CLEVELAND — The last time Joe Biden and Donald Trump were in the same room was nearly two years ago, at the state funeral for former President George H.W. Bush in December 2018. They have spoken since by phone only briefly, this April, when Trump took Biden up on his offer to share advice for handling the coronavirus pandemic.
The pair have been sparring from afar for months, years even, as the former vice president was always seen as a front-runner to face Trump in 2020. But now the country will see them square off in person for the first time Tuesday night — an encounter both men have been readying for quite differently for months.
Here’s what you need to know about their preparations.
- Biden, by his own description, began a more “intense" period of debate preparation this week, huddled with a small circle of advisers at home in Delaware. While there have been some extended mock sessions in the final days, it hasn’t had the same kind of production value and stagecraft his team employed ahead of the 2008 and 2012 vice presidential debates, and even the practice sessions for the initial 2020 primary debates.
- Biden told NBC News last month that he began preparing for the debates "by going over what the president has said and multiple lies he's told.” He said what he would "love to have is a crawler at the bottom of the screen, a fact checker, you know, when we speak,” while conceding such an instant-fact check “wouldn't get very far.” Aides say not to expect Biden to focus on that task, leaving it to the moderators and the press covering the debate. But Biden may pre-emptively condition the audience at the start of the faceoff, to consider everything the president asserts with a grain of salt.
- Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm played the part of Sarah Palin in Biden’s 2008 practice sessions, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland played Paul Ryan in 2012. This time, campaign legal adviser Bob Bauer has been serving as Trump in practice sessions, which tend to be issue-by-issue sparring sessions. In past debate preps, Biden and his team tended to practice one topic at a time, running through the policy, then potential questions, followed by a mock back-and-forth and finally a review of the performance.
- Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff, is leading the prep team again, as he did for Hillary Clinton in 2016, twice for Barack Obama, and John Kerry in 2004.
- Also in the room are senior adviser Anita Dunn, also a veteran of presidential debate preps; longtime Biden aides Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti; senior adviser Symone Sanders; deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield; and Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens. The latter has always played a big role in Biden’s campaigns and in these sessions, she’s the one who can offer perhaps the most unvarnished advice or criticism of the candidate, or with a facial expression send nonverbal cues he’ll pick up about whether he’s on track.
- Those who have helped prepare Biden in the past say part of his formula involves not just getting the facts and policy details right, but making sure it matches his voice. And that’s why the more formal prep this week was just the end of a months-long process that involved informal sessions with advisers around other campaign events, where he’d be updated on developments and talk through potential responses. For Biden, a big part of his practice is the repetition, getting comfortable with the syntax and making sure it is authentic to his voice.
- More than anything, aides say to expect to see Biden doing all he can to return the conversations to several main “pillars” — the pandemic, the economy, and the “battle for the soul of the nation."
- No surprises here: the president has been taking a less-than-conventional approach to debate prep, forgoing traditional mock sessions and instead “spitballing” with those around him. People involved in the sessions include his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway.
- The president is using the reporters who cover him as a kind of collective Biden stand-in as well. A source familiar with the president’s thinking says he viewed Sunday’s news conference as “debate practice” — and that’s why he wanted Giuliani and Christie with him in the briefing room.
- Trump allies, in the last few days, have been scrambling to try to rewrite their narrative of Biden from incapable of speaking to now being a champion debater. But the president keeps stepping on that message with his drug test claims and the campaign’s new ad suggesting Biden has used a teleprompter in interviews. Pressed Tuesday on how the campaign can reconcile what are clearly mutually exclusive claims, Trump campaign aide Tim Murtaugh tells NBC News, “Both things can be true.”
- One Trump adviser suggested the president’s response on the tax investigation Tuesday night could be essentially: I didn’t write the tax code, Biden did. The president may suggest that it was the system that allowed him to pay the least amount of taxes possible, as anyone would do, and that when he became president one of the first things he did was pass tax reform.
- An outside adviser suggested Trump will look for an opening to bring up Hunter Biden’s business dealings, noting that Giuliani, the Trump team's expert on Hunter Biden and Ukraine, was at the White House Sunday for debate prep. On a list on questions the Trump campaign put out Tuesday for Biden was: “Hunter Biden received a $3.5 million wire transfer from a Russian billionaire who was married to the former mayor of Moscow. Why would people connected to the Russian government want to give your son millions of dollars?"
- The president and his campaign Tuesday claimed the Biden team sought the use of an ear piece and the Biden campaign pushed back hard — keeping up a focus on the coronavirus pandemic. Biden communications director Kate Bedingfield said on a call with reporters that the Trump team was “lying,” and “going to process because they don’t want to go to substance,” adding that these pre-debate tactics were “pathetic” and “weak." She added, “If we’re playing that game, then you know, the Trump team asked Chris Wallace not to mention the number of deaths from Covid once during the debate. You can consider that confirmed from the Biden campaign. See how easy that was to try to throw up a distraction?” Team Trump responded to that claim, saying “this is a lie and it never happened.”