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:
Biden calls Trump racist
"He’s the racist," Biden said in a back and forth over Trump’s decision earlier this year to expand a ban on racial sensitivity training to federal contractors.
Trump said he banned the training "because it's racist" and taught anti-American sentiments, making an explicit appeal to the white identity politics that have become a hallmark of his political career.
Fact-check: Trump's attacks on Hunter Biden for foreign business dealings
Trump and his allies have attacked the former vice president's son Hunter Biden for his foreign business dealings.
Trump echoed one of the biggest claims from the recent Senate GOP Homeland Security Committee's "conflicts of interest investigation" into Hunter Biden — Trump claimed on the debate stage that "the mayor of Moscow's wife gave your son $3.5 million. What did he do to deserve it?"
The report, authored by Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, claimed that Elena Baturina, the former wife of the late former mayor of Moscow, wired $3.5 million to a firm associated with Hunter Biden.
Hunter Biden's legal team told NBC News that Biden had "no interest" in the firm that received the money, so "the claim he was paid $3.5 million was false."
And on the debate stage, Joe Biden said the claim had been "totally discredited."
The Senate GOP-led "conflicts of interest" report largely resurfaced outstanding allegations, specifically as to Hunter Biden's role on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, as well as what the committee called "questionable financial transactions between Hunter Biden and his associates and foreign individuals."
Largely focusing on those optics, the report doesn't say Hunter Biden's work changed U.S. policy. Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates slammed the report as an "attack founded on a long-disproven hardcore right-wing conspiracy theory" that Johnson "has now explicitly stated he is attempting to exploit to bail out Donald Trump's re-election campaign."
Head hurt? You're not alone.
'Racist' jab from Biden gets no response
Fact-check: Did Trump lower drug prices?
"I'm cutting drug prices. I'm going with favored nations, which no president has the courage to do, because you're going against Big Pharma. Drug prices will be coming down 80 or 90 percent," Trump said.
"He has no plan for health care," Biden argued. "He hasn't lowered drug costs for anybody."
Brand name drug prices are on the rise, too.
What the candidates discussed when it came to race
Follow along live here.
Trump's anti-China rhetoric led to a surge in pandemic racism against Asian Americans
Throughout the debate, Trump boasted of his record on controlling Covid-19 by taking a tough stand on travel from China, repeatedly referring to the coronavirus as the "China plague."
His rhetoric against China and his calling the virus the China virus has led to surges in bias incidents and hate crimes against Asian Americans. Young Asian Americans, in particular, have reported a surge in racist incidents. Asian American business owners have also cited pandemic-related racism as a reason they were forced to close their businesses.
Trump leans on a go-to attack: Hunter Biden
Trump berated Biden over the foreign business involvements of his son Hunter Biden.
Trump's strategy seemed to be to launch as many smears against Hunter Biden as possible, interrupting Joe Biden's defenses and creating a few minutes of complete chaos onstage.
Hunter Biden has been red meat for Trump's base on the campaign trail ever since his impeachment proceedings began. There's rarely much truth to these attacks.
"He doesn't want me to answer because he knows I have the truth," Biden said.
Fact-check: Trump says 'no negative effects' from his rallies, ignoring Covid-19 cases
Trump said "we've had no negative effect" from the coronavirus at his rallies, a claim that ignores the spate of Covid-19 cases that have been linked to the campaign events.
A handful of Trump's own campaign staff members tested positive for Covid-19 in the days surrounding his late-June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, including members of the Secret Service. Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain tested positive days after the rally and ultimately died because of complications from the virus. While Cain attended the rally and was photographed without a mask on, it's unclear where he contracted the virus.
Tulsa's top health official said the rally "likely contributed" to a surge in cases after the rally.
Biden calls Trump the ‘worst president we’ve ever had’
Biden isn’t worried about being polite during this debate, having thrown off-the-cuff zings at Trump, who has repeatedly interrupted him.
Trump hit Biden saying he has done more in 47 months than Biden has in 47 years in public office, but Biden hit back.
“You are the worst president America has ever had,” Biden said after Trump accused him of not doing anything while in office.
This exchange has been the tone of the debate since the first question.
Shape of economic recovery
Wallace said the economic recovery from the pandemic has been faster than expected but the two candidates argued about the “shape” of the economy.
If the economy was charted on a graph would it be a “V” where it goes down from where it was before and then rebounds, as Trump claims? Or will it be a “K” shape, where the fortunes of a few continue to increase while those in lower incomes and jobs more exposed to coronavirus risks continue to decline?
