Biden and Trump expected to brawl in first 2024 debate

27 June 2024
James Rainey and Seema Mehta

A person sets up lights above a sign reading "CNN Presidential Debate."


The earliest general election debate in a U.S. presidential contest is set to begin Thursday night, with President Biden and former President Trump expected to shower disdain on each other in a confrontation that will refocus attention on a razor-close campaign.

With polls tightening but still showing Trump with a narrow lead nationally and in most battleground states, the noisy showdown between two bitter rivals will be contrasted with the quiet setting — in a CNN studio in Atlanta, with no audience for the first time in recent debate history.

A majority of Americans have a negative view of both men, and a supermajority have told pollsters they wish they had other major-party candidates to choose between. But that does not reduce the stakes in the debate, set to begin at 6 p.m. PDT on CNN and other outlets.

Critics say that a principal challenge for the 81-year-old Biden is to show that he has the acuity and vigor to lead the world’s most powerful nation. He’ll likely to face tough questions about inflation that skyrocketed in 2021 and 2022 and an illegal immigration surge that hit a high at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2022.

Trump critics say one of his top challenges is proving he cares about Americans outside his fervent political base. He’ll likely be asked to explain why he continues to perpetuate the fiction that he defeated Biden four years ago and why he appointed Supreme Court justices who eliminated the right of women to have an abortion.

Many Americans surely will spend the early summer evening avoiding the tempest. Even some political professionals (at least those not employed by the Trump and Biden camps) have been cringing about the spectacle that is now at hand.

“Never have so many had such low expectations for the next leader of the free world,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist in California who was a leader of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “Finishing the night without a broken hip or a racial slur would appear to be the barometer of success.”

Biden’s team made clear in an interview that the president plans to hit Trump on multiple fronts: “ripping away reproductive rights, promoting political violence and undermining our democratic institutions, and doing the bidding of his billionaire donors to fund tax giveaways to the ultra-wealthy and corporations by hurting seniors and the middle class.”

Trump’s supporters have a litany of complaints about Biden, saying the incumbent has a “terrible record” that includes “a border crisis, rampant inflation, disastrous foreign policy and a war on American energy,” according to Jessica Millan Patterson, chair of the California Republican Party.

Those who don’t like what they’re hearing from the two top contenders have another option: tuning in to a video stream from the campaign of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. It will show the independent candidate — still trailing badly in most polls — answering the same questions as the leading contenders. CNN refused Kennedy’s bid to be on stage with Biden and Trump.

Commentators and good-government groups have been yearning for a debate featuring real substance. But most also fear a reprise of the first debate between then-President Trump and Biden in 2020, when Trump talked over Biden repeatedly and moderator Chris Wallace could not restore order.

An exasperated Biden finally retorted: “Will you shut up, man?”

A nonpartisan group released a study last week that showed an escalating war of incivility in presidential debates — with interruptions escalating markedly in the Trump era. The organization, Open to Debate, counted a total of 76 interruptions by the two candidates in the first 2020 debate, though the vitriol decreased markedly in the second debate, with just four interruptions.

In an attempt to control Thursday’s give-and-take, CNN announced it will mute the microphone of whichever candidate has not been asked to answer a question.

Trump supporters have cast aspersions on the CNN crew and co-moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, saying Tapper, in particular, has shown a bias against the former president. They have also complained that Trump will be unfairly muted.

At least one Democratic strategist, Dan Newman, said he understands why the Biden team wouldn’t want Trump shouting over the incumbent. “But it does limit one of the way Trump shows he’s … repugnant,” Newman said.

In a recent interview with Byron York of the Washington Examiner, Trump signaled that he’s not comfortable with the prospect of speaking in an empty studio.

“You have no audience to read,” Trump said. “To me, the audience is easier because it’s telling you what is going on, indirectly, with applause or not applause. This room is a sterile, dead room, which is I guess what they want.”

Trump also told York that he was “very aggressive” in his first 2020 debate with Biden but got “great marks” on a second debate, when he was less combative.

Trump has not shied from unfounded claims in the debate run-up. He has suggested that Biden will not be able to perform without some pharmaceutical enhancement.

“Look, he’s going to be jacked up on something, like he was for the State of the Union,” Trump told one campaign crowd, with no evidence. “He was jacked up. That’s why I called for the drug test.”

As to the tone he will set Thursday night, the presumptive Republican nominee for president said: “I’m probably going to look at the scene at the time. It’s like a fight. It depends on what the situation is.”

Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, said considerable uncertainty remains over how the two candidates, the oldest ever to face off for the presidency, will perform.

“The million-dollar question is whether Trump and President Biden have the self control to stay on task during the entirety of the debate or whether they could lose their cool,” said Kall, co-author of “Debating the Donald.” “Not knowing how the answer to this critical question will turn out is one of the main reasons tens of millions of Americans will tune in to find out on Thursday night.”