Biden Opens Debate with Several Verbal Missteps as He Tries to Press Criticism against Trump

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
President Joe Biden, right, and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump stand during a presidential debate hosted by CNN, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta.

ATLANTA (AP) — A raspy President Joe Biden delivered rambling answers Thursday in the opening moments of his debate with his Republican rival, Donald Trump, who countered Biden’s criticism with energy and at times by leaning into falsehoods about the economy and illegal immigration.

The debate came at a pivotal juncture in their unpopular presidential rematch, as Biden, the 81-year-old Democratic incumbent, entered the debate with the chance to reassure voters that he’s capable of guiding the U.S. through a host of challenges as he moved to sharpen the choice voters will face in November. Trump, 78, had the opening to try to move past his felony conviction in New York and convince an audience of tens of millions that he is temperamentally suited to return to the Oval Office.

Biden began the night with a raspy voice and a halting delivery as he tried to defend his economic record and criticize Trump. Biden appeared to lose his train of thought while giving one answer, drifting from an answer on tax policy to health policy, at one point using the word “COVID,” and then saying, “excuse me, with, dealing with,” and he trailed off again.

“Look, we finally beat Medicare,” Biden said, as his time ran out on his answer.

Trump picked right up on it, saying, “That’s right, he did beat Medicaid, he beat it to death. And he’s destroying Medicare.”

Trump falsely suggested Biden was weakening the social service program because of migrants coming into the country illegally.

Trump and Biden entered the night facing stiff headwinds, including a public weary of the tumult of partisan politics and broadly dissatisfied with both, according to polling. But the debate was highlighting how they have sharply different visions on virtually every core issue — abortion, the economy and foreign policy — and deep hostility toward each other.

The two candidates strode on stage and walked directly to their lecterns, avoiding a handshake. Each man was relatively measured as he defended his record and blamed the other for steering the country off track.

But their personal animus quickly came to the surface. Biden got personal in evoking his son, Beau, who served in Iraq before dying of brain cancer. The president criticized Trump for reportedly calling Americans killed in battle “suckers and losers.” Biden told Trump, “My son was not a loser, was not a sucker. You’re the sucker. You’re the loser.”

Trump said he never said that and slammed Biden for the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Biden, pressed to defend rising inflation since he took office, pinned it on the situation he inherited from Trump amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden said that when Trump left office, “things were in chaos.” Trump disagreed, declaring that during his term in the White House, “Everything was rocking good.”

By the time Trump left office, America was still grappling with the pandemic and during his final hours in office, the death toll eclipsed 400,000. The virus continued to ravage the country and the death toll hit 1 million over a year later.

Trump repeatedly insisted that the three conservative justices he appointed to the Supreme Court helped overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision and returned the issue of abortion restrictions to individual states, which is what “everybody wanted.” Biden countered that abortion access was settled for 50 years and that Trump was making it harder for women in large swaths of the country to get access to basic health care.

At one point, Trump defended his record on foreign policy and blamed Biden for the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, suggesting the conflicts broke out when the aggressors felt free to attack because they perceived Biden as weak.

“This place, the whole world, is blowing up under him,” Trump said.

“I never heard so much malarkey in my whole life,” Biden retorted.

The current president and his predecessor hadn’t spoken since their last debate weeks before the 2020 presidential election. Trump skipped Biden’s inauguration after leading an unprecedented and unsuccessful effort to overturn his loss that culminated in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection by his supporters.

Trump has promised sweeping plans to remake the U.S. government if he returns to the White House and Biden argues that his opponent would pose an existential threat to the nation’s democracy.

Thursday’s broadcast on CNN, moderated by anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, marked the earliest general election debate in history. It’s the first-ever televised general election presidential debate hosted by a single news outlet after both campaigns ditched the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which had organized every matchup since 1988.

Aiming to avoid a repeat of their chaotic 2020 matchups, Biden insisted — and Trump agreed — to hold the debate without an audience and to allow the network to mute the candidates’ microphones when it is not their turn to speak. The debate’s two commercial breaks offered another departure from modern practice, while the candidates have agreed not to consult staff or others while the cameras are off.

Heading out of the debate, both Biden and Trump will travel to states they hope to swing their way this fall. Trump is heading to Virginia, a onetime battleground that has shifted toward Democrats in recent years.

Biden is set to jet off to North Carolina, where he is expected to hold the largest-yet rally of his campaign in a state Trump narrowly carried in 2020.