Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Live Event/Special

Stage Is Set For Tonight's Historic CNN Presidential Debate; Mary Trump Will Be In Spin Room Tonight For Biden Campaign; Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL), Is Interviewed About CNN Debate; Now: Biden & Trump Making Final Preps For CNN Debate. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired June 27, 2024 - 17:00   ET




KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST: It is debate night here in America. We are now just four hours away from a pivotal moment in the razor thin race for the White House. It is the CNN presidential debate. I'm Kaitlan Collins live from the CNN spin room, which is just steps away from that debate hall where President Biden and former President Trump are preparing to face off for the first time in four years. It's also the first time that a current and former president, Wolf, have ever debated.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And I'm Wolf Blitzer in Atlanta. We're covering tonight's historic showdown from every angle. Both candidates hoping to land new attacks and speak directly to voters as they try to shake up a race that's been deadlocked for months. Right now, our political team is gathering new information inside both campaigns as we count down to the most consequential event of the election, at least so far. You're watching debate night in America.

COLLINS: And we start off this hour with CNN's Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, obviously, a big question here is about the rules for this debate. That's what makes it unique and different from what we saw when these two candidates were last on stage together in 2020. Give us an overview of exactly what it's going to look like inside that debate hall tonight.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kaitlan, it certainly does. And we should point out, both campaigns, both candidates have agreed to these rules. And the rules are there will be no audience. And that will be dramatically different from the debates four years ago and certainly other debates we've seen. In fact, it will be more like the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, where there was just the two candidates and the moderators in the studio.

So it will be the candidates who will be standing just eight feet apart. This will be at close range to say the least. And the two men, as you said, have not been in the same room for four years. They've been, of course, campaigning and dueling from long distance. They will be at close range tonight. They are not allowed to bring in any notes. They are not allowed to have any advisers, even during the two commercial breaks. So they will be standing there. We will see if they engage with one another. But perhaps one of the biggest changes from the first debate last time, which was filled with interruptions and hectoring from the -- at the time President Donald Trump to former vice President Joe Biden, is the microphones.

The microphones will only be on for the candidates who are speaking at that time. They will have a couple minutes to answer the questions and then they will have one minute to rebut. But again, the microphone only on when the candidate who is being directed a question will speak. So we will see how that changes the dynamic of this. But it will not be until after the debate is over, 90 minutes long.

They'll be standing on stage where they will be joined by one guest, if it's a family member or friend, we shall see. But that is the only time they will have a lifeline, if you will, after the debate is over. So, it's extraordinary, Kaitlan. These two candidates, very practiced, of course, have been on so many stages, they will be standing alone tonight eight feet apart right here in Atlanta.

COLLINS: Yes. Neither of them is a stranger to the debate stage, but they might be a little rusty. They haven't been on it in four years.

ZELENY: Right.

COLLINS: Certainly not, you know, in this kind of sense that we are going to see here tonight with each other. And obviously, Jeff, that likely influences how these campaigns were preparing for tonight. What have you heard from officials in both camps about how the rules and how all of these changes are factoring into? What it's going to look like when they get on stage?

ZELENY: Look, they both are trying to do a similar thing and shake up the race to make voters see them as the best alternative for a second term. For the Biden side, they are trying to remind voters, shake them, if you will, to remind people of the Trump administration what he did during his four years in office and his plans for a second term should he make them. They were trying to disqualify him in the minds of voters, but also trying to sort of get Democrats and others who may not be thrilled about a Biden second term to see him as an unacceptable alternative. But for the Trump side, they are focusing on Biden's record.


Kaitlan, that is probably the biggest difference of these debates overall is that Biden now has a presidential record. He has stood on so many debate stages, but this is the first time that he has his own record on inflation, on the economy, on immigration, and indeed foreign affairs. So this will not be simply talking about the Trump record as happened four years ago. Both records will be side by side.

But that is where history may not be our best guide here. We have two incumbent presidents. They both have a practice record. The question here is style and stamina.

Talking to voters here in Georgia this week, Kaitlan, perhaps they're not interested in the nuance of policy as much as which one looks the most presidential, which one looks strong. Again, standing for 90 minutes, it's not easy. So we will see how each one of these candidates do tonight. But it's 90 minutes on stage. But this will linger for far longer, likely for the rest of the campaign. Kaitlan?

COLLINS: Yes, both records will be scrutinized. We'll see how they defend them. Jeff Zeleny, thank you for that.

And Bakari Sellers, part of my all-star panel is back here with me, that is a great point that Jeff makes, is last time, you know, President Biden was on stage, he had not yet been president. He didn't have a record to defend in the same sense that Donald Trump did, certainly not because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the other thing is not even what they're going to say, it's the fact that they are 8ft apart from one another. And Chris Wallace, who is one of two people who knows what it's like to moderate a debate with these two, he said that's much closer than they were in that first debate of 2020. They were not standing anywhere near that close.

