The first presidential debate between President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. unraveled into an ugly melee on Tuesday, as Mr. Trump hectored and interrupted Mr. Biden nearly every time he spoke and the former vice president denounced the president as a “clown” and told him to “shut up.”
In a chaotic, 90-minute back-and-forth, the two major party nominees expressed a level of acrid contempt for each other unheard-of in modern American politics.
Mr. Trump, trailing in the polls and urgently hoping to revive his campaign, was plainly attempting to be the aggressor. But he interjected so insistently that Mr. Biden could scarcely answer the questions posed to him, forcing the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, to repeatedly urge the president to let his opponent speak.
“Will you shut up, man?” Mr. Biden demanded of Mr. Trump at one point in obvious exasperation. “This is so unpresidential.”
Yet Mr. Biden also lobbed a series of bitingly personal attacks of his own.
“You’re the worst president America has ever had,” he said to Mr. Trump.
The president’s bulldozer-style tactics represented a significant risk for an incumbent who’s trailing Mr. Biden because voters, including some who supported him in 2016, are so fatigued by his near-daily attacks and outbursts. Yet the former vice president veered between trying to ignore Mr. Trump by speaking directly into the camera to the voters, and giving in to temptation by hurling insults at the president. Mr. Biden called Mr. Trump a liar and a racist.
Mr. Trump peppered his remarks with misleading claims and outright lies, predicting that a coronavirus vaccine was imminent when his own chief health advisers say otherwise, claiming that his rollback of fuel-efficiency standards would not increase pollution and insisting that a political adviser, Kellyanne Conway, had not described riots as useful to Mr. Trump’s campaign, even though she did so on television.
And even as he went on the offensive against Mr. Biden on matters of law and order, Mr. Trump declined to condemn white supremacy and right-wing extremist groups when prompted by Mr. Wallace and Mr. Biden. When Mr. Wallace asked him whether he would be willing to do so, Mr. Trump replied, “Sure,” and asked the two men to name a group they would like him to denounce.
The unedifying spectacle of Tuesday night’s presidential debate produced some shock, some sadness and some weariness among both America’s allies and its rivals on Wednesday.
As President Trump bellowed, blustered and shouted down both the moderator, Chris Wallace, and his opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and as Mr. Biden responded by calling Mr. Trump a “clown,” many wondered if the chaos and tenor of the event said something more fundamental about the state of American democracy.
“Of course, the ultimate arbiter will be the American voter,” said Ulrich Speck, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “But there is a consensus in Europe that this is getting out of hand, and this debate is an indicator of the bad shape of the American democracy.’’
There was always a sense among allies that in America, despite political disagreement, “there is one republic, and conflict will be solved by debate and compromise,” and “that power was married to some kind of morality,” Mr. Speck said.
But that view is being questioned now, he said: “The debate was really no debate at all, but two people pursuing their strategies.”
John Sawers, a former British diplomat and head of a risk analysis firm, said simply: “My own response is that it makes me despondent about America. The country we have looked to for leadership has descended into an ugly brawl.”
President Trump refused to categorically denounce white supremacists on Tuesday night, diverting a question about right-wing extremist violence in Charlottesville, Va., and Portland, Ore., into an attack on “left-wing” protesters.
“Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and groups to say they need to stand down and not add to the violence and number of the cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?” Chris Wallace, the moderator, asked the president.
“Sure. I’m willing to do that,” said Mr. Trump, quickly adding, “Almost everything I see is from the left wing. Not from the right wing.”
When Mr. Wallace pressed on, the president asked, “What do you want to call them?”
“White supremacists,” the moderator replied.
“Proud Boys — stand back and stand by,” he said, apparently addressing the far-right group. “But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. Somebody has to do something about antifa and the left. This is not a right-wing problem. This is left-wing.”
Members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has endorsed violence, celebrated on Tuesday night after President Trump mentioned them during the first presidential debate.
Within minutes, members of the group were posting in private social media channels, calling the president’s comments “historic.” In one channel dedicated to the Proud Boys on Telegram, a private messaging app, group members called the president’s comment a tacit endorsement of their violent tactics.
Twitter suspended the Proud Boys from its platform in August 2018, and Facebook followed with a similar ban in October 2018. In the years since, the group has continued to expand its numbers on other social media platforms, and has become more visible at protests.
When asked to condemn white supremacists, Mr. Trump demurred and sought to direct the conversation to “antifa,” a loosely affiliated group of far-left anti-fascist activists.
When Mr. Wallace pointed out that Mr. Trump’s own F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, had said that antifa was an idea, not an organization, the president replied, “You have to be kidding.” (The director also said this month that “racially motivated violent extremism,” mostly from white supremacists, had made up a majority of domestic terrorism threats.)
As little as anyone can seem to agree on these days, one thing that liberals, conservatives and independent observers alike said was abundantly clear after the first presidential debate on Tuesday night was that there were no winners. America lost, they said.
On NBC, Lester Holt called the evening “a low point in political discourse.”
A top Republican strategist, Russ Schriefer, asked: “Seriously — if there weren’t any more debates, would that be a problem? Anyone served by this mess?”
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, sounded despondent in his assessment: “America was the world’s leading democracy. Then this happened. Now what?”
Most of the political professionals and pundits watching said the 90 minutes of bickering, interrupting and shouting was an unbearable affair that had further exhausted the patience of a weary and beleaguered nation.
The near-unanimity of the sentiment about the debate over all did not entirely extend to judgments about the performances of the two candidates, President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Though there were critics of the president’s domineering behavior among some of his usual defenders on the right, others insisted that his low blows against his opponent’s family were just what the Republican base wanted to hear.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, will continue meeting with senators on Wednesday, sitting down largely with Republicans eager to approve her confirmation before the general election on Nov. 3.
It will mark the second day of private meetings for Judge Barrett, who received unanimous praise from the handful of Republican senators she met with on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The effusive support for Judge Barrett, who was confirmed to the appeals court in Chicago in 2017, underscored the likelihood that Senate Republicans would be successful in completing the confirmation process in about a month.
“You just knock it out of the park as a law professor, as a lawyer, and I think you’re just an outstanding judge, ready for a good promotion,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said to Judge Barrett after their meeting on Tuesday. “The question for the country is, is this lady ready to be promoted? I think the answer is yes.”
Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, said Judge Barrett had “described herself as somebody who’s in the tradition of Justice Scalia,” the conservative legal icon whose opinions were critical of abortion rights, and for whom Judge Barrett had clerked. After their meeting on Tuesday, the senator said he would support her nomination.
A few Democratic senators, including Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey, have indicated that they will speak with Judge Barrett before hearings begin next month, even as several of their colleagues have said they plan to boycott the usual courtesy meeting. They are fiercely opposed to filling the seat when voting is underway in many states, accusing Republicans who refused to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016 of rank hypocrisy.
“The best thing we can do is basically expose this process for what it is,” Ms. Klobuchar told reporters on Tuesday.
With little power to block the nomination, Democrats have sought to frame the confirmation battle as a referendum on health care, given that the Supreme Court is set to hear a case that could overturn the Affordable Care Act in the days after the election. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, on Tuesday successfully set up votes on legislation that would prevent the Justice Department from moving to strike down the Affordable Care Act, ensuring that Senate Republicans would have to vote on health care legislation before the election.