Image Source : REUTERS Joe Biden and Donald Trump spar at the first presidential debate before the 2024 elections

Atlanta: The first presidential debate between US President Joe Biden and his predecessor and Republican rival Donald Trump ended with both launching highly personal attacks against each other and an uneven performance by Biden that heightened concerns among Democrats that he is too old to compete for a second White House term at 81 years of age.

During the debate, Biden and Trump sparred over the state of the economy, border, foreign policy, abortion and national security and called each other a liar and the worst president in the history of the United States. Biden called Trump a ‘sucker and a loser’ while talking about the D-Day commemorations in France which Trump declined to visit in 2018, while Trump called the latter a ‘criminal’ in a referene to his conviction.

“Joe could be a convicted felon with all of the things that he’s done, he’s done horrible things. This man is a criminal. This man, you’re lucky, you’re lucky, I did nothing wrong. We have a system that was rigged and disgusting,” Trump said. “When he talks about a convicted felon, his son (Hunter Biden) is a convicted felon, at a very high level.”

Biden’s troubles widen with his raspy and halting speech, rife with moments of losing his train of thought and rambling responses. This gave Trump a significant advantage as he attacked the president over the economy, illegal immigration and his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection. His uneven performance fuelled concerns about his ability to serve as President at 81 and sparked a fresh round of calls to consider stepping aside as Democrats fear a return of Trump.

Foreign policy – Gaza, Ukraine wars and Afghanistan

Trump launched attacks on Biden’s controversial withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2021, calling it the “most embarrassing moment” in the history of the US. He said America’s global stature which he said is like a “third world nation” today and said Washington is not “respected” anymore.

Trump said the withdrawal plan he had would have allowed the US to get out from Afghanistan with “dignity”. Further into the debate, Trump said it was the withdrawal that prompted Putin to start the war against Ukraine. Biden defended his stance on supporting Ukraine and said Russia has lost thousands of troops and has not succeeded in its aim to capture Kyiv.

“He (Putin) would have never invaded Ukraine, never, just like Israel would never have been invaded by Hamas, because Iran was broke with me. I would not let anybody do business with Iran…that’s why you had no terror at all during my administration, the whole world is blowing under him (Biden),” he further added.

Biden also called Putin a ‘war criminal’, who has killed thousands of people and wishes to establish the Soviet Empire. He also pushed back at Donald Trump for apparently wanting to pull out of the NATO. Meanwhile, Trump harshly criticised Biden for his staunch financial support to Ukraine, calling him the “greatest salesman”.

On Israel’s war in Gaza, Biden touted his ceasefire plan and declared that no one in the world had been a greater supporter of Israel than the United States. “We saved Israel,” he said. Trump accused Biden of “becoming like a very bad Palestinian”.

Abortion rights

Biden blamed Trump for eroding abortion rights after the Republican’s three appointees to the US Supreme Court voted to reverse Roe v. Wade, which had recognised a nationwide constitutional right to abortion. The reversal has energised many voters who support abortion rights and helped in Democrat victories in midterms and special elections.

“It’s been a terrible thing what you’ve done,” Biden said, turning to his rival. He pledged to restore the law under Roe if given a second term but didn’t say how he’d accomplish that. He said the idea of turning abortion laws back to states “is like saying we’re going to turn civil rights back to the states.”

On the other hand, Trump made a significant announcement by saying that he will not block the abortion medication, which was recently approved by the US Supreme Court. The former President came in support of abortion bans except in the case of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life, and claimed the earlier system allowed babies to be killed even in the eighth and the ninth months.

“51 years ago, we had Roe v Wade, and everybody wanted to get it back to the states without exception…what I did, I put three great Supreme Court justices in the court and they happened to vote in favour of killing Roe v Wade…this is something everybody wanted,” Trump said. In response, Biden called the claim ‘false’ and that abortion is allowed only when the woman’s life is in danger.

“It’s terrible…the majority of the country supported Roe…and this is a guy who says states should be able to handle it,” he added. Trump hit back at Biden by saying, “So he is ready to rip the baby in the 9th month and kill him even after he is born.”

Immigration and economy

Immigration has become a major issue in the United States owing to a record flow of migrants from the US-Mexico border. Trump fired at Biden by saying that he was allowing “terrorists” to enter the country who are raping and killing US citizens. Biden, on the other hand, claimed that his policy reduced the number of immigrants arriving by 40 per cent.

“We had the safest border in the history. All he (Biden) had to do is to leave it. He decided to open up our border, open up our country to people who are coming from prison, and mental institutions. We have the largest number of terrorists coming into our country, all over the world,” he said during the debate, adding that illegal immigrants are living in luxury hotels while US veterans are on the street.

Biden used the term “illegal aliens” while responding to Donald Trump’s attacks on immigration during the debate. He said that while Trump accuses migrants of taking away jobs, “there’s a reason why we have the fastest growing economy in the world.”

Trump and Biden also sparred over the economy, with the latter blaming his predecessor for leaving him a “terrible” economy. Trump replied that inflation was “absolutely killing us” and accused Biden of doing nothing. Biden denied the claims, saying he rescued the economy from ‘free fall’ and ‘chaos’.

Personal attacks and fact checks

Although largely scaled back from the chaos of the 2020 debates, this year’s presidential debate was also full of personal attacks as Trump and Biden called each other liars and worst presidents while claiming that neither of them knew what he was doing. On the age factor, 81-year-old Biden reminded that 78-year-old Trump is just three years younger than him.

“He has no idea what the hell he’s talking about. I’ve never heard so much foolishness. This is the guy who wants to get out of NATO. You’re going to stay in NATO? He’s going to pull out of NATO,” Biden said, adding that the former President had the morals of a “stray cat”. Trump also called Biden’s policies on immigration ” ridiculous, insane, and very stupid” that is resulting in the death of US citizens.

“I call it Biden migrant crime. They’re killing our citizens at a level that we’ve never seen before, and you’re reading it like these three incredible young girls over the last few days. One of them, I just spoke to the mother, and they just had the funeral for this girl, 12 years old. This is horrible, what’s taken place, what’s taken place in our country,” said the former president, referring to Jocelyn Nungaray, who was found dead in a creek earlier this month.

Throughout the debate, both candidates made several factual missteps. Trump falsely claimed that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi turned down his offer to send the National Guard during the January 6 insurrection, a decision actually made by the Capitol Police Board. Biden also made errors, notably underestimating job creation figures under his administration.

(with inputs from agencies)

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