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So there are a couple of things about, one, and Jonah brought this up earlier, defending his record. He now has a presidential record to run on. And I think we all know that for Joe Biden, it's about the record, but that's really secondary on voters' minds. It's how he looks when he defends his record.

People want to know that Joe Biden can do the job. He's 81 years old, we know that. Both of the -- I hate the fact that we try to say one is old and the other is 78, they're both old, right? And so, he has to look the part. He has to be energetic, at least for the first few moments because 90 minutes is a long time to be on that stage. You don't get to feed off the energy of anybody else.

You don't get to beat up on little Marco or lying Ted, there's nobody else's wife to call ugly on. It's just you and another human being. The problem also, when you're talking about staying locked in, if I was -- you know, if it's basketball, I'm like, look, Biden, stay locked in for 90 minutes. You cannot let up on this guy, you got to stay locked in. But because they're so close and because the mic's cut off, I do not believe that when the mic cuts off, Donald Trump is going to cut off.

And my fear is that may pose some presentation difficulty for the president of the United States. Because it's hard as hell to communicate about Afghanistan, foreign policy, Gaza, healthcare when you have somebody yelling over here, the audience can't hear, but it sounds crazy to you. And I think that type of closeness, just aesthetically and presentation, may pose some issues for the President.

KRISTEN SOLTIS-ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Because bear in mind, remember in the last debate when he said, will you shut up, man? That was one of those moments that went really viral and made Biden look a little more vigorous, a little more -- you know, he was kind of channeling the inner thoughts of a lot of people watching. But if you can't hear what Donald Trump is saying, that he wants him to shut up, man, about, maybe that changes things.

I mean, bear in mind, Donald Trump came up in the world of television. Television is a medium he understands and excels at. What will be a challenge for him, I think, is that Donald Trump does best when he gets to be in kind of celebrity Donald Trump mode, apprentice Donald Trump mode. And this is very presidential. This is very historic, much more significantly traditional. And so. it'll be curious to see how does he handle it.

SELLERS: Can I ask a question to my three Republican friends for a second?


SELLERS: I'm intrigued. Can Donald Trump talk substantive policy for 90 minutes? Does he have the ability to do that?

JONAH GOLDBERG, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think so. I think people -- look, I think --

COLLINS: Ashley's a Democrat.


COLLINS: You need to be a Republican to answer that.

GOLDBERG: Technically, I'm a conservative, but I don't really call myself a Republican anymore. Look, I think he's going to try to be really disciplined for the first 20 minutes, 25 minutes, right? And then he's going to feel like he ate his spinach. And now he gets to have his dessert and start and he's going to -- look, I mean, the way I think about this is he's never been able to stay on script unless he's actually reading a script, right?

He's also -- you know, historically, the first debates are always go badly for incumbent presidents because they spent four years as a president and no one's -- everyone's saying yes to them and blah-blah- blah-blah. Donald Trump has spent four years at Mar-a-Lago surrounded by an entourage that tells him everything he says is brilliant. So he hasn't been criticized from eight feet away in the last four years, the last eight years, except on a debate. So I think they're both eminently rattleable. You know, you can just -- you can get under their skin.


The problem is, to Kristen's point is how does it look when Joe Biden or Donald Trump perfectly legitimately says off camera, will you shut up? And no one has any idea why you're saying it.

ALLISON: I think that's an important part, though. It's not just the audio, it's a visual debate. The split screen tonight is going to be important. GOLDBERG: Yes.


ALLISON: If you're a candidate talking to a television screen, like, who do you think is going to -- don't make that a meme, you all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's already.

ALLISON: But if that's how you're talking, it will look strange to the American public. So, when people break the rules, I think it's important to be able to show that picture.

COLLINS: Because that was one of -- when you go back and rewatch the debates, as I dedicated my life to doing this week, you see that oftentimes Biden would look directly at the camera. When Trump was speaking a lot and chattering in his ear, he would just look directly at the camera and say, OK, it doesn't matter about my family or his family, what matters is your family. And it seemed to be an effective method.

But Shermichael, let me ask you about something we're just learning, which is Mary Trump, who is Donald Trump's niece, she is an estranged niece. She has by no means been a fan of history, wrote a book incredibly critical of him. We've just learned that she is going to be here in this spin room tonight, not on behalf of the Trump family, but she is joining the Biden campaign as a surrogate. I don't think Donald Trump will be surprised to know that she's not supporting him. But what do you make of the fact that she's coming out here and she's saying in a quote tonight that CNN just obtaining, she's in Atlanta to remind everyone who Donald Trump is as a person and how he would rule as a president, because the stakes are far too high, Mary Trump says, for us to get this wrong.

And she says that he can't be allowed near the levers of power again.

