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What To Expect From 1st Presidential Debate


The first presidential debate of the general election is tonight. And President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden will be face-to-face in Cleveland, Ohio, potentially a key state for their first prime-time bout. We've got two of our prime-time journalists here with us - NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and political correspondent Asma Khalid.

Hello to you both.



MOSLEY: So we heard a little from both of the campaigns today previewing some of their lines of attack. What have we heard from them? Let's start with you, Tam.

KEITH: Yeah. So the Trump campaign released a list of 17 questions, including on the Supreme Court and trade. But on the top of the list was a question about Biden's son Hunter and some of his work overseas. And that gives a hint of where they're headed. Trump has also been making other personal attacks, like reviving a baseless attack that he used on Hillary Clinton in 2016. He's saying that Biden may be on performance-enhancing drugs. He even talked about this from the White House briefing room on Sunday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: People say he was on performance-enhancing drugs. A lot of people have said that. A lot of people have written that. So take a look at it. Take a look. Why don't you just check - you can check out the Internet. You'll see plenty of people say it. And whether he is or not doesn't matter. But I would love to take a test, and he can take a test, too.

KEITH: His team is also complaining that Biden's team won't agree to an inspection of earpieces, which is just another baseless theory bouncing around on the right-wing Internet.

MOSLEY: Wow. Asma, what about on the Biden side?

KHALID: Well, I will say in contrast, you know, I don't think that what we're hearing from Biden's campaign is as personal as it is sort of policy-driven. Biden's campaign held a call for reporters today with a couple of his advisers, and it's clear that they're really hoping to hammer the president on the pandemic. Democrats have felt for months that COVID-19 and the fact that there are now more than 200,000 people in the United States who have died from the virus has really exposed the president's poor leadership.

And then the other issue I anticipate that we'll likely hear tonight is about President Trump's taxes. It is not officially on the list of topics for tonight, but it is something that Biden's campaign has been eager to play up after revelations in The New York Times that Trump paid very little to no federal income taxes over the last 17 years as he suffered some pretty big business losses.

Tonya, I will also point out that just hours before the debate tonight, Biden released his tax returns from 2019, showing that he paid about $300,000 in federal taxes. And I will say it seems like a very clear attempt to depict a contrast on this issue, and that issue of contrast is something that we did hear from Biden's deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield on a press call today.


KATE BEDINGFIELD: President Trump only sees the world from Park Avenue. He looks out for the stock market but looks down on workers and middle-class families struggling to get by.

KHALID: And really, this idea of taxes, they feel, sort of exemplifies this contrast that they've been trying to play up in recent weeks that this race is about Scranton versus Park Avenue, where Joe Biden represents the common man, in their view, and that Donald Trump represents more of the ultra-elite.

KEITH: Yeah. Hillary Clinton brought up Trump's taxes in 2016 in the debates. At the time, there were only a few returns out, and they were related to his applications for a casino license. And she said at the time it appeared he had paid no federal taxes. And his response, just as it is now, is to say, well, he pays other taxes - so does everyone else - and that avoiding tax payments is just smart. You know, like, he's just working the system.

I anticipate that he might try to turn this on Biden in the same way he turned it on Clinton by saying, hey, Biden has been in the government for a long time. He was involved. He voted on the current tax code - and saying that, well, maybe Biden would even raise your taxes.

KHALID: And to be clear, Biden's plan - he has been quite clear about this - would only anticipate raising taxes on people who make over $400,000 - so aimed at the more elite population.

MOSLEY: Yeah, the more wealthy - Tam, the president says he hasn't been preparing for much tonight. What do you make of that?

KEITH: Well, you know, debates are about expectations, and he might be trying to set the bar for himself a little on the low side. He has downplayed his debate prep. On Sunday, he held a surprise press briefing, which was attended by two of the people involved in his debate preparation - former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.


TRUMP: We had a little debate prep before we came here. I think this whole thing, though, is debate prep. You know, what I do is debate prep every day. I'm taking questions from you people all the time.

KEITH: The president doesn't like the traditional debate prep, or at least he doesn't like to cop to it - the idea of someone playing his opponent. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, I recently spoke with Philippe Reines, who played Trump during Hillary Clinton's debate prep.


KEITH: And he told me he didn't know who will be playing Trump this time, but he had recently taken his ill-fitting Trump suit and shoes over to someone who works with the Biden team.

MOSLEY: Oh, my gosh. So Asma, has the Biden campaign been using that outfit to prepare?

KHALID: Well, candidly, Tonya, I do not know. But what I do know is that Biden has been holed up doing debate prep for the last few days. You know, he has had a very limited public schedule, not much travel. And what is interesting is that, you know, originally, Joe Biden himself emphasized that in debating President Trump, who is known to often tell falsehoods, he felt that in order to be successful, he just needed to tell the truth - you know, that he would essentially be fact-checking the president. But today the campaign set expectations, making it very clear that they don't see fact-checking as part of what Biden needs to do tonight.


SYMONE SANDERS: It is not Joe Biden's job in this debate to fact-check Donald Trump. That's the moderator's job. That's the independent press's job. Joe Biden will be speaking to folks at home. He'll be speaking directly to the American people.

KHALID: That's one of Biden's advisers, Symone Sanders. And we should point out, also, that we've gotten a sense that the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, will also not be fact-checking. So, you know, a lot of that job is going to be left up to journalists or, you know, I would say folks on either side of the aisle who are following this debate.

MOSLEY: And Tam, in the 30 seconds we have left, what are both sides hoping for this evening?

KEITH: For President Trump, he is currently down in the polls, so he will want to use his unpredictable debate style to throw Biden off his game and somehow change the trajectory of this race, which has been very locked in. And it's the flip side for Joe Biden, who will want to keep the race as stable as it's been. He is in the polling lead.

MOSLEY: That's NPR's Tamara Keith and Asma Khalid.

Thanks to both of you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

MOSLEY: And we'll have live coverage of the debate on NPR and The debate begins at 9 p.m. Eastern. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Asma Khalid
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.