Six Takeaways From the First Biden-Trump Presidential Debate (2024)

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Shane Goldmacher and Jonathan Swan

Shane Goldmacher reported from the debate in Atlanta, and Jonathan Swan from Washington.

Biden failed to ease worries about his age. Trump forcefully made his case. Here’s what to know.

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President Biden struggled through his first debate of the 2024 campaign against Donald J. Trump, meandering and mumbling through answers as the former president pressed his case for a second term with limited resistance from his rival.

They disagreed on abortion, inflation, climate change, foreign affairs and immigration. But the sharpest contrast was in their presentation.

Mr. Trump was confident and forceful, even as he let loose a stream of misleading attacks and falsehoods. Mr. Biden spoke with a hoarse and halting voice, closing his eyes occasionally to gather thoughts that sometimes couldn’t be corralled. Democratic anxiety rose by the minute. About halfway through, people close to Mr. Biden put out word that he had a cold.

Mr. Trump relentlessly hammered Mr. Biden on areas of vulnerability, sending exaggerations and embellishments — he was the “greatest” and his opponent the “worst” — flying unchecked through the audience-free CNN studio in Atlanta.

Here are six takeaways:

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Biden stumbled over his words as he answered a question on the national debt.

“We’d be able to wipe out his debt. We’d be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do child care, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our health care system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the — with, with the Covid, excuse me. With dealing with everything we have to do with — look, if — we finally beat Medicare.” “Thank you, President Biden. President Trump.” “He was right. He did beat Medicaid, beat it to death, and he’s destroying Medicare.”

Six Takeaways From the First Biden-Trump Presidential Debate (3)

The debate exposed Biden’s biggest weakness.

Mr. Biden’s allies desperately hoped he could turn in a commanding performance to calm voters’ persistent concerns about his age.

That dream died within minutes.

A raspy Mr. Biden grasped to recall some specifics, and labored to articulate the statistics he could remember. In one early answer, he confused trillionaires with billionaires. Sometimes, he lost his train of thought entirely.

“We’re able to make every single solitary person … eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the, uh, with — with the Covid, or excuse me, with, dealing with, everything we have to do with, uh … Look … If … We finally beat Medicare,” he said.

It was bad enough that Vice President Kamala Harris went on CNN to clean up the performance.

“Yes, there was a slow start,” she said, “but it was a strong finish.”

Mr. Trump mostly avoided piling on to Mr. Biden’s weakest moments, letting him tie himself in verbal knots until the microphone cut the president off. “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” Mr. Trump said at one point. “I don’t think he knows what he said either.”

Within half an hour after the debate began, some of the most influential Democrats in the country were privately texting notes of panic about the state of their candidate.

Questions about the 81-year-old president’s fitness were not eased. They were exacerbated.

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Trump made his case largely unimpeded.

The Biden campaign demanded that the mics be muted during the debate because it was worried Mr. Trump would relentlessly interrupt, as he did in the first 2020 clash.

The precaution worked, but not to Mr. Biden’s benefit. Mr. Trump waited for his turn to speak and seemed to be enjoying himself.

In the weeks before the debate, Mr. Trump privately told advisers that he knew he had messed up and turned off voters with his argumentative behavior in 2020. His aides — who were hoping he wouldn’t fall back into that pattern — were delighted at what they saw from him on Thursday night.

The order of the topics helped.

It was nearly halfway into the debate before Mr. Trump’s recent felony conviction came up.

“The only person on this stage who is a convicted felon is the man I am looking at right now,” Mr. Biden said in a stronger moment.

As the evening wore on, Mr. Trump’s discipline slipped. He began making wilder claims, asserting that Mr. Biden was a “Manchurian candidate” who was “being paid by China” and “the whole country is exploding because of you.”

Regarding his own record, Mr. Trump’s statements were often fact-free and absurdly hyperbolic, including his remark, in a section about climate change, that “I had the best environmental numbers ever.”

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Biden attacked Trump for “having sex with a p*rn star” while Trump called out Biden’s son Hunter for his recent criminal conviction.

“The only person on this stage who is a convicted felon is the man I’m looking at right now. And the fact of the matter is, he is — what he’s telling you is simply not true.” “When he talks about a convicted felon, his son is a convicted felon. He could be a convicted felon as soon as he gets out of office. Joe could be a convicted felon with all of the things that he’s done. I did nothing wrong. We have a system that was rigged and disgusting. I did nothing wrong.” The crimes you are still charged with, and think of all the civil penalties you have. How many billions of dollars do you owe in civil penalties for molesting a woman in public? For doing a whole range of things, of having sex with a p*rn star on the night — while your wife was pregnant. I mean, what are you talking about? You have the morals of an alley cat.”

