Since he first sought the Oval Office, President Donald Trump has relished in the idea that he is the “chaos president.” During his first debate with former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday night, he distilled his past five years in the political spotlight into the most highly concentrated dose of chaos of his presidency.
Trump, backed into an electoral corner with more than 200,000 dead from the coronavirus pandemic and an economy in shambles as a result, lashed out in every direction on the debate stage at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a petulant performance of personal and political grievance stunning even by Trumpian standards.
According to advisers close to the president, the act was not purely impulsive, but strategic—born out of a strategy that sought to confuse and confound Biden with the ultimate goal of getting the former vice president to stumble and lose his train of thought.
But in the aftermath of the carnage, even some of the president’s own boosters couldn’t help but concede that he had spent an hour and a half acting like a feral animal.
“I think on the Trump side, it was too hot,” former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had done debate prep with Trump leading up to Tuesday, said on ABC. “Listen, you come in and decide you want to be aggressive and that was the right thing, to be aggressive. But that was too hot.”
Reached for comment late Tuesday night, Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist who fronts the pro-Trump group Great America PAC, simply responded, “Wow. I have seen nothing like this ever. Don’t want to comment any further.” Asked if the president did a good job or not, Rollins would only reply, “No comment.”
The president, famously intransigent about traditional debate preparation and visibly antsy behind the lectern, barely allowed a single sentence before trampling over the speaker, whether it was spoken by Biden or from beleaguered moderator Chris Wallace, who appeared nearly incapable of halting the president’s trampling of the debate format. When Trump did speak, the utterances bounced between the incendiary to outright assaults on the American political system. He closed out by saying he believed the Supreme Court would intervene in the election (on ballot-related issues) and urged his supporters to go into polling locations in thinly veiled intimidation tactics.
Biden, whose weeks of preparation were clearly modeled on at least some version of the president’s burn-it-all-down debate strategy, had multiple canned rejoinders to Wallace’s attempts to corral Trump’s tirades—he employed some version of “he doesn’t know how to do that” multiple times when Trump was asked to allow him to finish his remarks. But in the words of CNN reporter Dana Bash moments after the debate’s conclusion, Biden could not extricate himself—much less elevate—the “shitshow.”
Beyond the supposed format of the debate, with two minutes of uninterrupted (dare to dream) remarks followed by open discussion, the minimal standards of adult behavior in the Trump era were thrown out of the window almost from its outset.
As Biden discussed the death of his eldest son, Beau, an Iraq War veteran who died from brain cancer in 2015, Trump interrupted to harangue Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s younger son, attacking him for his past addiction issues.
“Hunter got thrown out of the military, dishonorably discharged,” Trump said, incorrectly, as Biden and Wallace both appeared stunned that the president made his son’s struggles with substance abuse a topic of debate.
“My son, like a lot of people, had a drug problem,” Biden responded. “He’s overtaken it, he’s fixed it… and I’m proud of him.”
Biden, clearly operating under no false assumption that Trump would obey the rules of the debate, of decorum, or of human decency, often responded to Trump’s interruptions with his trademark “this guy’s such a clown” grin. But as the night wore on, and as Trump’s attacks on Biden’s mental fitness and his family increased in both frequency and savagery, his smile became a grimace, and finally a scowl.
“Would you shut up, man?” Biden said at one point. In the debate’s second hour, his eyes shut in clear frustration, Biden fumed that “it’s hard to get any word in with this clown—sorry, this person.” During a spat about racial biases in policing, he turned to Trump and declared him a “racist.”
In the Trump administration’s fourth year, it is universally acknowledged that the president will always be himself—he knows no other speed than breakneck, no other mode but attack. But in the midst of the melee, some moments of grievance managed to shock even the most jaded Trump observers.
At one point, the president refused to condemn white supremacists, instead calling on Proud Boys—a violent ultranationalist club for hipster racists that takes their name from a cut song from Disney’s Aladdin—to “stand back and stand by” for civil unrest. That moment was almost immediately turned into a rallying cry by the group, which has begun policing Trump campaign events and has vowed to “monitor” polling places on election day. Later in the debate, he appeared to confuse Hillary Clinton’s famous “superpredators” quote with something that Biden had said.
