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What to expect from Trump and Biden in first presidential debate

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face off Tuesday night, as the first of three presidential debates takes place in Cleveland. Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins join Judy Woodruff to provide a preview of the debate, including what to expect from its format and topics, and a sense of how both candidates have been preparing for the event.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is debate night.

    President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will shortly be face-to-face for the first time in this election season.

    To help guide us on what to watch for, our own Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins.

    So, hello to both of you.

    Yamiche, set the scene for us. What do we know about the format tonight and what we should expect?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, we should expect a pretty feisty and personal debate between Vice President Joe Biden — former Vice President Biden and President Trump.

    Both men are going to be making the case that the other person is dangerous to our very democracy. They're also going to be talking about six particular topics. They were chosen by the moderator, Chris Wallace. I'm going to walk you through what those topics are.

    The first is Trump and Biden's record, looking at possibly how both men did on things like trade and possibly the environment, how they approach those topics. The next is the Supreme Court. This is a big topic, of course, after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, justice, and Trump's nomination to judge — of Judge Amy Barrett to the court.

    COVID-19 will also be on there. And it's more, of course, than 200,000 Americans have died from the pandemic, top of mind. The economy, an important topic, with millions out of work. Race and violence in our cities. Some worries this conflates fighting racism with violent outbursts, given that the vast majority of protests have been peaceful. So we have to watch out for that topic.

    And, lastly, the integrity of the election. This is, of course, another crucial issue, because President Trump has been saying that mail-in voting is filled with fraud, without providing any evidence. He also, of course, has not said that he wants to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

    We're going to see no handshakes. We're going to see no masks. That, of course, is because both men will be socially distanced. The campaigns have agreed to that.

    And we should also expect for President Trump to go after Joe Biden on really, really ugly terms. That's the only way to put it, because the president has already been suggesting that Joe Biden should take a drug test before this debate, and that he might be hiding some sort of listening device in his ear.

    He's saying that Joe Biden should have been searched for electronic devices. The Biden campaign has said, that's not going to happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, two of the things Yamiche mentioned, COVID and the Supreme Court, give us a sense of how these things are unfolding in real time as this debate takes place.

  • Lisa Desjardins:


    It's important to understand that, as this debate is happening, the leaders in Congress, Speaker Pelosi and also Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, a man who works for President Trump, are trying to figure out a coronavirus deal. They spoke on the phone today. They will speak again tomorrow.

    It's not clear if they can get there. Judy, Congress and the president have not passed any significant coronavirus relief since March. And now we know that unemployment benefits, the added benefits, are running out. Small businesses are becoming worried. This certainly is something that you will hear about in this debate, also, Judy, that Supreme Court nomination.

    I'm going to show you all some video. Look what happened also today up on Capitol Hill. There you have it, Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, meeting with Republican senators, Mitch McConnell. She was escorted there by Vice President Pence.

    And that all is unfolding as well tonight. You can expect for both men to be questioned about the process and the policy of this Supreme Court nominee.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, you have been talking to the Biden people.

    Staying with you, how are they preparing? How's he preparing for tonight?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It is interesting, Judy. They are not divulging many specific details, only to say that Vice President Biden is preparing.

    We know, in the past, in past cycles, when he ran with President Obama, he did some mock debates. So, that is a possibility. But, in general, they're talking more about his approach tonight, Judy. They're saying, for one, that the Biden is ready to defend his record and to point out the facts when he's challenged about his record.

    But the word fact is an important one, Judy. The Biden campaign has gone out of its way today to tell reporters that the former vice president is not planning to be the fact-checker of President Trump. They believe that's the job of journalists and the moderator.

    However, Chris Wallace has said he does not believe it is his job. So, there could be some interesting back-and-forth here. See how Vice President Biden handles that.

    How the Biden campaign is handling anything they think is incorrect, on Twitter, they will have a handle called @Truth at which they will question and put out what they believe are the facts to anything they say that President Trump is getting wrong on during this debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Really, really interesting.

    And, Yamiche, tell us how the president — what's known about how the president is preparing. And, in addition to that, what are his people saying about how much effect they think this debate can have on this race?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president has said that he does not want to do any sort of traditional debate prep, and that is what sources on the Trump campaign have been telling me.

    The president has been meeting with some close advisers, like Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, Chris Christie, who worked on the presidential campaign in 2016 of President Trump. But he is not having a sort of mass debate. He's not having one person play Joe Biden.

    I was told by a campaign source today this is an unconventional president. He was an unconventional candidate in 2016. Thus, his debate is also unconventional.

    Another thing to note is that the president thinks that he has been preparing for this debate because, one, he's been running the country. So they feel like he has a pretty good grip of all the different issues before him. Also, he's been taking questions, they said, from a lot of journalists.

    So he feels as though, because he fields a lot of questions from reporters, he's able to think quickly on his feet and be able to be witty and do all the things that need to be happening in a debate, though, traditionally, experts have told me that incumbent presidents often overestimate how prepared they are. And, as a result, they sometimes falter in the first debate.

    Another thing to note is that the Trump campaign is saying that, in 2016, President Trump had to prove himself. He had to prove that he was a conservative. He had to beat out 16 other Republicans. This time around, they feel like this is an important debate because they do want to get to some undecided voters and make the case that President Trump should be reelected.

    But they don't think that they're going to be a bunch of people who are undecided who are going to then be swayed by watching this. They think that the president should also be going out onto the campaign trail holding events, having paid advertising in different battleground states. They think that's more important in some ways than this debate, though, of course, they are still going and participating in this debate.

    So that tells you that President Trump is still seeing this as an important place to be on this, of course, election — on this first election debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to be watching for tonight.

    Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, you will both be on it. Thank you.

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