Highlights from the first Biden-Trump debate of 2024: attacks, stumbles and falsehoods

Democratic US President Joe Biden and his Republican rival Donald Trump took the stage on Thursday night for a debate that offered voters a rare side-by-side look at the two oldest candidates ever to seek the US presidency.

Here are some of the major takeaways:

Hoarse and buggy

The leading question going into the debate was how the two men, both of whom have faced questions about their fitness for the job, would handle themselves on stage.

The early going favoured Trump, 78, who appeared forceful and energetic when compared to the 81-year-old Biden, who spoke in a hoarse, halting voice and coughed regularly.

Trump jabbed Biden for being incoherent, saying at one point: “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said”.

The White House said during the debate that the president was suffering from a cold, while a Democratic strategist who worked on Biden’s 2020 campaign called it a “disaster”.

US President Joe Biden. Photo: Reuters

Biden began to find his footing later in the debate as he attacked Trump’s character. “The idea that I would apologise to you?” Biden asked at one point, incredulous after Trump accused him of mistreating veterans.

“You’re the sucker. You’re the loser,” Biden told Trump.

Each suggested the other was a criminal.

“The only person on this stage who is a convicted felon is the man I’m looking at right now,” Biden said and then accused Trump of having sex with porn star Stormy Daniels.

The bad blood between the two men was on display from the start when they eschewed the traditional handshake. Biden frequently referred to Trump as “this guy” and chuckled at some of his opponent’s more hyperbolic statements.

Sparring over the economy

Both candidates blamed the other for the number one issue on voters’ minds: inflation.

Biden accused Trump of leaving him a “terrible” economy in response to the moderators’ first question about rising prices paid by consumers.

Trump replied that Biden’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic was a “disaster” and said inflation was “absolutely killing us”.

He blamed the pandemic for wrecking the economy and his shot at re-election. “Everything was rocking good,” he said.

Voters, right now, seem to be agreeing more with Trump than Biden, with polls showing they favour Trump’s handling of the economy.

Biden’s challenge on Thursday was to make clear to viewers that his administration is the one that dug the country out of the pandemic-induced hole.

“There was no inflation when I became president,” Biden said. “You know why? The economy was flat on its back.”

Donald Trump during the debate. Photo: AFP

Losing his train of thought

Biden seemed to lose his train of thought while responding to a question about the national debt.

His voice trailing off several times, Biden first referred to “billionaires” as “trillionaires” before correcting himself.

Then, while arguing that the wealthy should pay more tax, he seemed unable to complete his sentence, pausing for an extended awkward moment, before ending his thought in a way that sounded nonsensical.

Tax reform would create money to help “strengthen our healthcare system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I was able to do with the, with the Covid, excuse me, with dealing with everything we had to do with,” Biden said before pausing.

“We finally beat Medicare,” Biden said, likely referring to Covid-19.

Trump pounced.

“He’s right. He did beat Medicare. He beat it to death.”

Trump claims he could end Ukraine war before January

Trump blamed Biden for the war in Ukraine and called on Europe to up spending to support Kyiv.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “would have never invaded Ukraine” if the United States “had a real president,” Trump said.

Trump again claimed he would be able to “settle” the war if re-elected, even ahead of January 20, when he would be inaugurated if he won the presidency. He did not say how he would achieve that, however.

Trump also demanded that Biden pressure European allies to spend more on supporting Ukraine.

When asked whether Russia’s terms for ending the war were acceptable, Trump said they were not.

When it was his turn, Biden called Putin “a war criminal”, as he has repeatedly done before. “He’s killed thousands and thousands of people,” Biden said, warning that the Russian leader would not stop after taking Ukraine.

Trump asked if he will accept results of 2024 election

Though asked three times, Trump never directly affirmed that he would accept the election results, no matter who wins.

Several times Trump noted that he would accept the results “if it’s a fair and legal and good election” but wouldn’t give a “yes” or “no” answer to moderator Dana Bash’s inquiries.

The follow-ups came after Trump ultimately denounced political violence as “totally unacceptable”.

After the moderator asked Trump three times whether he would accept the results of the November election, Biden responded that he doubted Trump would “because you’re such a whiner”.

Biden noted there was no evidence of any widespread fraud in the 2020 election and that multiple courts had dismissed challenges brought by Trump’s campaign.

Additional reporting by dpa and Associated Press



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