Tuesday night’s presidential debate was instantly received as a milestone in political history: a debate driven off the rails by the frantic obnoxiousness of Donald Trump, as the president compulsively interrupted Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace again and again, while seeming to be speaking only to a base of far-right supporters rather than the country as a whole. To support this account of the central themes and implications of the president’s behavior, political journalism has focused in on a few shocking moments—chief among them Trump’s apparent endorsement of the far-right, street-fighting Proud Boys and his debate-ending rant declaring that the entire election would be untrustworthy and riddled with fraud.
But the traditional practice of summarizing and epitomizing presidential debates did not do justice to how comprehensively, baroquely unhinged the president’s performance was. Trump filled the night with remarks—many of them delivered as offhand asides—that would have been shocking enough to dominate the next-day coverage had they happened anytime before 2016. In the maelstrom of 2020, though, claims that would once have ranked among the most appalling, dishonest, misinformed, or simply bizarre things ever said by a major-party presidential candidate passed largely unremarked. Here are eight of them!
The two most relevant scientific officials in Trump’s own administration are wrong about when a coronavirus vaccine will be ready, according to Trump. Moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump why he has been saying a vaccine is weeks away, despite the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the director of the White House’s “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine task force both saying one will likely not be ready to distribute widely until next summer. “I’ve spoken to the companies, and we can have it a lot sooner,” said the president, whose background is in real estate marketing. “I disagree with both of them.”
Insulin is nearly free now. When Wallace pointed out correctly that Trump has never proposed a replacement for the Affordable Care Act health care system that he is always trying to eliminate, Trump responded that he is “cutting drug prices,” then said the following: “Insulin, it was destroying families, destroying people, the cost. I’m getting it for so cheap it’s like water, you want to know the truth. So cheap.” According to the medical news site Stat, “insulin still retails for roughly $300 a vial.” Trump, Stat says, was likely referring to a limited price-cap plan his administration has put in place that covers “a fraction of seniors enrolled in certain pricey private insurance plans.”
Cars are too expensive because they have too many computers in them. “The car has gotten so expensive because they have computers all over the place,” Trump said, during a discussion of rolling back fuel-efficiency standards. I could not find any coverage online of excessive computer insertion driving car prices up. Additionally, Trump’s related claim that relaxing fuel-efficiency standards will make cars cheaper runs into the reality that if you buy a cheaper car with lower fuel efficiency you end up spending more on gas; Consumer Reports calculated that Trump’s rollbacks will end up costing consumers an average of $2,100 per new car purchased.
Europeans live in fireproof forest cities. Trump denied that the ongoing West Coast wildfires are related to climate change and said they wouldn’t be happening if Americans, like the Europeans who live in “forest cities,” were more vigilant about forest management. “In Europe, they live—they’re forest cities, they’re called forest cities. They maintain their forest. They manage their forest. I was with the head of a major country—it’s a forest city. He said, ‘Sir, we have trees that are far more, they ignite much easier than California. There shouldn’t be that problem.’ ” It’s not clear which head of a “country” that is also a “forest city” the president was referring to, but in 2018, he baffled officials in Finland by asserting that they prevent forest fires by raking the forest floor. Elsewhere, Trump has made clear that what he means by “forest management” is giving more permits to the logging industry; you can click here to read a 2018 Slate article about why that is unlikely to help.
The numbers on his own tax returns are wrong. The New York Times reported Sunday that it had obtained years of Trump’s long-concealed tax returns, and that, among other things, they show that he paid $750 in income taxes each year in 2016 and 2017. Although Trump called the blockbuster report “fake news,” the White House objected to the story by talking about other kinds of taxes Trump had paid, or income tax Trump had paid in other years, rather than by directly disputing the authenticity of the documents or the validity of the central $750 figure.
Trump at first tried the same deflection when Wallace asked him whether he’d really only paid $750. When the moderator kept pressing him specifically about the number, though, Trump finally directly denied it.
WALLACE: No, Mr. President, I’m asking you a question. Will you tell us how much you paid in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017?
TRUMP: Millions of dollars.
WALLACE: You paid millions of dollars in—
TRUMP: Millions of dollars, yes.
WALLACE: So not $750?
TRUMP: Millions of dollars. And you’ll get to see it. And you’ll get to see it.
Is there a distant possibility that the New York Times spent months examining apparently authentic tax documents and got the most important number in their story wrong? I guess. Way, way, way more likely is that the president lied on live national television about the central fact in what had been the No. 1 story in the week’s news cycle.
The president can, and should, order the extrajudicial assassination of U.S. citizens. On the subject of protests and accompanying violence—a pet theme of the Trump reelection campaign—Wallace set out to press Biden on whether he was reluctant to call out the National Guard. When Biden argued that Trump’s federal interventions in Portland, Oregon, had made things worse, Trump jumped in to boast about his performance: “I sent in the U.S. Marshals to get the killer of a young man in the middle of the street, and they shot him. For three days, Portland didn’t do anything. I sent in the U.S. Marshals, they took care of business.” The “business” the president was referring to was the killing of Michael Forest Reinoehl, a suspect in the shooting of a far-right protester in Portland. After initial reports that Reinoehl had died in a gun battle with the authorities, one witness told reporters he was “clutching a cellphone and eating a gummy worm” when the marshals opened fire on him without warning.
Taking status away from white people is an upsetting “reversal.” Here is Trump describing what is wrong with training programs in which white people are asked to consider the ways they may have benefited from and contributed to systemic racism:
WALLACE: What is radical about racial sensitivity training, sir?
TRUMP: If you were a certain person, you had no status in life, it was, sort of, a reversal.
????????. This was, according to Trump, one of the reasons he should be reelected:
The greatest, before COVID came in, the greatest economy in history, lowest unemployment numbers, everything was good. Everything was going—and by the way, there was unity going to happen. People were calling me, for the first time in years, they were calling and they were saying, ‘It’s time, maybe.’ And then what happened? We got hit.
Time for what? And who was calling? Unfortunately, we will never know, because we got hit.