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Debate between Biden and Trump is expected to be a test of competence and character

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Tonight, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will meet in Atlanta for the first debate of this year's presidential election. The debate is expected to be an inflection point for the nation and for the presidency. It's the first time the two will be in a room together since the final debate of the last race in October of 2020. Now, this debate comes amid the backdrop of growing financial support for Donald Trump. His felony convictions have only bolstered support for his campaign. Over the last two months, wealthy supporters have infused millions of dollars into his campaign, outraising President Biden by 81 million in donations, which means the 2024 campaign is shaping up to be the most expensive presidential election in American history.

Shane Goldmacher with the New York Times has been reporting on the campaign and the money behind it. He's a national political correspondent covering national politics and the 2024 campaign. Shane joins us from Atlanta, where he will cover tonight's debate. Shane Goldmacher, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SHANE GOLDMACHER: Thank you for having me on.

MOSLEY: OK, Shane, money was one of the clear advantages President Biden had in this race. What are the realities now?

GOLDMACHER: Yeah, so one of the advantages typically of being an incumbent president is you get a head start, that you can start to build your campaign apparatus, you can start to hire people, and you can crucially start to raise money months before your opponent can. And that's exactly what President Biden did. He launched his campaign in April of 2023, as Trump was still in the middle of a Republican primary that didn't get resolved for another 11 months until March of 2024. And all that time, President Biden was hiring people and stashing away money, both in his campaign coffers, as well as the Democratic National Committee. And one of those early advantages is that you can work with the party and raise money in much bigger increments than you can until you're the presumptive nominee. And so you have this snapshot where Trump becomes the nominee at the beginning of March, essentially. And by the end of that month, Joe Biden had basically $100,000,000 more in the bank than Donald Trump and the Republican Party did. And that gave them not just a head start, but a pretty daunting financial advantage for a race where money could matter because this race is expected to be so closely contested.

MOSLEY: Biden has several wealthy donors who have infused in his campaign - former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who challenged him actually in the Democratic nomination in 2020. He's given about 20 million to help in the President's reelection effort. Let's talk briefly about where Trump's money is coming from. So Miriam Adelson, one of the wealthiest women in the world, is poised to give Trump's super PAC one of the largest donations to help in his campaign - more than $90,000,000. This will actually make her one of the most powerful private citizens in the United States. I want to take a moment to just learn a little bit about Miriam Adelson. Who is Miriam Adelson?

GOLDMACHER: Yeah, we are in an era where individual donors can give donations that are 10 million, 20 million, $100,000,000. And she and her late husband, Sheldon Adelson, are among the biggest financiers of the Republican Party. They earned their money through the casino industry and both of them together were big advocates for Israel, and she has been a past supporter of President Trump both in 2020 and in 2016. So her support was not fully unexpected, but in the past, she and her husband together had given all of this money, and he had passed away since the last presidential election. And so there had been an open question, will Miriam be as engaged as she had been when she and her husband were both making those decisions? And the answer very clearly is yes. So this $90 million, she hasn't contributed most of it yet, but the Trump team now knows that there will be a great amount of air support coming later in the campaign for television ads and other activities that will help in the home stretch.

MOSLEY: You've also written about Timothy Mellon. He's an heir to the Mellon banking fortune. He's donated about $50,000,000 to Trump's super PAC to the Make America Great Again PAC. And Mellon was also the biggest donor supporting independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., giving his super PAC about 20 million. Who is Timothy Mellon? And aside from donations, how has he moved politically?

