Biden said.
Trump objected to Biden using the word "smart."
"You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don't ever use the word smart with me. Don't ever use that word," Trump said.
He defended his approach on the pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States and put millions of Americans out of work.
"We've done a great job," Trump said. "But I tell you, Joe, you could never have done the job we've done. You don't have it in your blood."
With more than a million Americans already casting early ballots and time running out to change minds or influence the small sliver of undecided voters, the stakes were enormous as the two White House candidates took the stage five weeks before the November 3 Election Day.
The two contenders did not shake hands as they entered the debate, adhering to protocols on social distancing because of the coronavirus.
Biden, 77, has held a consistent lead over Trump, 74, in national opinion polls, although surveys in the battleground states that will decide the election show a closer contest.
The 90-minute debate, with a limited and socially distanced in-person audience because of the pandemic, was held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. It was the first of three scheduled presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.