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:
'I don't know Beau': Trump dismisses Biden’s dead son, pivots to attacks on Hunter
Biden referred to a recent Atlantic story that reported that Trump had disparaged American service members, touching on his own son's service.
"He was not a loser. He was a patriot, and the people left behind there are heroes," Biden said of service members, including Beau Biden, his son who died in 2015 from cancer and served in Iraq.
"I don't know Beau," Trump said, dismissing the reference. He then pivoted to a mention of Biden's living son, Hunter, describing the younger Biden as an addict who had been dishonorably ejected from the military. "I know Hunter. Hunter got thrown out of the military. ... He was dishonorably discharged."
"That's not true," Biden interjected.
"For cocaine use," Trump responded, adding one of his repeated unproven claims that Hunter Biden's global business dealings amount to graft made possible by his father's status. "And he didn't have a job until you became vice president."
Hunter Biden was discharged from the Navy Reserve in 2014 after having tested positive for cocaine. Hunter Biden, his father said on the debate stage, also underwent treatment, overcoming addiction, a problem with which millions of Americans have struggled.
"I'm proud of my son," he said.
Beau Biden, a former attorney general of Delaware, died of cancer in 2015. Neither Trump nor his sons have served in the military. Both Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have worked the bulk of their adult lives for Trump companies, like their father.
Analysis: Relying on white supremacist votes
It shouldn't be hard to condemn white supremacists. For Trump, though, it appears to be bad politics.
Asked to reject people so motivated by racism that they form groups devoted to it, Trump failed to do so. He seemed like he might do it.
"Stand back and stand by," he said after asking whom he was supposed to condemn. But instead of attacking white supremacists, he launched a rhetorical assault on "antifa." Antifa is not a white supremacist group.
The moment recalls Trump's refusal to denounce Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke during the 2016 campaign and his determination that there were "very fine people" on both sides of a white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Fact-check: Did Biden call Black Americans 'superpredators'?
"Look at the crime bill, 1994, where you called them 'superpredators,' African Americans are 'superpredators,'" Trump said. "And they've never forgotten that."
This is mostly false. It was Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, who used the word "superpredator" to advocate for the 1994 crime bill that Biden co-wrote more than 30 years ago. Biden did warn of "predators" in a floor speech in support of his bill, however.
Fact-check: Biden says Trump 'paid a total of $750 in taxes'
Biden, during a prolonged exchange over the amount of federal taxes Trump has paid, said, "This guy paid a total of $750 in taxes."
Trump retorted by saying, "I've paid millions of dollars in taxes, millions of dollars of income tax."
Biden's claim accurately reflects new reporting by The New York Times for 2016 and 2017.
Trump's federal income tax bill was just $750 the year he won the presidency, The Times reported after obtaining and reviewing more than two decades of the president's tax information. During his first year in office, his bill remained $750. The information doesn't include his returns from 2018 and 2019.
According to The Times, Trump had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the 15 years before 2016, because he reported losing much more money than he made during that time. NBC News hasn't seen or verified any of the documents reported by The Times.
Fact-check: Does Trump support cutting police funding?
"His budget calls for a $400 million cut in local law enforcement assistance," Biden said, reiterating his own opposition to defunding the police.
That is mostly true, although Biden actually undercounts the proposed cuts. While Trump has opposed calls from some Democrats to reduce police funding in response to the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans over the summer, the Trump administration's budget proposal does, indeed, call for big cuts for several police programs.
In the Justice Department's budget plan for fiscal year 2021, the Trump administration requested $1.51 billion for over 50 programs funding state and local law enforcement. That number would cut about $515 million from previous fiscal years, in part by slashing budgets for a number of Obama-era programs, including initiatives that provided body cameras for police officers.
Trump portrays Biden as both too tough and too weak on crime
During an exchange on racism in America, Trump essentially argued that Biden was too tough on crime and is too weak on crime.
First, Trump condemned Biden for authoring the 1994 crime bill while, in almost the same breath, saying Biden wouldn't even say the words "law enforcement."
Biden later said he stands for law and order if it is applied equally regardless of race or creed.
Trump balks at denouncing white supremacy
In another heated exchange, Trump declined to denounce the far right and white supremacists and told the Proud Boys — a violent, far-right group — to "stand back and stand by."
Trump instead tried to pivot to antifa's being a more serious problem. Biden pointed out that the FBI has said the far right is the biggest threat to the U.S. in terms of domestic violence.
His own FBI director said this month that antifa is an ideology, not a group.
Trump and Biden struggle to stay on topic ... with 15 minutes left
We're still updating live here.
Fact-check: Trump says he took advantage of a tax code Biden could have fixed
During an acrimonious exchange, the president defended the low tax bill he is reported to have paid by suggesting that if Biden wanted him to have not taken advantage of the tax code, he should have acted to fix it during his tenure in the Senate.
"The tax code that put him in a position that he pays less tax than a schoolteacher is because of — he says he's smart because he can take advantage of the tax code. And he does take advantage of the tax code," Biden said.
Trump replied: "But why didn't you do it over the last 25 years? Why didn't you do it over the last 25 years?"
In reality, despite being in Senate for 36 years, Biden was never technically in a position to rewrite the federal tax code.
While in the Senate from 1973 to 2009, Biden was chair of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees and had no direct hand in writing tax laws. That's the job of the Finance Committee.
Trump, on the other hand, takes advantage of several loopholes to avoid paying taxes, including some for which he personally lobbied.
Among them is a law passed in 1986 to limit investors not actively involved in a business from taking deductions and attributing losses against their incomes. An "at risk" rule was also added to prevent taxpayers from deducting losses greater than their investments. But Congress largely exempted real estate developers, like Trump.
At the same time that his investments in Atlantic City, New Jersey, were suffering, Trump appeared before Congress in 1991 to advocate for "tax shelters" that would "incentivize" "investment in real estate" to help boost the economy during the recession.
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.
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."