Moderator Chris Wallace never established control of the debate, with Trump repeatedly ignoring his calls to let Biden speak. The two White House contenders talked over each other and lobbed insults in a breathtaking political brawl that made it hard for either to make a point.
At one point, an exasperated Biden said after Trump’s repeated interruptions: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”
Biden, 77, has held a consistent lead over Trump in national opinion polls, although surveys in the battleground states that will decide the election show a closer contest. It was hard to determine whether the debate would move the needle.
Biden assails Trump on virus record
The two contenders did not shake hands as they entered the debate, adhering to protocols on social distancing because of the coronavirus.
Biden was sharply critical of Trump’s record on the coronavirus pandemic which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, accusing him of failing to protect Americans because he was more concerned about the economy.
“He panicked or he looked at the stock market,” Biden said of Trump, who has pushed for states to reopen their economies and played down the threat of the pandemic.
“A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker,” Biden said.
“How many of you have sat down at the kitchen table and had an empty chair because of Covid?” he asked the audience.
Trump objected to Biden using the word “smart” and defended his approach on the pandemic, claiming he did “a great job” and that "millions" would have died had his challenger been in office.
Defending court push
Trump defended his effort to swiftly fill a US Supreme Court seat, saying “elections have consequences” and he had the right to appoint a new judge despite Democratic objections.
“I will tell you very simply we won the election, elections have consequences. We have the Senate and we have the White House and we have a phenomenal nominee respected by all,” Trump said in defense of his nominee, conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Biden said the seat of the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be filled after the election, when it was clear who the president would be.
“We should wait, we should wait and see what the outcome of this election is,” Biden said, adding that a more conservative Supreme Court would endanger the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.
Trump is moving quickly to fill Ginsburg’s seat in hopes of cementing a 6-3 conservative majority on the court, a key priority for social conservatives.
>> In Pennsylvania, Trump fans cheer his ‘excellent choice’ for the Supreme Court
Democrats have argued Republicans are being hypocritical for moving quickly to fill the seat given they had blocked then-President Barack Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016, arguing it should wait until after that November election.
'Pays less tax than a schoolteacher'
Hours before the debate, Biden released his 2019 tax returns and his campaign called on Trump, who has come under fire for not releasing his returns, to do the same.
Biden took the step two days after the New York Times reported Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 — and none in 10 of the previous 15 years — following years of reporting steep losses from business enterprises.
Trump had long sought to keep his personal financial records secret.
Biden’s taxes showed that he and his wife Jill paid more than $346,000 in federal taxes and other payments for 2019 on an income of nearly $985,000 before seeking a refund of nearly $47,000 they said they had overpaid the government.
The Democratic nominee used taxes as a point of attack, saying Trump “does take advantage of the tax code” and “pays less tax than a schoolteacher.”
Biden also brought up a recent report, denied by the White House, that Trump had called members of the military “losers” and “suckers”. The Democrat spoke of his late son Beau, who served in Iraq, adding: “He was not a loser, he was a patriot.”
The insults became deeply personal when Trump suggested Biden's other son Hunter had been thrown out of the military for cocaine use.
"My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He's overtaken it. He's fixed it," Biden countered.
Reactions on the ground
Republicans, Democrats and progressive activists FRANCE 24 spoke to in Cleveland all broadly agreed that the debate was “a mess”.
"It was a horrible shouting match, not a debate. Trump was a bully. Moderator Wallace could not control Trump,” said Michael Anne Johnson, a former assistant US attorney and resident of Cleveland's inner-ring suburbs who now organizes with Operation Grant, a group of Republicans who are getting out the vote for Joe Biden.
“I do not think the public learned anything of substance, only how some people behave badly," said Johnson, adding that Biden was “generally civilized” in his behavior.
George Zadigian, another self-described anti-Trump Republican from Ohio, agreed that the debate was “a mess. Trump was a bully, childish and very rude. This was an 'embarrassment' to the United States.”
“Biden looked a little pale,” Zadigian continued. “I’m a little disappointed. Overall it’s difficult to tell how this mess might sway American voters.”
Some Trump supporters, too, were frustrated by their candidate’s performance.
“I have to say I was a bit disappointed with the President’s impatience,” said Shannon, 53, who declined to give her last name. “I wish he would have been calmer. I didn't get a better impression of Biden. I felt his answers were vague and bland.”
Joy Roller, 66, a longtime Democrat, disagreed.
“Biden did better than expected. But the rude interruptions of President Trump made this the worst debate in American history. It was difficult to watch at times,” she said.
“Biden clearly took the high road and tried not to respond to the president’s attacks. I felt his technique of speaking directly to the camera, to the American audience, showed the depth of his care for making things better for all of us.”