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Takeaways from CNN’s presidential debate with Biden and Trump

President Joe Biden is three years and seven months older than former President Donald Trump.

In their debate Thursday night on CNN, the gap between the 81-year-old incumbent and his 78-year-old challenger seemed much larger.

Biden, hoarse and displaying little vocal range, was often unable to express his differences with Trump with clarity.

At one point, after Biden had trailed off as he defended his record on border security, Trump said: “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said, either.”

Trump, meanwhile, at times repeated his frequent election denialism. He said he’d accept the results of the 2024 election if it’s “fair and legal,” but then repeated his lies about fraud in the 2020 election.

“You’re a whiner, and you lost the first time,” Biden said.

It was the first time either man had debated since 2020, and they made history Thursday night: It was the first time a sitting president and a former president had ever debated. The two clashed over abortion, immigration, foreign policy, inflation and more.

Their showdown took a bitter and personal turn. Biden highlighted Trump’s criminal convictions. Trump responded by invoking Biden’s son, Hunter, who was also recently convicted.

Then Biden accused Trump of having sex with porn star Stormy Daniels while Trump’s wife was pregnant.

“I didn’t have sex with a porn star,” Trump said.

Here are 11 takeaways from the CNN debate in Atlanta, moderated by Jake Tapper and Dana Bash:

Biden’s age problem just got a lot worse

The most important job for Biden on Thursday night was to put to rest voters’ concerns about his biggest vulnerability — his age — and turn the election into a referendum on Trump.

He failed to do so.

Biden was hoarse and at times unintelligible. Words often ran together.

He stumbled, particularly when he tried to cite statistics and legislation.

He rarely raised his voice to hammer home points of emphasis — missing opportunities to attack Trump over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, his Supreme Court appointments that led to the reversal of Roe v. Wade’s abortion rights protections and more.

Two campaign sources said Biden has had a cold in recent days.

Though the Democratic primary is long over, his performance is sure to lead to more hand-wringing among party members over whether handing Biden a second nomination with only nominal opposition was the right move.

It also raises the stakes for September 10, when Biden and Trump are set to meet for their second and, as of now, final, debate, hosted by ABC.

Trump pulls (some of) his punches on Biden

For a candidate who regularly attacks Biden on his age, Trump was fairly restrained during the president’s numerous stumbles.

About 20 minutes into the debate, Trump followed a Biden remark with a quick snipe, saying, “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he does either.”

It was the exception that proved the rule – and history suggests it was a kind of self- or campaign-imposed rule on Thursday night for Trump to not be seen taunting or mocking Biden’s difficulties.

Four years ago, the first general election debate of the cycle was a mess for Trump, who constantly interrupted Biden and shouted over the moderators.

If not exactly a lesson learned, then his tone in Atlanta was a correction designed to erase memory of that damaging, helter-skelter performance.

When Biden stumbled over a question about the national debt, trying to explain the benefits of raising taxes on the super-rich before losing steam and concluding with the declaration that “We finally beat Medicare,” there was a sense that Trump would pounce.

He had his eyes trained on the president and his lips pursed for much of the rambling, difficult-to-discern answer. He almost winced at one point. But Trump then did a most un-Trump-like thing: he responded like a typical politician.

“Well, he’s right: he did beat Medicare,” Trump said, “He beat it to death.”

Then he continued on, railing about Biden’s immigration policy.

People watch the debate in Washington, DC.

Questions over Biden’s goal

Besides Biden’s physical shortcomings Thursday night – a voice that failed him, a diminished appearance and a split screen face that was widely shared online – it wasn’t readily clear after 90 minutes what objectives he entered the evening hoping to achieve.

Unlike in their first meetings four years ago, when Biden put Trump’s record under the microscope and offered a more hopeful vision for the country, his message Thursday was muddled and not just by his struggles finishing a thought.

Biden was clearly on defense most of the night, but that was to be expected, as he is the incumbent. But his explanation for his record was often deep in the weeds of the policy of his first term and fell short of evoking the “Middle Class Joe” image he cultivated for years.

His attacks on Trump were similarly uneven, and he struggled to fact check the former president on his lies — even ones that had been repeated for years. On the biggest issue for Democrats – abortion – Biden flailed. At times, his retorts were bogged down in statistics that were hard to follow, like this riff on the former president’s tax cuts for the wealthy:

President Joe Biden flips through his notes during the debate in Atlanta.

“We have 1,000 trillionaires in America, billionaires in America, and what’s happening, they’re in a situation where they in fact, pay 8.2% in taxes. If they just paid 24% or 25% – either one of those numbers when they raise $500 million, billion dollars, I should say, in a 10-year period. We’d be able to wipe out his debt.”

At another point, he said Trump “is the only president other than Herbert Hoover, who had lost more jobs than he had when he began since Herbert Hoover.”

His canned rejoinders leaned on the collective thought of nameless constitutional scholars, historians and Nobel laureate economists to drive home his points.