Experts say that the recovery is a tale of two diverging recoveries. After soaring to Great Depression levels during pandemic lockdowns, unemployment has fallen to 8.4 percent in the most recent report. Stock indexes are hitting historic highs. Mortgage rates are rock bottom and sales of new homes have hit 13-year highs.
But over 30 million Americans face the risk of eviction and many temporary layoffs are turning into permanent job losses as the pandemic drags on. Without a widely available vaccine, large portions of the economy, such as travel, hotel and restaurants, will not be able to fully recover.
“The ‘V-shaped’ recovery is a mirage,” Nick Mazing, director of research at data provider Sentieo told NBC News. “We are seeing a permanent reduction in the size of several sectors in the economy.”
Fact-check: Trump on the Obama administration's response to swine flu
"Well, you didn't do that well on swine flu, H1N1, you were a disaster. Your own chief of staff said you were a disaster," Trump said to Biden.
Trump's exaggerating here. Ron Klain, Biden's former chief of staff, has criticized the Obama administration's swine flu response, not Biden specifically.
"We did every possible thing wrong — 60 million Americans got H1N1," Klain said at a biosecurity summit in May 2019. "It is purely a fortuity that this isn't one of the great mass casualty events in American history. It had nothing to do with us doing anything right. It just had to do with luck."
Klain later told Politico that his comments referred to the administration's difficulties producing enough of the vaccine it developed, and he argued that the Obama team quickly adapted to the pandemic — quickly responding and distributing supplies from the federal stockpile, for example — and made very different choices from the Trump administration's.
It's also worth noting that the swine flu is estimated to have killed 12,000 people in the U.S., far fewer than the more than 200,000 who have died of Covid-19 to date. The Obama administration also got generally high marks for its response to the swine flu. While government reports after the fact identified room for growth, they also highlighted successes, like rapid research and development of a vaccine that arrived in less than six months. There's little contemporaneous reporting on the Obama administration's response that portrays the kind of unmitigated disaster Trump is suggesting occurred.
Trump claims he paid 'millions' in taxes in 2016 and 2017 after New York Times reports he paid $750 each year
Trump was questioned repeatedly about The New York Times' story this week in which it said that it obtained decades of the president's tax returns and that he paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and again in 2017.
Trump said he paid "millions of dollars" in taxes those years, but he said he was taking advantage of the tax laws on the books, because, as a developer, "I don't want to pay tax."
Trump then blamed Biden for the tax code he took advantage of, to which Biden pledged to eliminate the president's 2017 tax cuts.
Fact-check: Trump says his pandemic response was 'great.' The U.S. leads in cases and deaths.
Trump boasted about his coronavirus response, saying, "We've done a great job."
This is false, according to all available metrics. The U.S. is still struggling badly with the Covid-19 pandemic. The U.S. has more cases than any other country, at more than 7 million, and more deaths than any other country, recently having surpassed 200,000. The U.S. has an uncontrolled outbreak, reporting just shy of 37,000 new Covid-19 cases Monday. For comparison, far smaller countries, like Italy, Germany and Japan, are reporting between a few hundred and 3,000 new cases a day.
Other countries are struggling — India is the most affected country by caseload, while Brazil is the third most affected — but the U.S. outbreak remains the second worst to be documented. It would be more accurate to say the U.S. has done worse than most other countries. As of Tuesday, the U.S. has the fifth-highest number of deaths per 100,000 people in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Most countries in Africa have fared significantly better than other parts of the world, particularly the U.S. South Africa, the hardest-hit country on the continent, has recorded more than 671,000 cases and 16,508 deaths as of Tuesday. That represents 28 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to more than 62 deaths per 100,000 in the U.S.
For European countries, the U.S. is doing better than Spain, which has experienced just over 67 deaths per 100,000 people, but worse than Italy (59.3), France (47.4) and Germany (11.4).
American voters do not approve of Trump's response to the pandemic: 57 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of the pandemic, according to a September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Lots of attacks happening — and we're tracking those, too
While answering questions about Covid-19 and the economy, both candidates took swings at each other. We're following the topics discussed by Trump and Biden — and the attacks that come with it.
Follow along live here.
Trump defends his large campaign rallies
Trump has broken state and local coronavirus guidelines in nearly every single of the more than 20 campaign rallies he has held since June, a move that he did not back down from when pressed by Wallace.
"People want to hear what I have to say,” Trump said, falsely claiming that there has been “no negative effect."
Biden criticized Trump for being “totally irresponsible,” to which Trump responded: "If you could get the crowds, you would have done the same thing."
Chris Wallace notes public reluctance to take a coronavirus vaccine
Debate moderator Chris Wallace just noted that "polls already show that people are concerned about the vaccine and are reluctant to take it."
