WASHINGTON — Halfway through Tuesday night's first presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News raised his voice and took the extraordinary step of scolding President Trump.
"The country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions," Wallace said. "I'm appealing to you, sir, to do that."
Trump interrupted: "And him, too!" he said, referring to Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
"Well, frankly, you've been doing more interrupting," Wallace said.
"He's done plenty," Trump said, interrupting again.
"Well, less than you have," the moderator replied.
That was wry understatement. It wasn't a debate in the traditional sense. Biden and Wallace were participating in a debate. Trump was shouting, hectoring, interrupting and generally making it impossible to have a discussion:
"There's nothing smart about you, Joe!"
"China ate your lunch, Joe!"
When he did produce more than a taunt or an insult, Trump's sentiments were either odd ("the forest floors are loaded up with trees") or dark. He refused to condemn violence by white supremacists and hinted that he might rely upon their violence if he loses the election. He offered an ominous message to the white-nationalist group Proud Boys: "Stand back and stand by."
Ahead of the debate, Trump had suggested that Biden be tested for performance-enhancing drugs that supposedly cure his supposed senility (Biden "doesn't know he's alive," Trump often says). But on Tuesday night, Biden was calm and in control, while Trump was the one operating in an altered reality: ranting, irrational and seemingly unaware of the conversation occurring in his midst.
Wallace kept trying, and failing, to rein in Trump: "Mr. President. Mr. President. Mr. President! ... If I may ask a question sir. ... Mr. President, I am the moderator of this debate, and I'd like you to let me ask my question."
Biden answered Trump's stream-of-consciousness invective with appeals to unity. When Trump went after Hunter Biden and Burisma, the former vice president, speaking directly to the camera, noted that he could go after Trump's family, but "this is not about my family or his family. It's about your family. ... He doesn't want to talk about what you need — you, the American people."
When Trump called racial sensitivity training "absolutely insane" and part of a "radical revolution," Biden responded: "We're all Americans. The only way we're going to bring this country together is bring everybody together. ... We can take this on and we can defeat racism in America."
Biden let his erratic opponent get under his skin a few times, calling him a "fool" and asking him to "just be quiet for a moment" and "shush for a minute," and even this: "Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential. ... Keep yapping, man."
The Democratic nominee called Trump "the worst president America has ever had" and said "it's hard to get any word in with this clown." Biden caught himself. "Excuse me, this person."
If you could hear him through the din, the challenger landed some solid blows, criticizing Trump's dismissal of the COVID-19 death toll by saying "it is what it is." Said Biden: "It is what it is because you are who you are. ... He said he didn't tell us or give people a warning of it because he didn't want to panic the American people. You don't panic; he panicked."
Biden told Trump to "get out of your bunker and get out of the sand trap on your golf course and go in the Oval Office and bring together the Democrats, Republicans and fund what needs to be done now to save lives."
By way of parrying Biden, Trump offered falsehoods, claiming Anthony Fauci doesn't approve of mask-wearing ("he said very strongly masks are not good"), claiming his rallies were only outdoors (they have been indoors, too) and said Biden errantly claimed to have attended the wrong university (a right-wing online claim that has been debunked).
But for all his heckling, shouting and nonsense talk, Trump made one thing perfectly clear: He's getting ready to take his chaos and mayhem from the debate stage and use it to try to disrupt the election itself.
In the final segment, not long after Trump stood up for the Proud Boys, Wallace asked the candidates to "reassure the American people" that the "legitimate winner of this election" will be the next president.
Biden offered that reassurance, and he urged Americans to vote, because Trump "cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election."
Trump, by contrast, went on a final rant about "crooked Hillary Clinton," people "spying on my campaign," and about how mail-in balloting is "a fraud and it's a sham." He told Wallace: "Don't tell me about a free transition."
"This is a horrible thing for our country," Trump concluded. "No, this is not going to end well."
The president, by his actions Tuesday night, made it abundantly clear that this is not a prediction. It's a promise.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.
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