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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Donald Trump's out-of-control conduct in the first Biden debate spoke volumes

President Donald Trump during the first debate Tuesday

President Donald Trump during the first debate Tuesday with Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Cleveland. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Saul Loeb

One striking feature of President Donald Trump’s disrespect for debate rules, and therefore for the general audience, was that it would occur in the fourth year of an incumbency, let alone the 75th year of a person's life.

Just as striking: None of Trump's childish, bullying behavior on Tuesday night had anything to do with the right or the left, Republicans or Democrats, separation of powers, immigration, abortion or appointments.

Once again, it was about his embarrassing conduct. Win or lose, we know by now, Trump acts like a sore loser.

On Wednesday, the scrupulously nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates responded to this performance by vowing new rules. That's extra remarkable because the moderator, whose pleas for respect Trump repeatedly defied, is an anchor on a pro-Republican cable news network.

"Additional structure" would be added to the next face-off after Tuesday night’s stink-fest in Cleveland, the commission said, understating the case that "more orderly discussion is needed."

The panel deemed it necessary to add: "The Commission on Presidential Debates sponsors televised debates for the benefit of the American electorate."

Democrat Joe Biden defended against the president's overwrought mudslinging by dismissing Trump as a "clown" and as our worst president, and urging him to "shut up."

It was far from the first time Trump has treated the accepted rules of engagement — or even the laws of the nation — as just too much to comply with.

Trump denounced and tried to stall a slew of legitimate inquiries about his behavior as a presidential candidate in 2016. He saw fit to try to corrupt foreign policy so he could smear Biden in advance with an investigation fabricated abroad.

Even as president, Trump has refused to disclose his taxes to show he’s not a crook. He couldn’t negotiate health care legislation even when Congress was controlled by his party. He couldn’t lead a coronavirus pandemic response and still snipes at those who try by imposing public-health measures.

Trump seems forever in need of special exemptions. He can’t be asked to read reports, accept professional advice or avoid moneymaking pitches while in office.

If this were a marginal third-party candidate, one could imagine he'd be disqualified from future debates, with the assumption that the candidate was abusing the process in a desperate scream for rare attention.

If this were a suburban child at a student assembly, you can be sure he or she would be referred for counseling or discipline.

Trump’s petulant interruptions and distractions on Tuesday night — combined with his usual load of low-blow accusations, paranoid assertions and falsehoods — allowed him to avoid doing something else he resists: explain his government’s actions and policies in plain English to people who elect him.

"Please let him speak," moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News said several times.

"I’m the moderator of this debate, and I would like you to let me ask my question," Wallace told Trump at one point. It did not help.

In a debate, the incumbent is expected to defend his performance while the challenger says how he or she would do better. Then they challenge the truth or practicality of each other's statements.

But the current president already has gotten away with not coming clean about his COVID-19 inaction, his skimpy IRS payments and his distortion of FBI information about the nature of subversive threats.

Chalk up this debate as another American institution gamed by a privileged politician for whom disorder is a tool of power. To Biden's advantage, any Trump-made mess could lower the bar for him in the final month of campaigning.