That's a finding seen across a number of polls, including the NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll.
Only 38 American adults said they would take a government-approved vaccine for coronavirus if it becomes widely available, according to the latest NBC/SurveyMonkey polling released Tuesday. Twenty-four percent said they wouldn't take the vaccine and 36 percent said they're not sure.
And last week's data found that 52 percent of adults said that they did not trust President Trump's comments on the vaccine, while 26 percent said they did.
Less than halfway through, it's not Twitter's favorite debate
Fact-check: How many people are there in the U.S. with pre-existing conditions?
Trump and Biden came out of the gate with conflicting statements over how many people in the U.S. have pre-existing health conditions. Biden said that there are 100 million such people — and that they would lose their health care coverage should the Affordable Care Act be eliminated. Trump insisted that Biden's number was wrong.
"There's 100 million people who have pre-existing conditions, and they'll be taken away, as well," Biden said. Trump shot back, "There aren't 100 million people with pre-existing conditions."
Studies show a range that would technically make both men correct.
The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated in 2018 that at least 53.8 million adults had pre-existing conditions that would make them unable to buy insurance.
Another study, conducted by Avalere, a health care consulting firm, estimated that 102 million Americans had pre-existing conditions that would make them unable to buy insurance.
A 2017 study from the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 133 million people had pre-existing conditions that would make them unable to buy insurance.
Fact-check: Trump says GOP health plans protect people with pre-existing conditions
Trump claimed: "Obamacare is no good. We made it better. And I had a choice to make very early on. We took away the individual mandate. We guarantee pre-existing conditions."
It's true that Republicans eliminated the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate — a provision designed to force people to purchase health care coverage or pay fines through their taxes — as part of their 2017 tax bill. But Trump is wrong about pre-existing conditions. We've fact-checked this at length before, and it's still false.
Trump has long insisted that he and the GOP will protect people with pre-existing conditions from losing their health insurance — but he has pursued legislation, litigation and executive actions to dismantle those protections under the Affordable Care Act.
A Republican bill backed by Trump included ACA state waivers that would allow insurers to charge higher prices for people with pre-existing conditions, potentially pricing them out of the market. It passed the House and died in the Senate in 2017. Trump has also used executive actions to expand the use of short-term insurance plans that aren't required to cover pre-existing conditions.
Trump recently signed a symbolic executive order affirming the protections Obamacare created, but his administration is backing a Republican-led lawsuit claiming that the actual protections in the law should be struck down. Republicans have yet to offer a plan that would restore protections for pre-existing conditions.
Biden: Trump 'panicked' on Covid-19
Biden criticized Trump for his response to the coronavirus pandemic, portraying the president as someone who cracked under pressure.
"The president has no plan. He hasn't laid out anything. He knew all the way back in February how serious this crisis was," Biden said, referring to Trump's interview with Bob Woodward.
"He's on tape as acknowledging he knew it. He said he didn't tell us or give people a warning of it because he didn't want to panic the American people. You don't panic. He panicked."
Biden opened his response to Chris Wallace's question by acknowledging the more than 200,000 people who have died in the U.S. — a devastating number that Trump has largely avoided recognizing publicly.
Fact-check: Trump mischaracterizes Biden's health care plan
Trump, during a testy exchange about health care, said of Biden's health care plan, "The bigger problem that you have is you're going to extinguish 180 million people with their private health care that they're very happy with."
This claim is false. It conflates Biden's plan with those of other Democrats pushing "Medicare for All."
While estimates vary about how many Americans have private insurance, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that 180 million people have private insurance.
Biden's plan wouldn't end private insurance, as some of Biden's Democratic primary opponents proposed. Instead, Biden's health care plan would create a public option for those who want to get government health insurance while allowing those with private insurance to stay on their plans.
Many Republicans have sought to tie the proposals for "Medicare for All" to all Democrats — and it is true that many Democratic members of Congress are sponsoring the bill (118 in the House and 14 in the Senate).
But Biden has criticized "Medicare for All" throughout his campaign.
'Would you shut up, man?': Biden's attempt to stop Trump's interruptions
As Biden fights for an uninterrupted moment, the former vice president lost his cool and asked Trump, "Would you shut up, man?"
The two presidential candidates had been trading barbs over Obamacare, but Trump had hardly allowed Biden to speak without interruption.
The first moment that Biden was able to provide a few clear sentences, he hit Trump regarding the many promises he has made for healthcare coverage after stripping Obamacare of the individual mandate: "He does not have a plan."
Biden didn't appear to only be speaking about health insurance, however, adding, "This man does not know what he's talking about." A few moments later, he asked the president to "shut up."
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.