Joe Biden attacked Donald Trump as a clueless “clown” who was trying to take away healthcare from millions of Americans during a pandemic as the first debate between the two presidential contenders got off to a chaotic start.

In the opening minutes, the two candidates sparred over the Supreme Court opening left by the death of justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the impact the court could have on Obamacare, the landmark healthcare legislation that ensures coverage for Americans with pre-existing conditions.

But the debate quickly degenerated into a brawl after Mr Trump repeatedly interrupted Mr Biden in an apparent effort to throw him off his game. At one point an irritated Mr Biden said: “Will you shut up, man?”

Following an exchange over coronavirus, in which Mr Biden accused Mr Trump of bungling the response to the pandemic and said many more people would die unless the president got “smarter”, the president accused his Democratic challenger of coming last in his class in university. “Don’t ever use the word smart with me,” Mr Trump said to Mr Biden.

In one of the few early substantive moments, Mr Trump insisted he had the right to appoint Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative jurist, to succeed Ginsburg since he was the president and the Republicans controlled the Senate.

“We won the election and therefore we have the right to choose her,” Mr Trump said.

Mr Biden argued that Mr Trump should wait until after the November election, given that many Americans have already begun voting early in person or by mail. He added that a conservative-controlled Supreme Court risked scrapping Obamacare.

Mr Trump accused Mr Biden of being a “socialist” who wanted to scrap private health insurance, something the former US vice-president has not called for.

Mr Trump came into the debate facing intense scrutiny over the revelation that he paid $750 in federal tax in the year he won the election and the same amount in his first year in office. The New York Times, which obtained his returns, reported that he had paid no federal income tax in 11 of the 18 years its reporters had examined.

Mr Biden released his 2019 tax returns on Tuesday hours before the debate, in an attempt to bring attention to the issue. The Democratic challenger revealed that he and his wife paid almost $300,000 of federal taxes in 2019. Kamala Harris, his running mate, also released her returns, which showed that she and her husband had paid more than $1.1m in tax for the same year.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

The first of three presidential debates comes with just five weeks to go until the election. Mr Biden leads Mr Trump by almost 7 points in the national polls, according to a Financial Times analysis of the RealClearPolitics average. The Democrat also leads in every swing state, except Iowa, where the candidates are neck and neck.

Mr Trump has a slight edge in Georgia, which has not voted for a Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1992, and his lead in Texas, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, is just under four points.

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Via Financial Times