Six Takeaways From the First Biden-Trump Presidential Debate (4)

The debate was more personal than policy-focused.

When they walked onstage, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump never came close to shaking hands. Their mutual dislike shot through a night filled with invective and name-calling.

“You have the morals of an alley cat,” Mr. Biden said at one point.

The Biden team had wanted to showcase for the public two sharply contrasting visions, and to make the case that a second Trump term would be increasingly radical. But instead of a steady drumbeat about the stakes, the debate devolved to the point where the two men had a prolonged discussion about golf handicaps.

“He can’t hit a ball 50 yards,” Mr. Trump tutted.

His strongest issue is immigration, polling shows, while Mr. Biden’s is abortion. Yet at one point, Mr. Biden inexplicably appeared to try to pivot to immigration during an abortion answer.

Mr. Biden also attacked Mr. Trump for “having sex with a p*rn star” — a reference to his alleged affair and the hush-money payoff that led to his conviction on 34 felony counts for falsifying business records. Mr. Trump went after Mr. Biden’s son Hunter over his recent criminal conviction on federal gun charges — and made an oblique threat that if Mr. Biden loses, he could face charges from a future Trump administration.

At times, Mr. Biden squinted in disgust as he talked about Mr. Trump’s conduct, including the allegation, which Mr. Trump denied, that he once referred to dead American service members as “suckers and losers.”

In a role reversal, Mr. Trump at one point tried to chide Mr. Biden for unstatesmanlike behavior. “Let’s not act like children,” Mr. Trump scolded. Mr. Biden retorted, “You are a child.”

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The moderators were hands (and mics) off.

Before the debate, Biden allies tried to pressure the CNN moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, to aggressively fact-check any false statements made by Mr. Trump. CNN leadership made clear that the moderators would facilitate the discussion but that any fact-checking would be left to the candidates.

On Thursday, Mr. Biden missed numerous opportunities to fact-check Mr. Trump, who often filled the vacuum with a torrent of exaggerations, falsehoods and attacks on Mr. Biden’s record and character. They often went unchecked by moderators, including the “Manchurian candidate” remark.

The Biden team largely imposed the terms of the debate on the Trump campaign, but it was Mr. Biden who appeared uncomfortable with the format.

If the first 2020 debate was defined by unintelligible cross-talk as Mr. Trump tried to bully his way into every answer, this one may be remembered for Mr. Biden’s stammering attempts to fill his allotted time.

Some of the most striking interventions by the moderators were simply to remind Mr. Biden that he had time remaining on his clock.

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Trump said he would accept the 2024 election results if it were conducted fairly. Biden called him a “whiner” for not accepting the results of the last election.

“Will you accept the results of the election regardless of who wins, yes or no, please?” “If it’s a fair and legal and good election, absolutely. I would have much rather accepted these. But the fraud and everything else was ridiculous.” “You’re a whiner. When you lost the first time, you, you continued you appealed and appeal to courts all across the country. Not one single court in America said any of your claims had any merit, state or local. None. But you continue to promote this lie about somehow there’s all this misrepresentation, all this stealing. There is no evidence of that at all. And I tell you what, I doubt whether you’ll accept it because you’re such a whiner. The idea if you lose again, you accepted anything. You can’t stand the loss. Something snapped in you when you lost the last time.”

Six Takeaways From the First Biden-Trump Presidential Debate (5)

Trump still won’t accept the election results.

For the third consecutive presidential election, Mr. Trump is refusing to say that he will accept the results — a rejection of reality that culminated in the deadly violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

On Thursday night, Mr. Trump was twice asked if he would commit to accepting the results of the election, but he ducked the question. Pressed a third time, he said he would accept the outcome, but with a glaring “if.”

“If it’s a fair, and legal, and good election, absolutely,” he replied.

But Mr. Trump has already insisted baselessly this year that Democrats will cheat in November, suggesting that any election he does not win was probably rigged — a characterization he bases on his false and debunked claims of widespread voter fraud in 2020.

Mr. Trump brazenly tried to turn the Jan. 6 date to his advantage, rattling off favorable economic and energy statistics from that date to make his case that Americans were better off four years ago.

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The split screen damaged Biden.

Mr. Biden’s struggles weren’t just apparent when he was speaking. For long intervals he stood silent, eyes darting, mouth agape.

CNN’s split screen of both candidates, shown throughout the debate, offered little reprieve for a president who kept trying to clear his throat in the early going. Mr. Trump, in contrast, grinned attentively and waited for his chance to attack.

