Muted Microphones and Lots of Interruptions: What To Watch in 2020’s Final Debate

6 minute read

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For at least 12 minutes during the final presidential debate tomorrow night, Joe Biden should be able to answer the debate moderator’s questions directly and without heckling from Donald Trump’s muted microphone. Those may be the only moments of the event that the former Vice President should expect that kind of reprieve from the incumbent President who is showing signs of fraying nerves, finite patience and creeping self-doubt.

When the organizers announced on Monday they were introducing a mute button for each candidate at the start of each of six segments, Trump’s campaign had the expected freak-out, alleging it was an attempt to put a thumb on the scale to help Biden’s bid. The complaints didn’t move the organizers, who acknowledged almost immediately after the first debate that the format simply doesn’t work when one side clearly has no intentions of following the rules. (Trump pulled out of the second scheduled debate when organizers said it would have to take place remotely, given the President’s own COVID-19 diagnosis posed a health risk to everyone involved.)

Now, on what should have been a third debate night in America in 2020, Trump will have to stand there with a muted mic and listen to Biden answer six direct questions, for two minutes each, without any ability to interject himself with interruptions, insults or inquiries. (After each candidate has a clean two minutes to answer, the rest of the section will revert back to shouting and cajoling that rendered the first debate something of an embarrassment.) The forced civility atop each section is unlikely to sit well with a President who has shown his skills as a debater are rooted in throwing his opponents off their rhythm, not actually winning any argument based in substance.

That’s not to say Trump might not try to shout loudly enough to get picked up on Biden’s mic. Or simply add noise that throws Biden off his game. As a child, Biden overcame a stutter, and interruptions or hectoring can trigger its fleeting return. With Trump and his allies hinting — without medical evidence — that Biden’s mental acuity is lapsed, even the smallest of hiccups could hurt the 77-year-old former Senator. Slinging the unproven allegations against son Hunter Biden and his business dealings are unlikely to change voters’ minds but they may do the trick and knock Biden off-balance. In recent days, Trump has been ranting that Attorney General Bill Barr hasn’t taken steps to prosecute the Bidens for crimes that have not been proven.

With just 12 days to go until the votes start to be counted, Trump desperately needs a show in Nashville to turn his campaign around. His final campaign finance report shows him bleeding cash, public and private polls show him shedding votes, and his own rhetoric seems to betray deep doubts about his prospects of winning. Biden and his allies are spending $140 million on broadcast and cable ads across the final two weeks — twice as much as the Republicans. Trump has largely abandoned airwaves across the Midwest to reinforce a firewall in places like Georgia, Florida and Arizona — states that were once seem as dreams for Democrats but now have the potential to be the icing on their cake.

Still, Trump’s team is not ready to concede. On a call with staffers on Monday, Trump said he wants to hold five rallies a day in the final stretch, a breakneck pace that isn’t unheard of, but certainly challenging and risky during a pandemic. To Trump’s mind, more is better, and no one exceeds Trump’s excesses.

That’s particularly true when it comes to interrupting, it seems. During their first debate, Trump interrupted Biden or the moderator 128 times, according to Slate’s math. (Trump interrupted 2016 rival Hillary Clinton a more modest 51 times when they first met, Slate tallies.) At his town hall last week with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, he often tried to talk over Guthrie’s questions, which were sharp and to-the-point. He responded by cutting off the anchor, who is also a lawyer who aced her bar exam.

Tomorrow’s questions, from NBC’s Kristen Welker, are expected to be just as direct. And, true to form, the White House has already started smearing Welker as a partisan activist. One official asserted — without evidence — that Welker is a Nancy Pelosi acolyte masquerading behind her press pass.

Not a particularly dignified approach, but that’s never been a motivating factor for this President. Four years ago, after the bombshell “Access Hollywood” tape came out two days ahead of the second-of-three debates and threatened to throw Trump off-balance, he dug up three women who had accused the Democratic nominee’s husband of sexual misconduct between 1978 and 1993, and a fourth whose alleged rapist had been legally represented by Clinton herself, who helped him with a plea deal for reduced charges as part of her work at a free legal clinic.

I remember sitting in the press workspace in St. Louis as seemingly every reporter sent to cover the debate was watching the pregame spectacle unfold on a Facebook livestream. Trump knew he was going to face tough questions about his admission on tape to sexual assault. Instead, he sought to insulate himself in an armor of a rival’s spouse.

If this is starting to sound familiar, it should. It is precisely what he is doing again: At the precise moment that The New York Times reports Trump has previously secret accounts in China, Trump is expected to allege it is Hunter Biden who is exploiting his family’s name to collect Chinese cash. If he can shout it loudly enough into the ether in the non-muted 78 minutes of his time on stage, it may cause enough confusion that voters are left with a déja vu hangover from Clinton’s emails.

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