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President Biden and former President Trump will debate in June


Well, it is official. President Biden and former President Trump will debate each other. But they're going to do it in a very different format than in past years. We're going to see the earliest general election debate in history taking place next month. This all happened very quickly today, and following all of it is NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.


CHANG: OK, so I know there have been lots of questions about whether there would even be any debates this year. And now, suddenly, two are scheduled. Like, how did this all happen?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it was a bit of whiplash today, but we now have two debates on the calendar - June 27 on CNN in Atlanta and another September 10 with ABC News just before early voting begins in many places. It all kicked off with President Biden issuing this challenge in a video released by his campaign.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020. And since then, he hadn't shown up for a debate. Now he's acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal. I'll even do it twice. So let's pick the dates, Donald. I hear you're free on Wednesdays.

MONTANARO: The Wednesdays reference there is to Trump's hush-money trial in New York, when court is not in session. Trump did not participate in any primary debates this cycle, but he's apparently all-in for these general election debates. He's saying he's, quote, "ready and willing anytime," and it's similar to what he's been saying on the campaign trail. Here he was last month in Wisconsin.


DONALD TRUMP: I'm calling on Crooked Joe to debate any time, any place - we'll do it anywhere you want, Joe - so that we can discuss in a friendly manner the real problems of our country, of which there are many, instead of trying to have corrupt prosecutors fight your battles for you. That's no good.

MONTANARO: Well, Biden has gone through pains to show that he's not pressured the Justice Department to undertake any of these investigations against Trump. Trump, on the other hand, has threatened to go after political enemies if he's elected. And these trials, though, clearly are on Trump's mind. Wanting these debates to be - to go forward may be a way for Trump to try and deflect from all that.

CHANG: Hmm. Well, these debates, they're not through the Commission on Presidential Debates, right? Like, why is that?

MONTANARO: Well, these candidates don't agree on much, but they agree on ditching the traditional debate commission debates. Those had been taking place since the late 1980s. Both parties, though, have had their gripes over format, control, unsubstantiated accusations of bias from the right. So point is, the general election debates, as we have known them for more than 30 years, are over. This year will take kind of an older format - two men in a studio, no audience, very reminiscent of the very first televised debates in 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon.

CHANG: Sounds so vintage.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

CHANG: But, I mean, there are third-party candidates, right? Like, would these debates include someone like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.? No.

MONTANARO: Well, right now, no. The debates are requiring candidates to have at least 15% in at least four reputable national polls.


MONTANARO: RFK Jr. has been pulling double-digits in most national polls, but not quite as high as 15%. We'll see what happens. But we haven't had a third-party candidate in a general election debate since 1992, with Ross Perot.

CHANG: Yeah. OK, well, between Trump and Biden, what do you think? Which candidate will benefit most from having these debates?

MONTANARO: I mean, both campaigns have their arguments. You know, the Biden campaign wants this fight because they believe the more people hear what Trump is saying, the more they'll be reminded of the kind of chaos and the lack of normalcy that he would bring back to the White House. The Trump campaign, on the other hand, really wants to lean into the optical differences between the two men. His team believes that Trump will show more vigor in how he speaks and appears more up to the job.

On conservative media, of course, Biden is almost daily shown as someone who has dementia, which is not the case. And this potentially creates a problem, honestly, for Republicans, of lowering the bar so low for Biden that he can easily clear it, as he's done in several State of the Union addresses, for example.

But the stakes are very high for both candidates. I mean, the bottom line here is that these debates could matter because this is an election that's going to be won at the margins. Experts expect turnout to be lower than in 2020, and that presents problems for both campaigns in trying to mobilize their voters.

CHANG: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. 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.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.