“This guy’s three years younger, and a lot less competent,” Mr. Biden said in one attempted age-related counterpunch at Mr. Trump.

Mr. Biden also trotted out some familiar lines about “malarkey” but, like his voice, they sounded hollow at times.

Even if Mr. Biden did build some strength over the course of the evening, Frank Luntz, the focus-group guru, said that by the end of the evening, his gathering of undecided voters wanted the president to step aside.

“I think we did well,” Mr. Biden said during a stop at a Waffle House after the debate.

He had bet big that the earliest debate in general-election history would reshape the race in his favor. But now he must endure nearly two months of second-guessing before the Democratic National Convention, and more than 10 weeks until his next scheduled encounter with Mr. Trump.

Taylor Robinson contributed reporting from New York, and Michael Gold from Atlanta.

June 28, 2024, 11:58 a.m. ET

June 28, 2024, 11:58 a.m. ET

James Wagner

Reporting from Mexico City

In Mexico City, debate watchers pay close attention to talk of immigration.

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At an American barbecue restaurant in Mexico City on Thursday night, about half of the roughly 50 patrons watched the debate between President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump on large television screens.

While many were Americans living here, several Mexicans took note of the candidates’ rhetoric, especially when Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden discussed issues that related directly to their country: immigration, the border and fentanyl production.

Miguel Lorenzo, 34, a Mexican lawyer, said he wished the candidates had talked about the economic relationship between the countries, like the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement or “near-shoring.” In February, Mexico outpaced China for the first time in 20 years to become the United States’ top source of official imports.

“Maybe they’re not focusing on it over there because they don’t have as much interest as us here,” said Mr. Lorenzo, who met up with fellow Georgetown University alumni to watch the debate because he said that what happened in the United States was deeply important to Mexico.

Mr. Lorenzo said the candidates were more concerned about the flow of drugs north from Mexico, but “as long as there’s a market, there will be products.” The same principle existed, Mr. Lorenzo said, with the market for smuggling firearms from the United States to Mexico, a reality that he said worried him and wasn’t addressed by the candidates.

As far as immigration, Mr. Lorenzo wasn’t pleased with Mr. Trump’s comments, particularly about migrants causing violence and death.

“It’s been eight years, three Trump elections, hearing the same message that we all know is a lie,” he said. “We know it’s populism, it’s a lie, infusing fear into the Americans, that the immigrants are coming to take your jobs and rape your families.” He added later, “Crime does not derive from the migrants,” noting that the vast majority go to work.

Even though Mr. Lorenzo said he thought President Biden has tried to blunt soaring migration, he said neither candidate presented a plan to address it, and instead traded barbs.

Sergio García Chavarría, 52, a driver, said the debate was more style than substance, with the political points scored by the candidates’ jabs. He said he, too, wished Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump had explained how he would address immigration if he won.

Mr. García said he thought Mr. Trump “doesn’t understand that the United States was built by immigrants.”

Mr. García, a Mexican who became a U.S. citizen nearly two decades ago through his former wife, an American, said he watched the debate because he will vote in the U.S. presidential election in November and wanted to be informed. (With his dual nationality, he also voted in the Mexican presidential election in June.) So he tagged along with his girlfriend to a Democrats Abroad event at the restaurant.

He said he was leaning toward supporting Mr. Biden but lamented not hearing enough proposals. “He said, ‘This is what I’ve already done.’ But tell me what you’re going to do.”

Mr. García said he also wished both candidates had discussed how they would curb the drug problem.

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June 28, 2024, 1:04 a.m. ET

June 28, 2024, 1:04 a.m. ET

Peter Baker

Biden brushes off concerns about his performance: ‘It’s hard to debate a liar.’

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President Biden brushed off Democrats’ complaints about his performance at the debate with former President Donald J. Trump and indicated that he had no plans to rethink his candidacy.

“I think we did well,” he told reporters during a stop at a Waffle House in Atlanta shortly after midnight. Asked about Democrats’ concerns about his showing and calls for him to consider dropping out of the race, he said: “No. It’s hard to debate a liar.”

He indicated that his raspy voice stemmed from a minor ailment. “I have a sore throat,” he said. His aides said he had been fighting a cold.

Mr. Biden then headed to an Air Force base for a late-night flight to Raleigh, N.C., where he plans to hold a rally on Friday.

June 28, 2024, 1:00 a.m. ET

June 28, 2024, 1:00 a.m. ET

Michael M. Grynbaum

Reporting from Atlanta

The moderators

Dana Bash and Jake Tapper let the candidates be the ‘stars of the show.’

