The 90-minute debate quickly descended into chaos after Trump began to interrupt both Biden and the moderator, Fox News' Chris Wallace. The night didn't get much calmer from there.
Read highlights from Tuesday's debate below:
Trump family members ignore mandatory mask rule
The Trump family and other members of the administration entered the debate hall, where rules mandated everyone in the room wear masks, without masks.
From your pool era vantage point, all family members who entered without a mask, members of his administration and other guests were not wearing a mask. A Cleveland Clinic doctor in a white lab coat started to approach Trump family guests to ask them to put on masks. She offered them one in case they didn’t get one. She never approached any family members but as she got closer to them, someone shook their head and no one she reminded to put on a mask ended up putting one on.
Jill Biden, Sen. Chris Coons and others sitting in the Democratic section began to look over. Trump family members began to ask their guests what had happened.
When the doctor, who refused to comment to the press, walked off the floor, a debate hall staffer told her “That’s all you can do."
Fact-check: Biden says GOP lawsuit 'will strip 20 million people' of their insurance
Biden claimed that the Republican-backed lawsuit targeting Obamacare would strip 20 million people of their health care coverage.
This checks out, according to multiple studies. The Center for American Progress estimated in a recent analysis that 23.3 million would lose their health care if the GOP-backed legal challenge to the law succeeds before the Supreme Court. An estimated 20 million people gained coverage under Obamacare, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In the first 20 minutes, both candidates stay mostly on topic
Health care and the Supreme Court dominated the first 20 minutes of the debate. Both Trump and Biden stayed mostly on topic. Follow our live tracker here.
Supreme Court debate turns into a health care battle
The argument over having Amy Coney Barrett confirmed to the Supreme Court quickly turned into a battle over health care policy.
Barely any time was spent on the Supreme Court nomination before Trump and Biden began debating health care policy.
But there was barely any “debate” over their policies. Trump repeatedly interrupted Wallace and Biden. Barely any complete sentences were said.
Wallace, who wanted to be 'invisible,' spars with Trump
Trump has come out the gates with energy, but Wallace has interrupted Trump to let Biden speak and then sparred with the president over a question on health care and the Affordable Care Act.
After a back and forth in which Trump repeatedly interrupted Wallace, Wallace fired back, "Sir, you're debating him, not me. Let me ask my question."
First question takes on Supreme Court
Wallace opened the debate by asking both Trump and Biden about why they’ve got the right take on the Supreme Court vacancy.
Trump said he has the right to nominate Amy Coney Barrett because Republicans control both the Senate and White House.
"We won the election and we have the right to do this," Trump said.
Biden argued that the American people have a right to say who is on the court and that we should wait to see the outcome of the election.
Interestingly, he does not personally bash Barrett but argued that her conservative stance would be harmful to the court for people in the county who have pre-existing conditions because Obamacare could be struck down.
Biden got into long crosstalk with Trump about the question, which set the tone for the contentious debate.
Wallace debunks conservative conspiracy theory off the bat
In his intro, Chris Wallace took a moment to knock down one of the many conspiracy theories that have circulated about the debate.
Wallace said the questions were from him and that neither candidate had received them ahead of time. "For the record, I decided the topics and the questions in each topic. I can assure you, none of the questions has been shared with the commission or the two candidates," Wallace said.
Debate moderator Chris Wallace isn't like other Fox News hosts
Fox News host Chris Wallace opened the debate on Tuesday shortly after 9 p.m. ET.
Wallace, the host of Fox News Sunday, has built a reputation for his interrogative style of interviewing. Unlike other hosts on the network — who have been criticized for cheerleading for the administration and Trump (including Sean Hannity) — Wallace has tried to model himself as an evenhanded journalist who is seen by some on both sides of the aisle as serious and sharp.
He was one of the moderators of the 2016 GOP presidential debate in Detroit when he famously used slides to fact check then-candidate Trump in real-time. He also moderated the third presidential debate during the 2016 campaign, pressing both Clinton and Trump with substantive questions and pressing further for a substantive answer.
Wallace has criticized Biden for not appearing on his show since becoming the Democratic nominee to be cross-examined over his policies. And Wallace’s style has caused Trump to lash out at him over the years — like when Trump called him a “Mike Wallace wannabe” (the moderator’s famous journalist father) in an April tweet. Wallace also clashed with Trump in a July interview in which the journalist cast doubt on the president’s that his mental fitness test was difficult.
"I took the test, too, when I heard that you passed it," Wallace told Trump who said he aced the test. "It's not the hardest test," noting that one of the questions asks you to identify a drawing of an elephant.