GOLDMACHER: Timothy Mellon has been one of the most reclusive Republican donors who emerged really out of nowhere in recent years. He's an heir to a Gilded Age fortune, and he's gotten very involved in supporting Donald Trump as well as Robert Kennedy Jr. in this election. And the day after Donald Trump was convicted, in New York. Timothy Mellon sent $50,000,000, one of the single largest contributions ever, to the Trump super PAC. And that's not the only money he spent this cycle. He spent $25,000,000 for Trump earlier and another $25,000,000 for Kennedy. He is at this point, the first person in the country to top $100,000,000 individually spent on this campaign. And his involvement in both the Kennedy and the Trump campaign has led a lot of Democrats to say, he's financing Kennedy in order to help Donald Trump, that he doesn't actually care about Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He wants to help Donald Trump, and this $50,000,000 contribution is sort of further evidence of that in the eyes of Democrats. He has singlehandedly given almost half the money that the single largest pro-Trump super PAC has raised in the last year and a half. And so Mellon has not spoken publicly about this. He's kept an extraordinarily low profile. He does not tend to reach out and meet politicians. The money comes, and then it's there. He's really an unusual figure to be this involved in politics in the country.

MOSLEY: And one note, aside from it being an extraordinarily large donation, he also gave it after Trump's criminal convictions.

GOLDMACHER: Yeah, the single largest check he sent, $50,000,000, came one day after Trump was convicted in court in New York. The timing is definitely no accident. Somebody doesn't just happen to send that $50,000,000 the next day. And really, it's an important moment because this conviction has clearly motivated both large Republican donors and small Republican donors. So that 24-hour period after he was convicted, the kind of thing that for most politicians would be seen as deeply damaging - you've become a felon - for Donald Trump, it changed the financial complexion of this race. In that 24-hour period, his campaign processed more than $53,000,000 online in smaller contributions. The donations came so quickly that the website, WinRed, which processed these contributions, briefly shut down in the minutes after the conviction.

So, on the one hand, he has a deluge of these small donors. And on the other hand, you have one of the biggest mega-donors in the country sending a single $50,000,000 check. So, again, in a 24-hour period that could have been a low point for many candidates, Donald Trump has raised $100,000,000 between his super PAC and his campaign.

MOSLEY: I want to get into the ways that they're using that money - hiring staff, renting office space, media buys. Media typically takes up a big part of the campaign money pie. What are the other ways that they're using that campaign money to gain support?

GOLDMACHER: Yeah, you've just touched on a couple of the most important ones. I would note that Biden has gained some advantages from that early cash edge, and it's been in television ads in these key battleground states. Now, the Trump team is just beginning to make their very first reservations. But from the beginning of the year through basically mid-June, the Biden team had aired or reserved about $35,000,000 of television ads in the six most contested battleground states. And the Trump team had aired and reserved, basically nothing, about $60,000. So for months, the only message that these swing voters or base voters who you're trying to convince to get involved in this race - the only side they've been hearing from from the campaigns themselves was the Biden team. Now, again, Trump and Biden both have outside groups and super PACs that are running ads that look similar. But if you're the campaign, you value most the message you control, the message you decide to send. And for basically the first half of the year, there was only one person screaming into that megaphone. And it was the president's campaign. And so that's one of the chief advantages of how they've spent that money early.

The other is building out of political infrastructure. They say they have more than 200 offices - the Biden team, along with the state Democratic parties, more than 200 offices in these important battleground states, and that they recently hired their thousandth staff member. Again, on the ground, people already working for the Biden campaign in these states. And while a thousand people doesn't sound like a big number when you think about a country of 300 million people, if you think about a state like Wisconsin and Georgia that have been decided by something in the range of 10,000 votes in the last couple of elections, if you have 500 people on the ground there, and you are each getting 10 votes, you're making a big difference on closing that gap. You're getting 20 votes - one person, so you can think about the math of having those boots on the ground early and the advantage it can pay. And that's something that Biden campaign says. Look, we may not longer have more money in the bank, but we have people in the states, and Trump is behind on that crucial political infrastructure.

MOSLEY: You know, at this stage, I know it may be hard to tell the benefit of all of those media buys. But what does the polling tell us about what advantage Biden has had? Or is it too early to tell?