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The microphones were muted. So were the moderators.

Despite all the CNN logos filling viewers’ screens, and the nonstop hype that the network had piled onto Thursday’s prime time debate between President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, the anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash mostly receded into the background as they moderated.

There were virtually no real-time fact-checks of Mr. Trump’s numerous baseless assertions. At tense moments, the moderators deferred to the candidates to directly address each other’s claims. And the concerns that Mr. Trump might pick a showstopping fight with his CNN interlocutors proved unfounded.

Mr. Tapper’s name was mentioned only twice in the course of 90 minutes. Ms. Bash’s name was not uttered once.

CNN had made clear ahead of time that its moderators would act as facilitators, not participants. Its chairman, Mark Thompson, called Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump “the stars of the show.” On that front, the network succeeded.

Whether viewers agreed with that approach may depend on their partisan leanings, and some Biden supporters were quick to grumble that the moderators let too many falsehoods go unchallenged.

But the unusual format of this debate — the first in decades to be fully controlled by a single television network — had been fully negotiated and agreed to by both campaigns.

While Mr. Trump has a record of steamrolling debate proceedings and jeering moderators, on Thursday he evinced a newfound discipline, rarely interrupting his opponent or either of the CNN hosts. The result was an evening notably free of the cross-talk or chaotic moments that may have compelled the moderators to interject.

It was a technical aspect of the broadcast that seemed to have more of an effect than any of the questions or follow-ups that the moderators posed.

The decision to mute the candidates’ microphones when it was not their turn to speak was insisted on by senior Biden aides, who had complained about Mr. Trump’s refusal to follow the ground rules during the first unruly debate between the two in 2020.

But on Thursday, the muting capability seemed to better suit Mr. Trump’s televisual skill set. His bombast, often free of facts and context, was a stark contrast to Mr. Biden’s often rambling and unsteady responses. Mr. Trump was better at packaging sound bites into the time allotted.

And while the moderators declined to grill Mr. Trump on some of his more outlandish falsehoods, Mr. Biden often let those opportunities slip by, too. When Mr. Trump baselessly suggested that Mr. Biden had encouraged Vladimir V. Putin’s military attacks, it was up to the current president to reject the assertion. He simply called it “malarkey.”

Follow-ups did occur, notably when Ms. Bash pressed Mr. Trump three times to state whether he would accept the results of the November election. Three times, Mr. Trump declined to directly answer the question.

And Mr. Tapper at one point found himself urging Mr. Trump to make even a halfhearted attempt to answer the question that the anchor had just posed.

“So President Trump, you have 67 seconds left,” Mr. Tapper said dryly, after Mr. Trump went off on a tangent about China and used the phrase “Manchurian candidate” to describe Mr. Biden. “The question was, ‘What are you going to do to help Americans in the throes of addiction right now who are struggling to get the treatment they need?’”

Early on in the night, there was a moment when Mr. Trump seemed tempted to run afoul of the rules. Clearly irked, he tried to tack on a riposte to a Biden answer about abortion, but his microphone was muted and viewers at home could not hear him. The camera flipped to Mr. Tapper, who moved forward with his next question.

By the time Mr. Trump reappeared, he had done something that many of his regular viewers may not be accustomed to: He had fallen silent.

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June 28, 2024, 12:47 a.m. ET

June 28, 2024, 12:47 a.m. ET

Simon J. Levien

Kamala Harris defends Biden’s debate performance, but acknowledges ‘a slow start.’

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With top Democrats expressing alarm over President Biden’s shaky debate performance Thursday night, Vice President Kamala Harris defended her boss in interviews on CNN and MSNBC, arguing that Mr. Biden should be judged on his record in office rather than the moments on the stage where he faltered.

“Joe Biden is extraordinarily strong,” Ms. Harris said, as Anderson Cooper of CNN repeatedly pressed her to assess how Mr. Biden handled the evening.

She conceded that he did not perform expertly at the start of the debate.

“It was a slow start, that’s obvious to everyone,” Ms. Harris said. “I’m not going to debate that.”

At a virtual debate watch party with supporters before her CNN appearance, Ms. Harris appeared to read from prepared remarks to assure supporters.

“He got into a groove where it counted,” Ms. Harris said in her remarks. “Our president showed that he will win the election.”

On CNN, she argued that the election must be decided “on substance,” not on debate style. And she sought to highlight the false claims made by former President Donald J. Trump throughout the debate and raise alarm about how he might restrict abortion access if he returns to office.