Who will stay on topic? We're tracking the candidates during the debate
Track what Trump and Biden talk about, and how much they stay on-topic, at tonight’s debate.
We just got started. You can follow along here.
'Dump Trump': Peaceful protests against the president at first debate
Hundreds of protesters demonstrated at the presidential debate near the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland on Tuesday, shortly before Trump and Biden were set to hold their first faceoff.
The coalition of left-wing groups aimed their ire at the president, chanting slogans like "Dump Trump" and holding "Black Lives Matter" signs. They also chanted the name of Tamir Rice, a Black 12-year-old boy who was killed by police in Cleveland in 2014.
Protesters were kept blocks away from the debate site by a combination of state police and the National Guard, who'd established an "event zone" around the area.
Here's the vibe inside the hall pre-debate
What’s the vibe like inside the debate hall? It feels remarkably intimate and more muted than the pre-debate tee-up in years past. It’s oddly quiet, even though the room has started to fill— a relative term, considering the socially-distanced seats in effect— and people are beginning to sit.
Some of the seats are labeled. Among the names spotted by our producer: Donald Trump Jr, Tiffany Trump, Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Lara Trump, Kimberly Guilfoyle, chief of staff Mark Meadows, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, Blake Meadows, Phoebe Meadows and Dr. Jill Biden.
The mask requirements have made spotting notable guests in the crowd a bit more challenging, but we’ve seen Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, political consultant Frank Luntz, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, DNC chair Tom Perez, Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos and Jim Jordan.
We’re approximately 15 minutes from the start time.
Clinton on Trump: 'His series is about to be canceled'
Hillary Clinton told MSNBC that tonight's debate could be the nail in the coffin for Trump.
She said that Biden will be attacked, but that his "toughness" and his "humanity" will be in stark contrast to Trump's bombastic style of debating. And now that Trump has a record as a politician and his administration has weathered many controversies, she said many people will look at him differently.
"I think that his big advantage of having been a so-called reality TV star and then in people's living rooms on their TVs for a number of years before he ran has pretty much run its course," said Clinton, who is the last person to debate Trump.
"I think his series is about to be canceled because it's just the same story over and over again — lying with impunity, attacking when you have nothing to say, unable to give an answer that is frankly coherent."
She said now the American people are all aware of how Trump behaves and "you can only lie so many times."
Reminder: There are 35 days until the election
Analysis: Will Trump cede the incumbent's edge?
When Trump won the presidency in 2016, his debate antics helped reinforce the message that he was a rabble-rouser who would crash the political establishment’s party.
But now he’s president, and, as much as he wants to keep the outsider mantle, there’s a real risk in flouting decorum and convention. That balancing act is all the more tenuous because the public already has twice judged Biden fit to serve one heartbeat from the presidency.
It’s possible for Trump to give away the main advantage an incumbent traditionally holds in a debate: that everyone can see him as president.
How memorable debate moments shape presidential elections
Covid-era debates come with a pack of sanitizing wipes
Everyone on the debate stage tonight is over 70 years old
It's one of the oldest debates in American history.
Trump is 74 and Biden is 77 (one of them will become the oldest president ever on Inauguration Day 2021). Fox News moderator Chris Wallace is 72.
Trump on Biden's debate abilities: There's an old tweet for that
Pence plays Trump's hype man at debate watch party
LITITZ, Pa. – Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a Trump campaign event and watch party shortly before the debate Tuesday.
"It's gonna be a great night," he said. "I can tell you I left the president earlier today in the Oval Office and he's ready. We're ready. And tonight we start the steady march to 35 days when we'll re-elect President Donald Trump for four more years.”
Later, Pence brought up the debate again, telling the crowd, “I can't wait. Somebody said to me, ‘How long has the president been preparing for the debate?’ I said 'ALL HIS LIFE.' And he's going to lay out not only what he's done, but he's going to lay out the choice and he's going to take the fight right to Joe Biden.”
Ohio voters speak out ahead of first presidential debate
Trump allies gather before debate begins
Trump heads into debate trailing Biden nationally and in key battleground states
Trump has a lot of ground to make up in the last five weeks of the election if he hopes to be re-elected — and the presidential debates will be one of the remaining opportunities for him to turn his polling around.
Trump currently trails Biden by 8 percentage points nationally, according to NBC News' polling average.
That's a pretty wide margin. But of course, the Electoral College, not the popular vote, will decide the next president. But Trump also trails Biden in critical swing states that he won in 2016.
In a Pennsylvania poll released Tuesday from ABC News/Washington Post, Biden leads with 54 percent compared to Trump's 45 percent. Recent polls also show Biden pulling ahead by 10 points in Wisconsin and eight points in Michigan.
