Republican President Donald Trump has defended his quick push to try to fill a US Supreme Court seat at the start of his first presidential debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden, saying “elections have consequences” and he had the right despite Democratic objections.
“I will tell you very simply we won the election, elections have consequences. We have the Senate and we have the White House and we have a phenomenal nominee respected by all,” Trump said on Tuesday in defence of his nominee, conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Biden, talking over frequent interruptions from Trump, said the seat of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be filled after the November 3 election, when it was clear who the president would be.
“We should wait, we should wait and see what the outcome of this election is,” Biden said, adding a more conservative Supreme Court would endanger the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.
Trump is moving quickly to fill Ginsburg’s seat in hopes of cementing a 6-3 conservative majority on the court, a key priority for social conservatives.
Democrats have argued Republicans are being hypocritical for moving quickly to fill the seat given they blocked then-President Barack Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016, arguing it should wait until after that November election.
Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden as he attempted to answer questions, prompting Biden at one point to interject: “Will you shut up, man?”
With more than a million Americans already casting early ballots and time running out to change minds or influence the small sliver of undecided voters, the stakes were enormous as the two White House candidates took the stage five weeks before Election Day.
The two contenders did not shake hands as they entered the debate, adhering to protocols on social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden, 77, has held a consistent lead over Trump, 74, in national opinion polls, although surveys in the battleground states that will decide the election show a closer contest.
The 90-minute debate, with a limited and socially distanced in-person audience because of the pandemic, was held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, with Chris Wallace of Fox News serving as the moderator. It is the first of three scheduled presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.
Organisers said there were about 80 people in the audience, including the candidates’ family members, campaign staff, hosts, health and security officials and journalists.
The combustible Trump and more low-key Biden were debating an array of urgent political challenges, including the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States and thrown millions out of work, protests for racial justice, as well as the battle over the Supreme Court.
Hours before the debate, Biden released his 2019 tax returns and his campaign called on Trump, who has come under fire for not releasing his returns, to do the same.
Biden took the step two days after the New York Times reported Trump paid just $US750 ($A1,053) in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 – and none in 10 of the previous 15 years – following years of reporting steep losses from business enterprises.
Trump had long sought to keep his personal financial records secret.
Biden’s taxes showed that he and his wife Jill paid more than $US346,000 ($A485,787) in federal taxes and other payments for 2019 on an income of nearly $US985,000 ($A1.383 million) before seeking a refund of nearly $US47,000 ($A65,988) they said they had overpaid the government.