In the MSNBC interview that followed, she repeatedly described Mr. Biden as “clear” in his messaging and said that, during the debate in particular, his pitch to enshrine abortion access in a second term was firm.

Ms. Harris conceded again that Mr. Biden had a slow start, but added that “I thought it was a strong finish.”

Ms. Harris is expected to address supporters at a rally in Las Vegas on Friday.

June 28, 2024, 12:39 a.m. ET

June 28, 2024, 12:39 a.m. ET

Reid J. Epstein

Reporting on the Biden campaign

President Biden told the traveling White House press pool that he had a good debate. “I think we did well,” he said outside a Waffle House in Atlanta. He said he had a sore throat and, when asked about calls for him to drop out, said: “It’s hard to debate a liar.”

June 28, 2024, 12:11 a.m. ET

June 28, 2024, 12:11 a.m. ET

Michael Gold

Reporting from the debate in Atlanta

Trump’s debate performance: Relentless attacks and falsehoods.

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For most of Thursday night’s debate, former President Donald J. Trump verbally pummeled President Biden, painting his political opponent as an ineffective leader with a torrent of attacks that were frequently false, lacked context or were vague enough to be misleading.

Mr. Trump went directly after Mr. Biden’s personal character, calling him “weak” and little respected by global leaders who were “laughing” at him.

He tried to accuse Mr. Biden of corruption, dubbing the president as a “Manchurian candidate” who was “paid by China,” a nod to frequent accusations of undue influence for which there is no evidence.

He directly blamed Mr. Biden for a wave of immigrants “coming in and killing our citizens at a level we’ve never” seen, a hyperbolic claim that is not backed up by available statistics.

And in a wild misrepresentation of facts, Mr. Trump claimed falsely that Mr. Biden “encouraged” Russia to attack Ukraine, even though Mr. Biden has consistently tried to rally support for Ukraine and his administration took active steps to warn President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia not to invade.

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Six Takeaways From the First Biden-Trump Presidential Debate (12)

Mr. Trump’s remarks during the debate were not substantially different from the way he typically inveighs against Mr. Biden during his rallies, where he depicts the president as a leader who is somehow both bumbling and corrupt as he steers the country to ruin.

But the barrage of attacks during the debate was particularly striking given that Mr. Biden was standing mere feet away from him, unable to interrupt or effectively challenge Mr. Trump because of debate rules that kept his microphone muted.

And as the debate’s moderators, the CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, focused on keeping the peace, they did not even try to fact-check Mr. Trump’s assertions, allowing them to stand unchallenged.

Mr. Biden got in a few licks, including some of the debate’s more memorable moments. He said Mr. Trump had the “morals of an alley cat” and accused him of having sex with a p*rn star while his wife was pregnant.

But by and large, Mr. Biden was on the defensive from the get-go in the face of a steady stream of insults, false characterizations and attacks from Mr. Trump.

Seizing on Mr. Biden’s halting speech early in the debate, Mr. Trump pounced at one moment when Mr. Biden trailed off, saying: “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said, either.”

But Mr. Trump’s most forceful attacks surrounded immigration, an issue that animated his successful 2016 campaign and that he has tried to put at the center of his bid to return to the White House.

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The former president invoked the idea of “Biden migrant crime,” claiming that Mr. Biden’s lax border policy had allowed terrorists and criminals to cross the border illegally.

Mr. Trump accused his successor of “ridiculous, insane and very stupid policies” that fostered a crime wave, pointing to high-profile killings that involved immigrants. He vaguely accused Mr. Biden of killing “so many at our border” by not curbing the surge of migrants, an assertion that he did not back up with statistics.

Experts have said that those heavily publicized cases do not represent a broader trend. Studies have concluded that immigration does not push up crime rates.

Mr. Trump also went directly after Mr. Biden’s profile on the world stage. He argued that Mr. Putin was “laughing at” the president’s leadership and at his failure to secure the release of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter detained in Russia on an espionage charge that American officials vehemently deny.

“Our whole country is exploding because they don’t respect you,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Biden.

He extended those criticisms to the military, arguing that “our veterans and our soldiers can’t stand” the president. (Mr. Trump, while in office, reportedly denigrated senior American military officials.)

In repeating his frequent assertions that Mr. Biden is corrupt, Mr. Trump revived his accusations that Mr. Biden improperly received payments from a Chinese energy company associated with his son Hunter and his brother James. There is no evidence that any portion of those payments — which started after Mr. Biden left the vice presidency — went to the president.

But Mr. Trump also directly attacked Hunter Biden, who was found guilty this month on three felony counts related to his buying a gun while grappling with drug addiction. He called Hunter “a convicted felon at a very high level.”