GOLDMACHER: Well, the Trump team's response to all those television ads is basically pointing and laughing. They say, look, the Biden team has been running these unanswered television ads, and they're still not winning, that the polling averages across the country is basically a tied race, and that in those most competitive battleground states, Trump has maintained a small advantage. So they say, look, those ads are going to be long forgotten. People saw them. They may have moved a little bit, but it didn't do enough to help the president get ahead in this race. And so from the Trump team's perspective - they look at this. They're entering the summer at financial parity and having weathered a pretty one-sided assault on the airwaves for many months.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Shane Goldmacher, correspondent with the New York Times covering the presidential campaign. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're talking to Shane Goldmacher with the New York Times. He's been reporting on the presidential campaign and the money behind it. Shane Goldmacher is a national political correspondent covering national politics in the 2024 campaign.

Something else that I would love for you to help us understand is the situation with Trump paying for his legal bills and that murky - what feels like murky waters around using donations to pay for it. Can you clear this up for us? You did wonderful reporting where you laid out his legal bills, how much he's in debt to those legal bills, and how much infusion of cash he's also getting?

GOLDMACHER: It is a head-spinning, confusing situation because, yes, Donald Trump has not been using his own money to pay for his legal bills, but he also has not been using his campaign funds from 2024 to pay for his legal bills. Most of the money he has used is money that he raised right after the 2020 election. When he was denying the election result, Republican supporters gave enormous sums of money in the days after the 2020 election, when he was saying, help me battle this result. In fact, he raised something like $200, $230,000,000 between the end of the year of 2020 and election day. And while he did spend some of that money fighting the election result, he ended up banking a ton of it and putting it in a political action committee that he could use after he left office.

And while there are other transactions along the way, the best way to think about it is he's been steadily spending down that big pile of cash on the legal bills, including many legal bills he incurred because of his lying in the aftermath of the 2020 election, in which he's been indicted in Georgia, and he's been indicted by the special counsel. And while that money has paid for his legal bills for most of the last four years, that money's basically all gone now.

MOSLEY: And we still have several legal issues to get through before the actual election.

GOLDMACHER: Yeah, he's been indicted four times in 2023, and only one of those four cases has gone to trial. And he has, month over month, been paying about $5,000,000 in legal bills. And the account he's been paying that from - it's down to less than $5,000,000 now. And so how is he refilling it? Well, the agreement he struck with the Republican Party, as he's raised money for his 2024 bid, is that among the bigger contributors, not the small donors, but among bigger contributors, anyone who's giving basically more than $10,000, that his PAC is going to get a cut of about $5,000 per donor. And that PAC has been paying the legal bills. And if you look at the fine print for these mega events where somebody gives $800,000 to support Trump and the Republican Party, his campaign gets the first money. The PAC that pays this legal bills gets the second cut of the money, and then the Republican Party gets its share. And we have yet to see those transfers because the timing of the financial reports.

But The PAC he's been using to pay his legal bills, again, has less than $5,000,000, and it's expected to get more money into it. But despite the claims from the Trump team, they are not directly using Republican National Committee funds to pay his legal bills, but they're putting his PAC in line to raise money ahead of the party itself. And so we'll see just how much that brings in. But again, Trump has more or less refused to pay these bills himself, and he continues to find ways to have donors to pay for them.

MOSLEY: Right. This makes me think about Lara Trump, who's the wife of Trump's son, Eric. She's the Republican National Committee co-chair. I think she said that she didn't rule out using funds to pay for her father-in-law's legal fees. I think she said something like, we need to raise 500 million for the 2024 election, and she didn't rule out using some of these raised funds. Is that an issue? Is that a conflict of interest?

GOLDMACHER: You know, what I've heard from Republican donors is that they don't see it as an issue because they have and Trump has so effectively intertwined his own legal fate with the fate of the Republican Party itself, that they see it as part of their obligation in large part to help fund his bills. Trump has so successfully messaged to his base that these are political prosecutions aimed to get him politically, that paying for his lawyers doesn't feel like such a crazy idea for a lot of Republican donors. Now, there are some who object, and there are some who've made efforts to say that the party shouldn't pay those bills.