Biden is hardly the first incumbent to be tripped up by the initial debate.  But his aides were supposedly aware of this curse and had over prepared the president during a week of intense preparation at Camp David.

What was presented Thursday, though, not only failed to quiet concerns about Biden’s capacity to fight on – it left voters with an unclear idea of what he’s fighting for.

Biden’s one-liner offense

Throughout the debate, Biden’s offensive strategy was to again and again deploy one-liners to ding Trump.

Some of the lines were standard Biden fare.

“Every single thing he’s said is a lie. Every single one,” he shot at the former president at one point.

In another, he said, “I’ve never heard so much malarky in my life.”

And in a potentially bright spot for Biden, the president highlighted a 2020 report by The Atlantic that Trump had referred to American war dead as “suckers” and “losers.”

He invoked his son Beau, who died of brain cancer after a year in Iraq in which he was exposed to toxic fumes.

“My son was not a sucker. You’re a sucker. You’re the loser,” Biden said.

And during a riff about Trump being convicted for trying to cover up having an affair with Daniels, Biden said, “You have the morals of an alleycat.”

The stark difference in addressing January 6

Put simply: Biden was eager to address the events of January 6, 2021, head on as Trump moved to change the subject, and the difference in the responses between the two candidates were some of the starkest during the entire debate.

When the debate veered toward the attack of the US Capitol, Trump didn’t address themit directly.

He described how the country, at the time, “had a great border,” that “we were energy independent,” and that the United States had “the lowest taxes ever. We had the lowest regulations ever.”

The former president did not address the speech he delivered to supporters ahead of the riot that day, during which he encouraged supporters to “show strength” at the US Capitol.

Biden, by contrast, said Trump “encouraged those folks to go to Capitol Hill” and that while the Capitol was under siege, Trump “sat there for three hours watching” while staffers begged him to do something.

Trump makes news with abortion pill stance

In a debate dominated by discussion on the economy, inflation, immigration and foreign policy, abortion should have been Biden’s strongest topic.

The US Supreme Court handed abortion rights supporters two wins this month and Democratic voters are still motivated by anger over the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Instead, it was one of his worst moments of the night. Biden struggled to explain his party’s stance on abortion, rambled, appeared confused at times and, unprompted, gave Trump an opening to bring up crimes migrants have committed against Americans.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court dismissed a case that would have rolled back access to the abortion pill mifepristone.

And Trump on Thursday backed the high court’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court just approved the abortion pill, and I agree with their decision to have done that and I will not block it,” he said.

From there, Trump reiterated his stance that regulating abortion should be left to the states, and repeated his false assertion that “every legal scholar” wanted to end federal abortion protections. He said he supports exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.

“It’s been a great thing,” Trump said of abortion returning to the states.

“It’s been a terrible thing,” Biden shot back. “The fact is that the vast majority of constitutional scholars supported Roe when it was decided.”

But while abortion should have been one of the president’s strongest moments of the night, given the emphasis his campaign has placed on restoring access, Biden’s answer instead took a confusing turn and gave Trump an opening to talk about crimes committed against Americans by migrants.

A vibes fight about Israel and Gaza

There is no doubt that Trump would handle the war in Gaza much differently than Biden. But how?

“Let Israel finish the job,” he told Biden, the suggestion being that the president has done too much to restrain the Israeli government and its military bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza.

Trump did not say whether he would back a Palestinian state, but did insist that Hamas’ October 7 attack inside Israel would have “never happened” if he had been in the White House at the time.

He also said that Biden has ”become like a Palestinian, but they don’t like him because he’s a bad Palestinian.”

That was probably  intended as a jab to suggest Biden is too deferential to the Palestinians but also too ineffectual earn their respect.

It landed flat – if it landed at all.

Biden didn’t offer much himself. He talked up America’s close alliance with Israel and made special note that the US is “providing Israel with all the weapons they need and when they need them.” If he was fishing for progressive votes, there wasn’t much to bite on.

The president also talked up the ceasefire deal he spoke about a few weeks ago that has yet to materialize. (It is, by all recent accounts, a non-starter with leaders on both sides.)

The next president – be it Biden or Trump – will have a massive job to do in the region.

And that’s especially true in Israel and Gaza, where when the fighting ends the US and other world powers will be called upon to negotiate some kind of peaceful path forward. 

But as their performances on Thursday night showed, there are no easy answers and the hard truths will be difficult to come by.

Biden appeared to struggle with his delivery at multiple points during the debate.

He cleared his throat or coughed multiple times, a condition that his doctor has previously stated is caused by acid reflux. 

His voice sounded hoarse and raspy, even more so than usual.

He has been battling a cold in recent days, sources familiar with his debate preparations said.

Trump launched his bid to reclaim the White House in November 2022, aiming to become only the second commander in chief to win two nonconsecutive terms.

