What you need to know about Tuesday's presidential debate

Brittany Shepherd
·National Politics Reporter
·7 mins read

Tuesday’s presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden comes during a number of national crises, including historic wildfires on the West Coast and months of protests following the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police. And, of course, there is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has killed some 200,000 Americans and cost millions more their jobs.

Biden, who has been leading Trump in the polls for months despite limited campaigning, hopes to convince Americans on Tuesday that the country needs a new president before it can recover from this year’s calamities. Trump, meanwhile, hopes to take the fight to his opponent and stage yet another political comeback.

Here’s what you need to know about the debate.

The basics

The empty seat of Fox News moderator Chris Wallace on the set of the first presidential debate
The seat of Fox News moderator Chris Wallace on the set of the first presidential debate in Cleveland. (Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

Tuesday night’s debate will take place at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The candidates will be onstage together behind socially distanced podiums. It will take place from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. ET and will not have any commercial breaks.

The event will be moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who has something of an uneasy history with Trump due to his often sharp questioning of the president.

The debate will be split up into six 15-minute topic blocks. The announced topics are:

  1. Candidates’ records

  2. The Supreme Court

  3. COVID-19

  4. The economy

  5. Race and violence in our cities

  6. The integrity of the election

What to expect from the candidates

Trump and Biden have traded jabs for years — and Biden, who has taken a number of days off from the campaign trail this month to prepare for the debate, says he expects “mostly personal,” rather than policy-based, attacks from the president.

“I mean, my guess it’s going to be just straight attacks. They’re gonna be mostly personal. That’s the only thing he knows how to do. He doesn’t know how to debate the facts because he’s not that smart. He doesn’t know that many facts," Biden said on MSNBC over the weekend.

Trump is likely to bring up Biden’s long record in government. Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 and served there until he was elected vice president in 2008. Trump is also expected to go after Biden’s son Hunter, who served on the board of the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma while his father oversaw U.S. policy toward the country.

Joe and Bunter Biden
Joe Biden and his son Hunter at a basketball game between Georgetown University and Duke University in 2010. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Biden is expected to highlight Trump’s numerous scandals — including the New York Times’ Sunday night story on the president’s long-hidden tax returns. The Times’ story indicated that Trump was far less successful as a businessman than he’d claimed and that he has paid almost nothing in income taxes for years.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s debate, Trump has made a series of outlandish and baseless claims about Biden, including that the Democrat uses performance-enhancing drugs. He even challenged Biden to a drug test before the debate, a request the Biden campaign quickly shot down.

“Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager. “We’d expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200K Americans when he didn’t make a plan to stop COVID-19.”

Trump has spent the last several weeks promising that a COVID-19 vaccine will be available in the near future, although many of the nation’s top experts in the field — including members of the administration — have said a vaccine won’t be ready for large-scale distribution until sometime next year.

The president has also repeatedly defended his administration’s response to the pandemic despite its massive and still-growing death toll. He has noted, in particular, that he moved relatively quickly to halt travel from China and Europe.

President Trump speaks during a COVID-19 coronavirus briefing at the White House
President Trump at a COVID-19 coronavirus briefing at the White House in August. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

But Biden is all but certain to bring up Trump’s own admission to journalist Bob Woodward that he repeatedly “downplayed” the severity of the virus.

“It goes through air, Bob,” Trump told Woodward in February, even as he publicly insisted that the situation was under control and shouldn’t worry Americans.

“That’s always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch — you don’t have to touch things, right? But the air, you just breathe the air. That’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than your — you know, your — even your strenuous flus.”

Biden will also have to push back on Trump’s false assertion that the former vice president wants to defund police departments (in fact, he supports giving them more financial aid) as well as fight the argument that a Biden presidency would lead to more chaos in the streets. Biden has met with the families of those killed by cops in recent months, while Trump has met publicly with law enforcement in cities that have seen unrest.

The pair will also battle it out over election integrity. Trump has attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the election and has baselessly claimed that the use of mail-in ballots opens the door to widespread fraud. Democrats are now urging supporters who are able to do so to head to the polls and vote in person on Nov. 3. Mail-in ballots take additional time to process, and Democrats worry that if Republicans vote mainly in person while Biden supporters rely on vote-by-mail, Trump will have a lead on election night and could claim victory before all the ballots are counted.

Trump has also refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election, and his remarks on the subject are almost sure to come up sometime during the debate.

The two will also spar over Trump’s efforts to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18. On Saturday, he nominated Appeals Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative, to take the seat, and Republicans believe they have enough votes in the Senate to confirm her. Democrats hope to find a way to block Barrett’s appointment, which would give conservatives a pronounced 6-3 majority on the court.

President Trump walks with Judge Amy Coney Barrett to a news conference
President Trump walks with Judge Amy Coney Barrett to a news conference to announce her as his nominee to the Supreme Court on Saturday. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Democrats accuse Republicans of hypocrisy for attempting to fill the seat so close to the election after refusing to hold hearings for Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s 2016 nominee for the court. At the time, Republicans argued that the seat should not be filled until after that year’s presidential election, even though Garland was nominated long before the general election got underway.

While both candidates are prone to gaffes, it’s unlikely that Wallace will fact-check either of them live, according to debate commission co-chair Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. However, Yahoo News will be fact-checking the debate in real time.

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (2), Jim Young/Reuters

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