Out of the top-tier battleground states, Florida is where Trump is polling the best. The most recent public poll there shows the president up by 4 points, which is within the margin of error.
Biden mocks Trump conspiracy theories
'The clash': Trump, Biden bring very different skills to first debate, experts say
One's a bombastic performer who knows how to seize the spotlight, while the other is a seasoned debater who'll be prepared for a fight.
As Trump and Biden head into Tuesday night's first presidential debate in Cleveland, debate experts told NBC News both bring wildly different skills to the stage that they can use to their advantage — or peril.
Trump is "a performer. He's full of energy," said Susan Millsap, a communications professor at Ohio's Otterbein University. "Biden is much more of a planned and conscientious type of debater. When you have those two things together, the clash is going to be there. The real test is going to be who pulls the other one off their game."
Protesters in Cleveland decry Tamir Rice shooting
Trump's team belatedly stopped playing the debate expectations game on Biden's behalf
Trump and his campaign have spent nearly a year lowering the bar for Biden's debate performance — and the past few weeks trying to reverse that narrative.
In the days going into the first debate Tuesday — one of Trump's final chances to shift the momentum of the race in his favor — aides and advisers have been publicly and privately trying to set the stage for a debate between a president who has done relatively little to prepare and a skilled debater with decades of experience.
It is far from the picture Trumpworld had repeatedly painted of Biden, who the president has said belongs in a nursing home, is unable to speak without a teleprompter and would fail a cognition test used to diagnose dementia. But despite late efforts to recast Biden as a champion debater, Trump and his campaign have set the bar exceptionally low for him in the minds of many voters, veterans of presidential debate preparation said.
Most voters say Trump-Biden debates won't move them. But here's why they could matter.
The first debate between Trump and Biden is unlikely to change the minds of the vast majority of the American electorate who have already decided whom they support and say they can't be swayed.
But the debate could still rattle the race and rev up the electorate. A marginal impact on persuading voters could have a profound influence on the outcome if the contest comes down to a few battleground states. And some experts say presidential debates have proven to solidify impressions of candidates in ways that affect voters' behavior.
The debates could be Trump's last, best chance to reshape the contest. But that won't be easy.
Protesters gather outside the debate hall
ANALYSIS: The soft bigotry of Trump's low expectations may give Biden a debate edge
Trump and Biden have reversed traditional roles as they meet Tuesday night in Cleveland for the first general election debate of 2020.
Usually, it's an incumbent who is up in the polls at this point and promising stability. But Trump, who bills himself as a change agent, needs to shake up the race, and Biden, who vows to bring a steady hand to the White House, would prefer that the dynamics don't change.
"There’s really no debate performance by either candidate that will fundamentally shift the race," one Biden campaign aide said, in an effort to lower the stakes.
But polls can move noticeably in the immediate aftermath of a debate, as they did when Republican Mitt Romney pulled from about three points back to take a small lead over President Barack Obama following their first matchup in October 2012. And in a closely-contested race likely to be defined by a relatively small number of voters in a limited set of swing states, marginal shifts may land larger than they appear.
Coordinated push of conspiracy theories target Biden hours before debate
A conspiracy theory that Joe Biden would wear an electronic device in his ear during the first presidential debate went wildly viral Tuesday in the hours before the debate, and the theory was later amplified by mainstream conservative news outlets that claimed without evidence that Biden had backed out of an ear "inspection."
The earpiece conspiracy theory is an example of what disinformation experts call “trading up the chain,” where the sheer virality of a meme or conspiracy theory forces mainstream outlets to cover it, giving it a patina of credibility it otherwise would not have.
On Facebook, memes insisting Biden should have his ears inspected for electronic devices before the debate saturated the platform on Tuesday. One meme that simply said “Joe Biden should be inspected for a hidden ear piece as well as submit to a drug test before the debate. Share if you agree!” was posted by a network of conservative sites early Tuesday morning.
Twitter already buzzing hours before debate
Here's how the candidates and their teams have prepped for this debate
The last time Joe Biden and President Trump were in the same room was nearly two years ago, at the state funeral for former President George H. W. Bush in December of 2018. They have spoken since by phone only briefly, this April, when Trump took Biden up on his offer to share advice for handling the coronavirus pandemic.
The pair have been sparring from afar for months, years even, as the former vice president was always seen as a frontrunner to face Trump in 2020. But now the country will see them square off in person for the first time Tuesday night — an encounter both men have been readying for quite differently for months.
Click here for what you need to know about their debate preparations.