Mr. Trump was convicted last month on 34 felony charges in Manhattan related to hush-money payments to a p*rn star.

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June 27, 2024, 11:57 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:57 p.m. ET

Rebecca Davis O’Brien

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. debates alone, upset over being left out.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the independent presidential candidate, was not invited to Thursday’s party in Atlanta. But that did not stop him from taking part remotely in this year’s first presidential debate, streaming live from Los Angeles, thousands of miles away.

Standing alone on a stage that was decked out in red, white and blue, and next to a screen showing CNN’s debate, Mr. Kennedy answered — or, in some cases, evaded — the same questions posed by the CNN hosts to former President Donald J. Trump and President Biden.

The event moderator was John Stossel, a libertarian and former host on ABC and Fox Business who now runs an online commentary platform. The event, billed as “The Real Debate,” was livestreamed by X, and Mr. Kennedy began his remarks by thanking the platform’s owner, Elon Musk.

The Kennedy campaign decided to stage the event after he was shut out of CNN’s debate. To participate in that debate, the network required a candidate to be on enough state ballots to have a chance to secure 271 electoral votes — Mr. Kennedy is officially on the ballot in just seven states. He also had to earn at least 15 percent support in four approved national polls. By last week, he had only three such polls.

Mr. Kennedy’s livestream took on a somewhat clunky format: After Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump answered a question from CNN, the network’s feed was paused and Mr. Stossel posed the same question to Mr. Kennedy.

Mr. Kennedy used the first couple of questions to get in criticisms of CNN, saying the network had “colluded” with the two main candidates “to keep me off the stage.” Minutes later, he said the debate’s format meant nobody was challenging Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden on their “forever wars and out-of-control spending.” And later, he said CNN had been the “biggest cheerleader” of the Covid-19 lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions he said were imposed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden.

On the actual issues, Mr. Kennedy said he believed that abortion should be the choice of the woman, but he added, “Every abortion is a tragedy.” He said that he agreed with Mr. Trump’s plan to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border; that he would “change the function of NATO so that it becomes an instrument of peace”; and, in response to a question about whether he would support the creation of an independent Palestinian state, that the issue had to be decided between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Stossel was tough on Mr. Kennedy, imposing the same two-minute response cutoff time that Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden were held to, joking at one point that none of the three candidates had answered a question. The quip was met with laughter — unlike the debate in Atlanta, Mr. Kennedy had a live audience.

About an hour in, after Mr. Kennedy had run through the two-minute mark, Mr. Stossel said: “There’s a voice in my ear telling me to give you more time, but I don’t think that’s right, so — let’s go.”

June 27, 2024, 11:50 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:50 p.m. ET

Michael Gold

Reporting from the debate in Atlanta

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chris LaCivita, one of Trump’s campaign managers, told me the Trump campaign was very happy with its decision to buck the Commission on Presidential Debates. “I think CNN met the moment,” said LaCivita, who days ago cast doubt on the network’s ability to be fair to Trump. “I think they facilitated probably one of the best presidential debates I’ve ever seen.”

June 27, 2024, 11:47 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:47 p.m. ET

Ken Bensinger

Appearing on the Fox News spin room set in Atlanta, Senator Linsdey Graham cast President Biden’s debate performance as a threat to national security and one that would encourage America’s enemies. “I think the only decision after this debate is does he stay or not,” Graham said. “I don’t want the world to see this again.”

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June 27, 2024, 11:41 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:41 p.m. ET

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

White House correspondent

Mark Buell, a prominent donor for Biden and Democrats, said Biden had to strongly consider whether he is the best nominee. “Do we have time to put somebody else in there?” Buell said after the debate. He said he was not calling for Biden to step down yet. However, he said: “We have a responsibility to gauge the thinking of America right now in a very real way and put that in front of Biden because the stakes are way too high in this race.”

June 27, 2024, 11:38 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:38 p.m. ET

Reid J. Epstein

Reporting on the Biden campaign

A Democratic National Committee member has called for President Biden to end his campaign. “Now would be a good time for Biden to drop out citing health concerns,” said Nadia B. Ahmad, a progressive D.N.C. member from Florida.

June 27, 2024, 11:35 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:35 p.m. ET

Vivian Wang

On Chinese social media, the presidential debate was a top trending topic on the platform Weibo. Many comments mocked both candidates — targeting Biden’s age and Trump’s red tie, which some users joked was similar to a Communist red scarf. (Some social media users in China call Trump “nation-builder,” because they believe his leadership would only accelerate China’s rise.)

