By Arit John
Tribune News Service
Well, it’s almost over.
Tonight’s matchup between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will mark the end of a presidential debate season that has spanned 16 months.
Since June 2019, Americans have been asked to watch more than 30 hours of robust discussion spread over 13 Democratic primary events, one presidential debate and one vice presidential debate.
The final debate follows weeks of surprise illness, controversy and the Trump campaign’s feuds with both the Biden team and the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.
What was meant to be the second presidential debate, scheduled for last week, was canceled after Trump rejected the commission’s decision to hold a virtual event in light of his COVID-19 diagnosis early this month.
Instead, the two candidates participated in dueling town halls. Tension between the president’s campaign and the commission grew this week when the CPD announced it would cut off sound to the candidates’ microphones when it wasn’t their turn to speak.
The panel is aiming to prevent the kind of constant interruptions — mainly from the president — that plagued the first debate.
Trump’s team also criticized the subjects announced by moderator Kristen Welker, an NBC News White House correspondent.
Here’s what you need to know:
What time is the debate? The debate will start at 8 p.m. Central time Thursday and last 90 minutes, with no commercial breaks. It will be at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
How do I watch? The main news networks — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and NBC — will air the debate on TV as well as stream it on their apps and websites. C-SPAN will air it on TV, its website and its YouTube channel.
Who is moderating? NBC’s Welker is moderating the debate, which will cover six topics: the fight against COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership. The topics Welker chose were announced Friday.
Three days later, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien wrote to the commission that the campaign had expected foreign policy to be the focus and had been promised as much, an assertion the CPD said was not true. The letter also accused the commission of engaging in “pro-Biden antics” such as not rescheduling debates based on the Trump campaign’s requests.
“No debate in 2020 was ever designated by CPD as devoted to foreign or domestic policy,” the commission wrote on its Twitter account. “The same was true in 2016, when President Trump participated in the CPD debates. The choice of topics is left entirely to the journalistic judgment of the moderators.”
Biden campaign spokesman TJ Ducklo challenged Stepien’s characterization.
“The campaigns and the commission agreed months ago that the debate moderator would choose the topics,” Ducklo said. “The Trump campaign is lying about that now because Donald Trump is afraid to face more questions about his disastrous COVID response.”
What does Trump have to say about Welker? The president has a long history of clashing with debate hosts. This year he accused both Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who moderated the first debate, and C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, who would have moderated the Oct. 15 debate, of being biased. Scully was suspended by C-SPAN after he admitted to lying about a tweet he sent to former Trump aide and now critic Anthony Scaramucci.
Trump reserved the same treatment for Welker. As recently as January, the president congratulated Welker on her new role as a co-anchor on NBC’s “Weekend Today,” saying the network made a “very wise decision.” But in the days leading up to the debate, the president and his allies have attempted to undermine her. The campaign has pointed to reports from Fox News and the New York Post on her parents’ donations to Democratic candidates, though Welker herself is an independent, according to the Associated Press.
What do the candidates think of the microphone rule? Asked about the rule change during an extensive phone interview with the hosts of “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday, the president said, “The whole thing is crazy.”
He repeated a false claim that the CPD purposefully “stifled out,” “muted” and “modulated” his mic during a 2016 presidential debate with Hillary Clinton.
“They actually had to write me a letter of apology,” he said during the call. (The commission put out a brief statement at the time saying “there were issues regarding Donald Trump’s audio that affected the sound level in the debate hall.” The sound issue was not apparent on television broadcasts.)
Biden supports the rule change.
“I think it’s a good idea, I think there should be more limitations on not interrupting one another,” he told Milwaukee’s ABC News affiliate WISN in an interview Tuesday.
What are the candidates going to talk about? Based on the debate topics and recent comments by the campaigns, Biden will likely focus on the president’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left more than 220,000 Americans dead and millions more unemployed.
The president has falsely accused Biden of supporting defunding the police in the past and will likely repeat that claim Thursday. Trump is also expected to bring up Biden’s past comments on fracking and his plan to raise taxes on the wealthy.
Both candidates are likely to hit the other on China. While the Trump campaign has tried to portray Biden as weak on China and misrepresented his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings there, members of the president’s family, including daughter Ivanka, also have had dealings in China. The New York Times reported this week that President Trump has a Chinese bank account through one of his businesses and paid nearly $200,000 in taxes to China between 2013 and 2015.
Regardless of the topics, the former vice president’s son is likely to be a main target of the president. The New York Post has reported on emails provided by the president’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani that he said were retrieved from the hard drive of a laptop purportedly left at a Delaware repair shop by Hunter Biden. It’s unclear if any steps were taken to verify the authenticity of emails found on the laptop, nor do they support the unfounded allegations that Biden misused his authority as vice president to help his son’s foreign interests.
Trump’s claims dovetail with a Russian disinformation effort that U.S. intelligence officials say is designed to undermine Biden’s candidacy.
Is the president going to try a different debate strategy? Probably not. Brian Kilmeade of “Fox & Friends” asked Trump if he was planning on changing his debate strategy or introducing new people to his prep team, and if he would take time to correct any falsehoods from Biden.
“Will you take some of your time and answer the previous question, like Mike Pence did, and then answer their question?” Kilmeade asked the president Tuesday.
“Well look, I do my own debating. I do fine, and I do my own debating, and a lot of people said I won,” Trump said. “Look, when somebody stands there and he lies, lies, lies, I like to challenge it at the time, because you don’t have time to go back.”
Although Biden at the last debate incorrectly said the U.S. had a higher trade deficit with China now than before Trump took office, Trump made multiple false statements, including about mail voting, the economy and his administration’s approach to health care.
The president did acknowledge some people had suggested he let Biden finish his thoughts.
“There are a lot of people that say ‘let him talk’ because he loses his train, he loses his train, he loses his mind, frankly,” Trump said.