Inside the debate hall: Face masks and social distancing
CLEVELAND — Face masks, tickets and a wristband proving a recent negative COVID-19 test result are required to enter the hall for the first 2020 presidential debate and the precautions continue inside.
The debate is taking place Tuesday night on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation's premier health centers, so health security is as tight as the traditional physical security typical of major events involving the president.
Anyone entering the debate hall has to pass through airport-style security run by the Secret Service at the perimeter then be checked by agents once again at the entrance to the hall itself before getting their temperature taken and displaying the wristband that shows a recent negative test from the on-site rapid testing center.
The debate is taking place inside the atrium of the clinic's Samson Pavilion, which has high ceilings and plenty of space to enhance ventilation. The audience has been limited to a much smaller-than-usual 80 to 100 invited guests, allowing for chairs to be blocked off between groups and plenty of spacing between the rows.
Trump and Biden campaigns spar before debate commences
Before the main event even kicked off tonight, the Trump and Biden campaigns were already throwing barbs Tuesday afternoon.
After the Trump campaign claimed Biden would not allow a pre-debate inspection to determine if he was wearing an earpiece, the Democratic nominee’s campaign said Team Trump was lying.
“If we’re playing that game, then you know, the Trump team asked Chris Wallace not to mention the number of deaths from Covid once during the debate. You can consider that confirmed from the Biden campaign. See how easy that was to try to throw up a distraction?” Kate Bedingfield, the Biden campaign’s communications director said facetiously on a conference call.
Bedingfield was trying to show that anyone can lie, but some of the Internet took her claim to be true and the Trump campaign refuted it: “The Biden campaign is trying to distract from the facts that he won’t submit to an inspection for earpieces, won’t take a drug test, and needs multiple breaks during the 90-minute debate,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in an email.
The earpiece claim, which appeared to originate from a reporter’s tweet citing one anonymous source, quickly spread on Facebook, reaching people in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida more than anywhere else.
Trump has arrived at debate site
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump landed in Cleveland just before 4 p.m. along with a mix of family and staffers.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien, Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Hope Hicks, Kayleigh McEnany, Jason Miller, Bill Stepien and Derek Lyons were all seen getting off the plane.
The group pulled up to the debate site a short while later.
Biden releases 2019 tax return ahead of first debate as Trump comes under fire for tax avoidance
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign on Tuesday released the 2019 tax returns for the former vice president and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., hours ahead of the first 2020 general election debate.
The returns come as questions regarding President Trump’s tax returns, which he has refused to release publicly claiming that he’s under audit by the IRS, are bound to come up at the debate in Cleveland.
A bombshell New York Times report from Sunday night found that President Donald Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and again in 2017. The Times found that, based on two decades of Trump’s tax information that it obtained, the president didn’t pay any income taxes in 10 of the last 15 years.
Biden and his wife, Jill, reported $944,737 in taxable income last year and they paid $299,346 in federal income taxes, according to the documents.
The 2019 tax return for Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, show that they reported $3,018,127 in taxable income and paid $754,809 in federal income taxes.
5 things to watch for tonight
The polling has so far seemed largely impervious to news events, with Biden’s lead staying consistent through a pandemic, Supreme Court fight and more, and the president is running out of time to change that dynamic with just five weeks left until Election Day.
The debate is expected to draw an audience of up to 100 million, making it a rare political moment in which the public's attention will be fixed to the same political event for 90 minutes, largely unfiltered by partisan or ideological media outlets.
The table is set for Biden to neutralize one of Trump's main attack lines during first debate
For months, President Trump has taken shot after shot after shot at Joe Biden over his mental fitness. On Tuesday, that line of attack will be put on trial at the first presidential debate, giving Biden his best opportunity yet to, as he has said, "compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I'm running against."
While Biden has suffered from some verbal slip-ups along the campaign trail as well as a slate of primary debates that were somewhat of a mixed-bag for the nominee, what political observers described as the "low expectations" being set by Trump should play to the former vice president's advantage in Cleveland.
"The ironic thing about the constant hyperbolic attacks by the president and his campaign on the former vice president's mental health or physical health is they've created a situation where if he doesn't pee himself — like Bradley Cooper in 'A Star Is Born' — he will have exceeded expectations," said Michael Steel, who helped prepare Paul Ryan for his 2012 vice presidential debate against Biden.
Everything you need to know about the first Trump-Biden face off
Trump has called Biden a socialist puppet who wants to destroy the suburbs and "hurt God." Biden says Trump is a fraud whose failed leadership during the coronavirus crisis has "caused people to die."