June 27, 2024, 11:34 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:34 p.m. ET

Theodore Schleifer

In other news, the Silicon Valley megadonor Peter Thiel said definitively, for the first time, that he would not be a major financial supporter of Donald Trump. Thiel, a big backer of Trump in 2016, has had a significant falling-out with him since he left office. “If you hold a gun to my head, I will vote for Trump,” Thiel said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “I’m not going to give any money to his super PAC.”

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June 27, 2024, 11:33 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:33 p.m. ET

Shawn McCreesh and Annie Karni

A raspy Biden struggled in prime time.

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From the very first question, President Biden’s voice was a muted rasp.

“You’ve got to take a look at what I was left when I became president” — cough — “what Mr. Trump left me.”

Mr. Biden, the 46th president, entered Thursday’s debate with the 45th, Donald J. Trump, needing to calm concerns about his own age and mental acuity. Instead, Mr. Biden’s incoherent performance inflamed those fears, raising questions from the start about whether he would be able to carry on as the Democratic nominee.

Any talk of Mr. Biden’s relying on performance-enhancing drugs to survive the debate seemed quaint by the time he opened his mouth on the debate stage and suffered what seemed like a prime-time meltdown.

Even Mr. Trump looked almost taken aback as his adversary stumbled and struggled to get his words out. “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” Mr. Trump said after Mr. Biden answered a question about border security not 10 minutes into their debate. “I don’t think he knew, either.”

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Six Takeaways From the First Biden-Trump Presidential Debate (22)

It was all the more startling considering Mr. Biden had cleared his calendar and holed up at Camp David for days to prepare. (White House officials said that Mr. Biden had a cold.)

Mr. Trump’s message was often factually incorrect, but it was one communicated clearly, fiercely and impatiently. Mr. Biden, in contrast, stood slack-jawed, his eyes darting back and forth, while his opponent spoke.

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Early in the debate, Mr. Biden briefly seemed to go blank, stumbling in a syntax-free way to the end of a long point he was trying to make about health care. He finally seemed to give up, saying, “Look. If — we finally beat Medicare.”

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Biden stumbled over his words as he answered a question on the national debt.

“We’d be able to wipe out his debt. We’d be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do child care, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our health care system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the — with, with the Covid, excuse me. With dealing with everything we have to do with — look, if — we finally beat Medicare.” “Thank you, President Biden. President Trump.” “He was right. He did beat Medicaid, beat it to death, and he’s destroying Medicare.”

Six Takeaways From the First Biden-Trump Presidential Debate (23)

The strangeness of the moment did not prevent Mr. Trump from pouncing: “Well, he’s right. He did beat Medicare — he beat it to death.”

Mr. Biden tried some of the lines he leaned on in earlier debates — “I’ve never heard so much malarkey in my life,” he said at one point — but it underscored only how different he sounded now, even compared with just four years ago.

Gone was the confident ear-to-ear grin in the split screen.

At times, Mr. Biden seemed to want to go for the jugular, as when he invoked the hush-money payments Mr. Trump made to a p*rn star that resulted in 34 felony convictions. But the attack came out garbled, ending rather lamely as Mr. Biden described his opponent as having “the morals of an alley cat.”

Mr. Biden repeatedly interrupted himself and trailed off mid-answer. While discussing abortion, arguably his strongest issue, he interjected a mention of immigration and crime, his weakest. “A young woman who just was murdered, and he went to the funeral. The idea that she was murdered by a — by an immigrant coming into — they talk about that,” he said.

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Six Takeaways From the First Biden-Trump Presidential Debate (24)

Later, he seemed to come up with a new way to define the three trimesters of pregnancy.

“I supported Roe v. Wade, which had three trimesters,” he said. “First time is between a woman and a doctor. Second time is between the doctor and an extreme situation. A third time is between the doctor. I mean, it would be between the woman and the state.”

At times, such as in an exchange about Mr. Trump’s reported comments about veterans, Mr. Biden seemed enraged and yet not quite able to express his anger. At other points, as when he talked about climate change and historically Black colleges and universities, he seemed almost out of breath.

Talking about the war in Ukraine, Mr. Biden seemed to confuse Mr. Trump with Mr. Putin, saying: “If you take a look at what Trump did in Ukraine, he, this guy told Ukraine, told Trump, do whatever you want, do whatever you want, and that’s exactly what Trump did. Putin encouraged him, do whatever you want. And he went in.”

