In a debate marked by frequent name calling and angry exchanges, the two major party presidential candidates accused each other of demeaning the military and hurting national security, while insisting that they have the best interest of troops at heart.
The event — the first face-to-face showdown between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden — largely focused on domestic priorities and concerns about the validity of the upcoming election, just 35 days away.
But both candidates made several references to military and veterans issues, including news reports earlier this month quoting anonymous administration officials charging Trump with referring to fallen U.S. troops buried in France as “losers” and “suckers,” and questioning why any American would join the armed forces.
Biden lashed out at the president for the alleged remarks, calling it disrespectful and disgusting.
“The way you talk about the military, you talk about them being losers and suckers,” he said. “My son (Beau) was in Iraq. He spent a year there ... He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind, they were heroes.”
Trump has denied the charges and countered that Biden made worse remarks in the past, calling troops “stupid bastards” during a visit the United Arab Emirates in 2016. Biden officials have said the remark was made as part of an aside joke, to troops who failed to applaud a fellow service member.
Biden also accused Trump of weakening the country, but Trump said his record as president shows strong support of troops and veterans.
“We’re building it back up again, a rebuilding of the military, including the Space Force,” the president said. “A fixing of the VA, which was a mess … We take care of our vets, we’ve rebuilt our military.”
Biden referenced comments from Trump’s former defense secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, saying that the president is “the first in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people.” Trump accused Biden and the Democratic Party for spending the last four years working to undermine his administration instead of helping the American people.
The event, held in Ohio with only about 900 audience members because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, featured both men talking over each other on numerous occasions and arguing with the debate moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace.
When Wallace asked a question about mail-in voting for the upcoming election, Biden noted that military service members have been using the method for years.
“Why is it for them somehow not fraudulent?” Biden asked. “It’s the same process.”
Trump said that several military ballots backing him for president were recently found “in a wastepaper basket,” but provided no supporting details. He said the upcoming election could see “tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated” because of mail-in voting efforts.
Issues concerning foreign policy, military funding and Veterans Affairs reforms were not broached during Tuesday’s event. The second presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami. The two vice presidential candidates are scheduled to debate Oct. 7 in Utah.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.