The candidates levied personal attacks against each other as they sparred over the economy, immigration, abortion and more.

With less than five months until the election, the stakes were high as the candidates made their pitch to voters. Another debate is scheduled for September 10.

Biden looks at his notes during the debate.

The candidates are seen on monitors from the side of the stage.

Biden's campaign won a coin toss before the debate to choose which side he would stand on.

Trump's campaign then chose for the former president to deliver the last closing statement.

Trump ducks on deportations

The immigration section of the debate was mostly memorable for Biden’s stumble.

But Trump did not directly answer a question about whether the severe immigration crackdown he has promised would involve deporting those who have been in the United States for decades, those with jobs and those whose spouses are US citizens.

Instead, he pivoted into an attack on Biden, arguing that the president bears the blame for crime committed by undocumented immigrants since he took office.

“We’re living right now in a rat’s nest. They’re killing our people,” Trump said. “They’re killing our citizens at a level we’ve never seen before.”

Biden, who had sought to emphasize that illegal border crossings have dropped recently, shot back: “Every single thing he said was a lie.”

Trump’s take on foreign policy: Blame Joe

As the former president tells it, the current one is not doing such a great job.

The US military “can’t stand him” for a number of reasons, most infamously his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin was “encouraged” by him to invade Ukraine. 

Iran, which “was broke” during his presidency, was freed up by him to wage a proxy war against Israel because of him.

Trump painted a bleak picture of the world and global politics during the Biden era.

He also, again, refused to make a clear commitment to NATO, instead bragging about his efforts to get members up to date on their dues.

Putin’s terms for ending the war, he said, “were not acceptable” – but only after being pressed on the issue.

Biden, in response, called it “malarkey.”

It was Trump, he insisted, who emboldened Putin in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion. If there was any “encouraging,” he added, it had come during Trump’s four years of footsie with the autocrat.

Biden’s reasoning for continued US support for Ukraine broke down along two lines: First, that it is a priority and essential step because Putin, he believes, would not stop at Ukraine’s western border.

He also argued, as he’s done in the past, that the existence of NATO inherently empowers the US – that such close allyship with Western Europe offers the US a stronger hand in all its interactions around the world.

Trump makes a bid for Black and Latino voters

As the debate turned to Black voters, Trump took an opportunity to make a bid for Black and Latino voters and knock Biden on inflation.

Biden’s chances of winning in November are dependent on Black support in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and reach states like Georgia and North Carolina.

But polling has shown that Trump is making modest inroads with some Black voters, specificially men, while others are disengaged from the election.

Biden was asked what his message is to Black voters who have seen record low unemployment but still face disparities when it comes to wages, maternal health and incarceration rates.

Biden touted his policies, including his efforts to reduce student loan debt, but acknowledged that costs are up.

“I don’t blame them for being disappointed, inflation is still hurting them badly,” Biden said. “There’s more to be done, considerably more to be done, but we’ve gone a great deal so far, and I’m not letting up and they know it.”

Trump blamed Biden for creating inflation and said his immigration policy has led to jobs losses for Black people.

“He caused the inflation, and it’s killing Black families, and it’s killing Hispanic families and just about everybody,” Trump said.

“The fact is that his big kill on the Black people is the millions of people that he’s allowed to come in through the border. They’re taking Black jobs now.”

The conversation then turned to policing, as Biden said Trump tried to cut funding to police.

Trump incorrectly said Biden referred to Black people as “super predators” in the 1990s – that was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – and touted his work on criminal justice reform and opportunity zones with South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott.

“And the biggest beneficiaries are Blacks, and that’s why we have the best numbers with them in maybe ever,” Trump said.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during the debate on Thursday.

The common thread: blaming inflation on the pandemic

Biden and Trump landed on the same scapegoat when asked to explain their economic records: the pandemic. 

The back and forth over coronavirus for a moment made it feel like they were picking up where they left off in 2020.

Asked at the top of the debate about one of the most persistent headwinds facing his reelection bid – inflation – Biden said he inherited an economy that was “in freefall” caused by Trump’s stewardship of Covid-19.

Biden said the pandemic was “so badly handled” by his predecessor.

He quoted Trump saying the coronavirus was “not that serious” when it arrived and poked fun at Trump’s suggested remedy of injecting disinfectant into the body.

“We put things back together,” Biden said.

Trump, for his part, blamed the pandemic for halting an economy he said was “the greatest economy in the history of our country” – a familiar refrain from the former president.

“We got hit with Covid and when we did we spent the money necessary so we didn’t get hit with the great depression,” Trump said.

Trump – who racked up twice as much federal debt than Biden, according to a new nonpartisan report referenced by Tapper – went on to claim that he was about to start paying down the country’s debt when the coronavirus first appeared.

He then shifted the conversation to his successor’s handling of the pandemic, including criticizing the vaccine mandates instituted by the Biden administration.

Credit: CNN



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