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Six Takeaways From the First Biden-Trump Presidential Debate (25)

Toward the end of the debate, Mr. Biden appeared to perk up while talking about affordable child care. And he landed a blow when he called Mr. Trump a “whiner” who “snapped” when he lost the election in 2020. But by then, the hour was late.

June 27, 2024, 11:31 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:31 p.m. ET

Reid J. Epstein

Reporting on the Biden campaign

Vice President Kamala Harris, in an interview on CNN, acknowledged Biden’s poor debate performance. “Yes, there was a slow start,” she said.

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June 27, 2024, 11:28 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:28 p.m. ET

Katie Rogers

Reporting from the debate in Atlanta

I also asked Mary Trump, whom the Biden campaign deployed as a surrogate tonight, if she was nervous after seeing the president’s performance. She did not answer.

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June 27, 2024, 11:24 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:24 p.m. ET

Alan Blinder

Not far from the spin room, Mayor Andre Dickens of Atlanta, speaking as Biden greeted supporters across a hotel ballroom, tried to squelch talk of Democrats turning to someone else for this fall: “Democrats have to ride with who we’re with right now because Joe Biden has earned the respect of the American public and has earned the respect of Democrats. We don’t shift a horse in mid-race.”

June 27, 2024, 11:24 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:24 p.m. ET

Katie Rogers

Reporting from the debate in Atlanta

The Biden crew took several minutes to enter the spin room, which was crowded with Trump surrogates. I asked Gov. Gavin Newsom and Representative Robert Garcia, both of California, if they agreed with some colleagues back in Washington that President Biden should step aside after tonight’s performance. “I would never turn my back on President Biden’s record,” Newsom said. “I would never turn my back on President Biden and I don’t know a Democrat in my party who would do so especially after tonight.”

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June 27, 2024, 11:20 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:20 p.m. ET

Theodore Schleifer

Rob Flaherty with the Biden campaign says that Thursday was its “best grass-roots fund-raising day of the cycle by far.” The campaign has yet to release precise figures.

June 27, 2024, 11:20 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:20 p.m. ET

Coral Davenport

“During my four years, I had the best environmental numbers ever.”

— Former President Donald J. Trump

This is misleading.

Mr. Trump responded to a question about what he might do in response to climate change by saying that his administration rolled back nearly 100 environmental regulations, including protections on clean air and clean water.

In terms of numbers, the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions stayed at roughly the same levels from 2017, the first year of Mr. Trump’s administration, through 2019, before declining sharply in 2020 due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on travel and economic activity.

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June 27, 2024, 11:12 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:12 p.m. ET

Emiliano Rodríguez Mega

“Mexico is working with us to make sure they don’t have the technology to be able to put it together.”

— President Biden on efforts to combat drug trafficking

This needs context.

It was unclear what Mr. Biden meant exactly by this statement. But the United States and Mexican officials indeed have increased their cooperation to counter drug trafficking in recent years.

Mexico, for instance, enacted a new law to detect and punish illicit synthetic drug production, dedicated federal prosecutors to work on fentanyl cases, extradited a fentanyl trafficker, Ovidio Guzmán, to the United States and is expected to acquire scanning technology to screen for fentanyl. The U.S. government has also provided training for Mexican coroners to better identify fentanyl overdoses.

June 27, 2024, 11:10 p.m. ET

June 27, 2024, 11:10 p.m. ET

Angelo Fichera

“He wants to get rid of Social Security. He thinks that there’s plenty to cut in Social Security. He’s wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare both times.”

— President Biden

This is misleading.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly vowed during this campaign to protect Social Security and Medicare. But Mr. Biden and his campaign have at times homed in on select comments in which Mr. Trump appeared to suggest that he would be open to cuts — such as a remark Mr. Trump made during an interview in March — while ignoring clarifications.

Asked about his position on the programs in relation to the national debt, Mr. Trump told CNBC in March: “There is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements in terms of cutting and in terms of also the theft and the bad management of entitlements.”

Mr. Trump and his campaign quickly clarified, however, that he would not seek to cut the programs. “I will never do anything that will jeopardize or hurt Social Security or Medicare,” Mr. Trump told the conservative website Breitbart. “We’ll have to do it elsewhere. But we’re not going to do anything to hurt them.”

Mr. Trump also said in a video posted to his social media platform last year that “under no circ*mstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security.”

Still, Mr. Trump has not outlined a clear plan for keeping the programs solvent.

During his time in office, Mr. Trump did propose some cuts to Medicare — though experts said the cost reductions would not have significantly affected benefits — and to Social Security’s programs for people with disabilities. They were not enacted by Congress.

Six Takeaways From the First Biden-Trump Presidential Debate (2024)

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