MOSLEY: Can you talk a little bit about how Trump's daughter-in-law actually became the head of the RNC?

GOLDMACHER: It's important to realize that Trump basically completely controls the Republican National Committee now. Now, it's pretty standard for the nominee to functionally take over the party, but Trump did so this year in a kind of unusual way. When he became the presumptive nominee, he basically pushed out the longtime Republican chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who he had originally appointed way back in 2016. And when he pushed her out, he replaced her with Michael Whatley, who had been the Republican party chairman in North Carolina, as well as a second co-chair of the party. And the person he chose was his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump. And it's not the first time that a presidential family member has been at the party, but it's one of the first times, and it shows the complete extent to which the RNC is now a Trump operation. They laid off a large number of staff. They forced a number of people to move from their longtime headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the Trump campaign headquarters in Florida. And it really is one and the same in a way that has not always been the case when you become the nominee.

MOSLEY: OK, let's talk a little bit, Shane, about tonight's debate, which is hosted by CNN, will be moderated by Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. If we remember four years ago, these debates can get unwieldy. I want to play a clip from the first debate four years ago between Trump and Biden. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Vote and let your senators know how strongly you feel.

DONALD TRUMP: Are you going to pack the court?

BIDEN: Vote now.

TRUMP: Are you going to pack the court?

BIDEN: Make sure you, in fact, let people know...

TRUMP: He doesn't want to answer the question.

BIDEN: ...Your senator. I'm not going to answer the question because...

TRUMP: Why wouldn't you answer that question? You have put a lot of...

BIDEN: Because the question is...

TRUMP: You want to put a lot of new Supreme Court justices, radical left.

BIDEN: Will you shut up, man?

TRUMP: And who is on your list, Joe?

MOSLEY: That was a clip from the first debate between Biden and Trump in 2020. As you could hear, there's lots of talking over each other. Mostly Trump talking over Biden. What are some of the new rules this time around to prevent something like this from happening?

GOLDMACHER: It's going to be two very, very familiar faces, but under very different circumstances in the debate. One of the first things that's different is that CNN itself is in control of the rules, and in the past, it's been entirely run by a commission on presidential debates. And one of the rules that CNN has imposed or have said they plan to impose is that your microphone will be off if it is not your designated time to speak. That's going to create a lot of different dynamics on this stage because it could mean these two men are standing, and they can hear each other, but maybe the audience can't hear the other person, or you may just pick up some stray remarks on your microphone. But what it does mean is the crosstalk, the inability for an audience to hear what's actually going on - it should be diminished, that both the candidates will have an opportunity to speak and to answer each other. But I've watched every debate that Donald Trump has participated in since 2016. He doesn't really listen to these rules, right? He comes on stage, and he is ready to brawl, even in debates where he's more controlled. And so we'll see how this plays out. But CNN has said that they're going to do everything they can to make this a civil conversation. And the muted microphones, I think, is one of the big X factors of this debate.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Shane Goldmacher, a correspondent with the New York Times, covering the presidential campaign. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM SCOTT'S "SACK O' WOE")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today my guest is Shane Goldmacher, a New York Times Correspondent. He covers developments, trends, and forces, shaping American politics, and he's worked for the Times since 2017, covering Congress and the White House and state houses, as well as national politics for both New York and California. And he covered the 2020 presidential race as a national political reporter, and is currently in Atlanta to cover tonight's presidential debate.

I think I heard someone say, tonight will be a test of Biden's ability to show stamina, and for Trump, it will be a test of whether he can control himself. On those two points, how have the two been preparing themselves in that regard?

