CLEVELAND — The first presidential debate Tuesday devolved into name-calling, shouting and insults as President Donald Trump derailed the discussion with constant interruptions, unfettered by a moderator who struggled to keep calm.
Trump talked constantly through the 90-minute debate, sometimes incoherently and other times rattling off unfounded and baseless attacks against Democrat Joe Biden while refusing to let the moderator even ask questions.
Pressed repeatedly, Trump refused to condemn extremist supporters or urge them to stay peaceful in the event of a disputed election while once again suggesting, without evidence, that it might be "rigged."
"Proud Boys, stand back and stand by," Trump said, a statement that the extremist group with ties to white nationalism took as a rallying cry. "But I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left."
Biden called Trump a "racist," a "clown" and "the worst president we've ever had," at one point saying, "Will you shut up, man?"
Biden has consistently enjoyed a comfortable lead in most national polls, and only a tiny fraction of voters remain undecided, leaving the pressure on Trump to shake things up in the waning weeks before Election Day.
Trump needs to broaden his appeal beyond his core base of supporters, but he leaned into the kind of behavior that has turned off suburban women and other voters he needs, even as it thrills his base.
The tone of the debate was unlike that of any televised presidential matchup before, a shift that commentators described as "embarrassing" and a "dumpster fire" fueled by Trump's disregard for the rules negotiated by his own campaign.
Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News tried to tamp down the antagonistic president, but his efforts to keep calm were quickly stymied as Trump refused to let his opponent speak and challenged Wallace directly. "I guess I'm debating you, not him. But that's OK," he told Wallace.
Wallace repeatedly tried to reassert control, but Trump called him "fake news," eager to cast himself in the familiar role of a victim of a Democratic and media tag team.
When Biden said Trump needed to be smarter about his response to the coronavirus, the president interrupted to argue that Biden was not intelligent. He pointed to Biden's position in his college graduating class as evidence.
"Don't ever use the word 'smart' with me. You're not smart, Joe," Trump said.
Biden frequently tried to paint Trump as dishonest, including in how he presented the coronavirus to America.
"The fact is that everything he has said tonight is a lie. Everyone knows he's a liar," Biden said.
The candidates clashed over reopening schools and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, with Trump claiming that Democratic governors and mayors are keeping things closed until after the election to damage his re-election chances.
"They think they're hurting us by keeping it closed. They're hurting people," Trump said. "And this guy will close down the whole country — he will destroy our country."
Trump has bet his re-election on convincing the American public that he successfully handled the coronavirus crisis, believing swing voters are growing tired of social distancing and Covid-19 concerns and more concerned with getting their kids back in schools.
"I'm the one who brought back football," Trump said, taking credit for the Big Ten's decision to reopen its season.
He mocked Biden for always wearing a mask — "he could be speaking 200 feet away, and he shows up with the biggest mask I've seen" — and he defended his large campaign rallies.
"People want to hear what I have to say," he said.
Biden said reopening too soon would hurt workers, and he said the Trump administration had not provided enough resources to help schools safely reopen. "You can't fix the American economy until you fix the Covid crisis," Biden said.
Trump defended himself against Biden's attacks that he had paid less in taxes than many middle-class families, as recently reported in a bombshell New York Times investigation.
"Like every other private person, unless they're stupid, they go through the laws, and that's what it is," Trump said.
Even the suburbs were not spared. Suburban women turned off by Trump have powered Democrats' wins in recent elections. Trump tried to sway them back by warning that Biden would let inner-city problems like crime invade their lives.
"Our suburbs would be gone," he said. "I know suburbs so much better than you."
Biden replied by saying the suburbs have changed and have become diverse communities. "This is not 1950. All these dog whistles on racism don't work anymore," he said.
Presidential debates typically take place in front of thousands of people in packed theaters. But the scaled-down crowd made the event feel unusually small and intimate inside the room, where members of Congress and other VIPs invited by the campaigns spoke in hushed tones.
Just months ago, the room served as a possible Covid-19 reserve ward, with 1,000 hospital beds ready to handle an expected surge of cases in Ohio, which fortunately never came.
Trump and his allies spent the hours leading up to the debate by lobbing baseless accusations against Biden. First, Trump attacked him for declining to take a drug test; then he accused Biden of trying to avoid detection of a secret earpiece. Biden's campaign dismissed the claims as ludicrous and said he, of course, would not wear an earpiece.
The earpiece theory — Donald Trump Jr. made the same unfounded claim in 2016 about Hillary Clinton — started in viral memes on Facebook and other social media sites before being repeated by the Trump campaign.