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Trump-Biden debate: Congress slings mud at candidates as they go head-to-head in presidential showdown

All eyes were on Donald Trump and Joe Biden on Tuesday as the two presidential candidates were squaring off in their first head-to-head debate of the 2020 campaign in Cleveland, Ohio.

Back in Washington, DC, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are getting down and dirty to help their respective candidates, from holding committee oversight hearings with the intention of smearing Mr Trump and Mr Biden, to forcing votes on obscure, non-binding resolutions that reek of partisan rot.

At the forefront of those efforts on the Republican side is Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, one of the president's closest confidants in that chamber over the last three and a half years.

Mr Graham's committee is scheduled to grill former FBI Director James Comey at a hearing on Wednesday about his decision-making during the bureau's 2016 investigations into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia as well as Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

As vice president to Barack Obama, Mr Biden had access to those probes, which Republicans have accused of being politically motivated, despite a watchdog report that refutes such claims.

Republicans on the Judiciary panel will look to aggressively probe Mr Comey regarding the Clinton email and Trump-Russia operations, including the decision to send FBI agents to the White House in January 2017 to interview Mr Trump's national security adviser at the time, Michael Flynn.

During that confrontation, Mr Flynn lied to the FBI agents about his communications in late 2016 and early 2017 with then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, the Justice Department alleged in charges in 2017.

Mr Flynn pleaded guilty to the charges multiple times, before later reversing course and accusing the FBI of purposely tripping him up to ensnare Mr Trump's circle of advisers in scandal.

The Trump campaign, conservative media outlets, and Republicans in Congress have seized on Mr Flynn's case as supposed evidence that a so-called "deep state" of career intelligence and DOJ officials sought to entrap incoming Trump officials in legal troubles in early 2017 to kneecap Mr Trump's presidency from the outset.

While DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz has issued a report claiming political bias did not influence the FBI and DOJ's 2016 and 2017 counterintelligence operations regarding Mr Trump and his associates' possible connections to Russia, the president has nonetheless coined the expression "Obamagate" as a catch-all term for his friends' and advisers' legal troubles.

"He will be respectfully treated but asked hard questions," Mr Graham said of his panel's showdown with Mr Comey. 

The South Carolina Republican also announced on Tuesday that his committee will host an oversight hearing next Tuesday with Mr Comey's top deputy at the FBI, Andrew McCabe, another boogeyman for conservatives for his involvement in the FBI's 2016 counterintelligence probe into Mr Trump's Russia connections, which led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller.

While Senate Republicans are keeping the pressure on Mr Biden for those intelligence probes, House Democrats are hammering Mr Trump for his repeated refusal of late to say he'll peacefully transfer power to Mr Biden if the Democrat wins the 2020 election.

"We're going to have to see what happens. You know that I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster," Mr Trump said at a press conference last week, implying that expanded mail-in voting programmes states have rolled out amid the coronavirus pandemic would lead to widespread fraud.

Study after study has shown virtually no instances of widespread voter fraud in any recent US presidential elections.

Still, Mr Trump has persisted with his unfounded claims about voter fraud. He has indicated he will not accept the results of the election unless he either wins or unless the Supreme Court rules he lost.

Congressman Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who briefly ran for president earlier this cycle, led the House on a resolution that passed just minutes before the presidential debate commenced on Tuesday re-affirming lawmakers' commitment to "the orderly and peaceful transfer of power" after elections.

"Since the dawn of our nation, every president has honoured the orderly and peaceful transfer of power to his successor following an election, but President Trump repeatedly has said he might not allow this," Mr Swalwell said in a statement on Monday.

"His threat to refuse to accept defeat should worry every American regardless of party. With this resolution, the House will express its commitment to democracy and its intent that nobody can subvert the will of the people of the United States," the California congressman said.

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