During an exchange about the pandemic, Trump interrupted his own rant with a mini-rant gleaned from Fox News about Biden misidentifying his alma mater.
“You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me,” Trump said. “Because you know what, there’s nothing smart about you, Joe.”
As a moderator—working solo due to coronavirus restrictions—Wallace had all the influence of a windsock in such situations.
Despite the vast gap between his and Biden’s effective speaking time, Trump avoided directly answering many of the questions, including two that are generally not difficult for American presidents: “Will you condemn white supremacists?” and “Will you accept the results of the election?”
“I guess I’m debating you and not him,” Trump said after his first of many tangles with Wallace about interrupting Biden, “but that’s OK.”
“Do you realize you're both speaking at the same time?” Wallace said weakly in the debate’s first half-hour. When the debate’s second section, devoted to discussing the coronavirus pandemic, began, Wallace pleaded with the candidates to “try to be serious.”
Trump’s entourage, at least, did not see the issue as particularly serious. Despite urgings from the Cleveland Clinic, which advised the Commission on Presidential Debates on health guidance to avoid spreading the coronavirus, that all attendees observe social distancing rules and wear facial coverings due to coronavirus restrictions, more than half of Trump’s guests, including all four of his adult children, did not wear facial coverings.
Across Trumpworld and the president’s re-election effort, however, the evening’s shouting and the belligerent cross-talking was, in large part, precisely the point. According to two sources familiar with the president’s preparations, it has long been Trump’s stated intention to try to knock Biden off his game by flooding the debate with personal and family jabs, subject change, and indignant-sounding interruptions. Part of the president’s thinking, the sources said, was to attempt to get the former veep to start faltering on live national TV, thus reinforcing Team Trump’s narrative of a doddering, “sleepy” Democratic opponent.
For the most part, it didn’t seem to work on Tuesday night. Some Trump advisers and confidants cheering on the president as the debate aired resorted to making the Fox News host and moderator the primary object of derision, instead of Barack Obama’s vice president.
“Wallace is Trump’s real adversary. Biden is a mumbling footnote,” Rudy Giuliani, a Trump attorney and lead Biden antagonist who the president brought along to Cleveland Tuesday, messaged The Daily Beast as he watched the debate. “Look how aggressive Wallace is with Trump. And he’s beating Wallace, Biden’s kind of disappearing. Trump is in command of both and Wallace is more effective than Biden.”
John McLaughlin, a top pollster for Trump, also seemed eager to work the refs and make the Fox News Sunday host the villain, saying shortly after the debate ended that the “president dominated. Wallace was [the] loser. Biden got away with calling the President a liar and clown and Wallace asked Trump about taxes but never asked Biden about Hunter and family corruption.”
The Trump campaign, apparently so confident of the president’s victory in Tuesday night’s debate that the debate itself was irrelevant to that conclusion, blasted an email to Trump supporters forty minutes before the debate began lauding the president’s performance.
“I showed the American People that I will ALWAYS fight to put America First no matter what,” the Trump-signed email read.
Still, not every Trump ally and operative was pleased with how the leader of the free world handled himself, arguing that the president was too grumpy, to the detriment of his strategy to humiliate or trip-up his liberal opponent.
“They both yelled too much and were too angry,” one Republican close to the Trump campaign told The Daily Beast shortly before midnight. “Biden’s entire theory of the case and pitch to voters is his calmness and a return to normalcy and I think he undermined that pitch with this performance. On the other hand, while Biden was clearly struggling throughout, every time he began to fumble the football, Trump would throw him a lifeline and interrupt him before the fumble was completed. It wasn’t a debate that either side should be proud of.”
Near the end of the televised event, Trump implied ominously that the violence and tumult in American streets, and the deep divisions in the nation, that were discussed at the debate were just a sample of what was to come on and after Election Day.
“This is not going to end well,” Trump vowed. “This is not going to end well.”