GOLDMACHER: I think the preparations that they've undergone have been about as different as their visions for the country. Joe Biden is and has been holed up at Camp David for basically a week with many of his top advisors heading into the debate, rehearsing, practicing, and eventually doing full blown mock sessions with one of his attorneys, Bob Bauer, who played Trump four years ago, playing Trump again in real practices. Basically, they want to rehearse what it will be like to face Donald Trump, what it will feel like to have a debate for 90 minutes. And to rehearse every possible question. You know, I've talked to people who've done these preparations before for Biden and for others, and they say, look, you can start to break this down. It's 90 minutes, and it's about five minutes per topic per question. There's a certain number of questions you know that they're going to ask, and you can kind of prepare for most of them, right?

There will be a question about January 6 and its fallout and potentially the issues around pardons. There will be questions about the economy and inflation. There'll be questions about Israel. There'll be questions about Ukraine. There'll be questions about immigration and the border. And so on each of those topics, the Biden team has, and I don't know the specific way they've prepared for specific topics, but you can assess that they will have prepared a set of answers and how to prepare for them. And what are the best things to focus on?

Now, Trump has been preparing too. He has actually made reference to watching videos of the past debates, and he's been engaging in more what his team likes to call policy discussions with senior advisors, with senators like Marco Rubio and J.D. Vance who have been on his potential vice presidential pick lists. He's been practicing lines and rehearsing or reviewing records of what he did as president and what Joe Biden did as president and how to frame those things up.

But it's a less structured setup than Joe Biden. Trump has forever avoided the kind of traditional let's set up two podiums and have the lights look like the stage will look. He prefers to sit around and discuss these topics in sort of a brainstorm session. And he has been doing a fair amount of that. And he also does - you know, his team likes to say he does rallies and events. And the thing about Donald Trump is nothing that he's preparing for really stays hidden for very long. So if you want a preview of what Donald Trump's going to say, it's pretty informative to watch his rally in Philadelphia last week. It's informative to watch his interviews in recent days. You know, he doesn't prepare for a line and not use it. Biden has been preparing for these lines and notably been out of the public eye.

So there's a guarantee he won't say it out loud until the debate comes. Trump, on the other hand, has been more open in the last few days, and you can begin to glean some of the things that they want to talk about and how they want to talk about them.

MOSLEY: Shane, how much of Trump's criminal record do you expect Biden to bring up or the moderators to bring up tonight?

GOLDMACHER: I can't imagine it's not one of the earlier topics in this debate, both because of how historic it is that Donald Trump is facing a sentencing days before he formally becomes the nominee next month, but also because it's a relevant fact for voters. And in fact, I think both candidates in some ways want to talk about it. But for months, the Biden campaign had been virtually silent on the legal challenges around Donald Trump, because Donald Trump had called these political prosecutions, because he had accused without any evidence Joe Biden of being behind the Manhattan district attorney indictment and trial. The Biden campaign didn't want to fuel those by commenting on it, but that all changed pretty dramatically shortly after the verdict came in. The Biden campaign has now been running a television ad across the country, talking about how Trump is a convicted felon. The name of the ad itself, I think is actually pretty revealing. They call the ad "Character Matters." They want to use this conviction not just to say that Donald Trump is not a good person and will be a bad president. They want to use the conviction to make a broader argument that Donald Trump is running for president for himself, to protect himself from his own legal jeopardy, and that Joe Biden is running for president for the broader public.

That's one of the key messages that the Biden campaign has centered on ahead of this debate. And for Trump - he wants to use both his conviction and the other cases to argue that the Democrats, writ large, have weaponized the legal system against him. They - that he would - the only reason he's facing these charges in Georgia and New York are because he's running for president and that they had wanted to confine him in court during the trial, and they want to slow him down in this race. Again, there is no evidence that the president and the White House have had any involvement in the cases in Georgia and New York or even in the special counsel's case, which is part of the attorney general's office, but an independent part. But that is a central argument that Trump has made, and it has resonated for many, many Republicans, as you saw from those campaign contributions that flooded in. People believe that Donald Trump is being targeted - his supporters believe that he's being targeted for political reasons.

MOSLEY: You know, you mentioned how Donald Trump was in Detroit really trying to gain support from Black voters in particular. And we know in the last election cycle, there was this big emphasis on reaching out to non-white voters, I mean, some have said to a fault. Because there seemed to be an overemphasis on identity versus issues that everyone cares about, like inflation and the cost of living. What are you seeing this time around, particularly with Biden? And how do the candidates actually differ? How do their approaches to non-white voters - not just Black voters, but also Latino voters - how do their approaches differ?

GOLDMACHER: I think the approaches are very different. You can decide whether you think that this is a strength or a weakness for the president heading into this election. But the Biden campaign sees their path to victory as bringing back people who have historically voted for Democrats. That's younger voters. That's Black voters. It's Latino voters, all of whom have questions about the president or frustrations about the direction of the country. And so they've gone about pretty methodically trying to find ways to reach and appeal to those voters and to sell them, either on Biden's record or to scare them about what a second Trump term would be.

Trump is sort of campaigning for all of these folks in a way that he often does, which is he talks about his polling and then tries to make it a reality. He talks about I'm winning the most African American votes in history, and there are polls that suggest that he has made inroads, but there hasn't been the same kind of, like, blocking and tackling and messaging at a community level. Instead, it's sort of an attempt to win over voters by telling them that he's winning them over, by showing up in the communities and surrounding himself by people who are from those communities, by going to the Bronx and having a Black rapper come up on stage, by traveling to Philadelphia and being accompanied by people from the community that he's trying to make an appeal to. What he's not necessarily done is design a specific message for those communities. He's making the argument that he is better for them because of who he is.

MOSLEY: I want to get into the strategy for both of them for tonight, but CNN is also not going to fact-check, right? What is the reasoning behind that?

GOLDMACHER: You know, it's not clear what they're going to do. Their political director said to one of my colleagues at New York Times this week that a live debate isn't an ideal place for fact-checking. We will see. I think it's really one of the unanswered questions. And you've seen both the Trump and the Biden team publicly and privately lobbying for what they want. The Trump team's been pretty clear. They want a hands-off approach from the CNN moderators, and in fact, they've been saying pretty publicly that they think that this debate they're participating, but as Trump has accused many things of, of being rigged, that it's a 3-to-1 contest because he accuses these veteran journalists of being not neutral parties, even though he's agreed to this debate. On the flip side, you know, Joe Biden has said pretty explicitly - in fact, he said in one of his debates four years ago, he can't spend all his time fact-checking what Donald Trump says, because it will prevent him from delivering his own message. And so the Biden team and the president have in the past, hoped that the moderators will step in and correct something that's incorrect, for instance, when they have a debate about what happened in 2020, the Biden operation is certainly hopeful that the moderators will present the outcome as not in doubt, despite the fact that Trump has continued to raise questions about whether he actually lost. And it remains to be seen how CNN exactly will handle this. But it is definitely one of the questions in the story lines to watch going into the evening is, what role do the moderators play in policing the truth on the debate stage?

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Shane Goldmacher, correspondent with the New York Times, covering the presidential campaign. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "IOWA TAKEN")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to Shane Goldmacher with the New York Times. He's been reporting on the presidential campaign and the money behind it. Shane Goldmacher is a national political correspondent covering national politics and the 2024 campaign.

Age is also a factor that we keep hearing time and time around, perception, and their competence, as well as their character is going to be something that everyone is watching tonight. Biden and Trump are the oldest candidates to ever compete in a presidential race. What additional things will you be looking out for that we haven't talked about?

GOLDMACHER: I mean, I think that the overarching question of the debate is how does Joe Biden perform? You know, people have a pretty good sense of who both these candidates are. They have a pretty good sense of how they've been as president. What voters haven't seen is Joe Biden onstage for 90 minutes. Most people see snippets of the president, you know, maybe they tuned into the State of the Union, and they saw a pretty energetic president, and he got pretty positive reviews. This is a very different format. And look, the age question is just an overarching one for this race. It's one of those rare issues that cuts across the parties, that a broad swath of Democrats also think that Joe Biden is too old to be president. And the question is, can he bring them back into the fold and quiet their concerns or make them more concerned about Donald Trump than they are about his age. A win for Joe Biden on the age question is voters looking at both candidates and saying, either of these two guys would be the oldest president in American history.

And that's true. But polling for months and months have showed that the age question has reverberated almost exclusively around the current president and that the clips of him walking and the clips of him stumbling have been so aggressively circulated and smartly circulated among Republicans to shape the image of this old man who's serving as president. And look, the reality is, I rewatched the debates from 2020, Joe Biden looks older. I rewatched his announcement when he announced in 2024 from his announcement when he ran in 2020. He looks older. The truth is the presidency tends to age almost everyone, and he's already the oldest president in American history. It also is an opportunity for Joe Biden. It's an opportunity that if he stands for 90 minutes and holds his own and presents himself as a robust leader, he could quiet some of those concerns. But right now, about 70% of the country think that Joe Biden's too old. And that's a big chunk of people who think you're too old, that you're going to need to win over and still vote for you to win in November.

And I think that's why this debate is so important. This is one of the best opportunities he has to put an image of himself for all of those voters, that he isn't too old, but that he's more than capable of doing the job.

MOSLEY: The New York Times actually ran this feature, not too long ago about how these clips of Biden on social media looking disoriented or frail were taken out of context. So that's a piece of news reporting that takes a look at it. But when we talk about what's already - the horse has already left the barn, how much does that even impact the way that people perceive it now that it's already out there?

GOLDMACHER: Yeah, I mean, I think that there's no question that manipulatively edited clips are circulated to make Joe Biden look worse on a regular basis. It's also true that there are real clips that show Joe Biden looking older. And there was a moment last year when he tripped on a stage over a sandbag that, you know, really drew widespread attention. And I heard from voters across the country they had seen this and it raised concerns for them. There's issues around - one of the videos that that story included was from his trip to Europe and whether he was looking at a skydiver or not. And it does look like he's just meandering off, but he's actually going and greeting one of the people who just did sky diving. And the angle of that particular shot didn't show it, and it looks like Joe Biden is meandering. I think it's a fine line between what is perception and reality in terms of these things. And yes, I think that in a moment where we all are flipping and scrolling and swiping through so much content, so much of the time, that those short clips - they do stick, and people do see them. And they are important, and there's a reason that they circulate them in that way.

There are also clips of Donald Trump misspeaking, and you mentioned this earlier, right? He gives long, meandering, hard-to-follow answers. I've sat through his rallies and sort of lost track of what he's talking about for a few minutes at a time. And he is not presenting everything in the most sharp and coherent and cohesive way. That said, voters don't seem to perceive him in the same way they perceive Joe Biden around the issue of age. And the Biden campaign itself, while that's been a frustration, that's not how they've attacked Trump either. They've attacked Trump on policies - that he snapped after the 2020 election, that his second term would be far more radical than his first term was, that he threatens democracy itself, that he wouldn't accept the outcome of a future election, that he would be a dictator on day one, which is something that Trump has said about how he would take his approach to the border and some other issues. So the Biden campaign itself has through their actions showed their focus is on what Trump would do should he win election. And I think that the Trump campaign is really focused on who Joe Biden would be and raising questions about the president himself and his capabilities.

MOSLEY: Shane Goldmacher, thank you so much.

GOLDMACHER: Thanks for having me.

MOSLEY: Shane Goldmacher is a correspondent with the New York Times, covering the presidential campaign. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker revisits Steely Dan's 1974 album "Pretzel Logic" on its 50th anniversary. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER'S "I'LL WALK AWAY") 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.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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