SHERMICHAEL SINGLETON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think it's going to matter for Republican voters. And I would go as far as to say that some of Trump supporters would frankly see it as a betrayal. I mean, this is a niece, you're going against your own family member whether you like him or not. Perhaps this is something that you should deal with behind closed doors.

But I wanted to say something about President Biden. This is, I think, one of his greatest strengths and assets. The president has a very, very unique ability to showcase compassion during turbulent and uncertain times. We've talked a lot about the economic conditions. We've talked a lot about immigration.

And I think President Biden could have an opportunity, if he so chooses, to talk directly to the American people about understanding where they are. I think he has an opportunity to say, because of my age, yes, I've slowed down a little bit, but I've seen a whole lot of things. I do understand what it takes to sort of rebuild when things are sort of faulty and shaky. I think he has an opportunity to articulate to the American people, I may not be here to see what the future is going to look like in the next 20 years, but I can help be a part of the process to guide the nation to that future. That can be a very, very powerful moment for the president.

And I think that would resonate deeply with a lot of independent voters and a lot of moderate Republicans.

COLLINS: Yes, we'll see what it looks like. Obviously, they'll be watching closely tonight at one of the earliest debates we've also --



COLLINS: -- ever seen.


COLLINS: That's remarkable in and of itself. Everyone, stand by because we are counting down to this presidential debate here on CNN.

President has arrived here in Atlanta. We are waiting for former President Donald Trump and his plane to touch down any moment. We'll be tracking all of this live. Also, the key issues that Biden and Trump are going to try to capitalize on. They each have different priorities that they want to make sure voters hear them talk about on that stage that you're seeing right here. We'll talk about that after a quick break.



BLITZER: Any moment now we're expecting Donald Trump to arrive at Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport for tonight's main event. President Biden has already landed. CNN's Kristen Holmes is joining us right now.

Kristen, this is a big moment just ahead of tonight's debate. Set the scene from where you are.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. So what we expect from Donald Trump is he's going to land at the airport, he'll be greeted by supporters, and then he'll come straight here to the debate site where his team has a room set up. That's where he's going to stay until the debate get acclimated with the setup, with the podiums, with this area, and also have some time to talk to his senior advisors and prepare right ahead of that debate.

Now, as we have been reporting, Donald Trump has been spending the last several days in Mar-a-Lago. He is expected to have a rally tomorrow in Virginia. But what he has been focused on is conversations. That is how Donald Trump has done his debate prep. While his team has said they don't use the word preparation when it comes to Donald Trump, it is very clear that they are taking this debate very seriously. Jason Miller, one of Donald Trump's closest allies, has been running point on this debate preparation. And that means setting up, arranging and sitting in on various policy sessions, from everything -- from how to answer questions on abortion to how to answer questions on democracy, particularly Donald Trump's role in January 6, what he has said since then, including what he has said about pardoning individuals who are involved in the insurrection on that day. Now, we've also learned from these senior advisers that they have drilled down to Donald Trump that the most important thing that he can do is focus on key issues for voters. They've identified those issues, particularly through polling as the economy, particularly inflation, as immigration, as crime rates. These are things they think will resonate with voters.

And Donald Trump has a message that he wants to send. And that message is, were you better off under my administration, particularly when it comes to the economy, or are you better off now? And that really goes to the heart of what we know tonight to be a historic moment, because we have never before seen a former U.S. president on the stage with a current us president. And both of these teams are seeking to contrast the administrations that they have already had, their records that they believe that they have already proven.

Now, of course, the outlying factor here is who Donald Trump is at his core. We know that President Biden is planning attacks on Donald Trump. And the question is whether or not Trump reciprocates those. We talk about what we see at these rallies, when he has these crowds of supporters, he really doubles down on nasty personal attacks against not only Biden, but his family. Will we see that tonight?


Spoken to a number of allies and donors in particular who say they don't want to see that. They don't want this to get into mudslinging. They think that Donald Trump will actually be able to appeal to the voters. He needs to appeal to by talking about messaging.

When we talk about those voters he needs to appeal to, you're talking about the number of voters in the middle who are likely to determine this election. That's what they want to see from Donald Trump when he takes the stage tonight.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. Kristen Holmes reporting for us. Kristen, will be checking back with you frequently to be sure.

Any moment now, we expect Donald Trump's plane to be wheels down here in Atlanta. We're going to bring that to you. Plus, the messages we're hearing right now from close supporters of President Biden and former President Trump in the hours before tonight's debate. That's also coming up.


COLLINS: You are looking live right now as Donald Trump's plane has just landed here in Atlanta, Georgia. There it is taxiing down the runway. That comes after we saw President Biden land not too long ago. He's waiting at a nearby hotel until he makes his way to the debate hall where he is going to be meeting with, of course, his top advisors as he's preparing for this debate. He's been at Camp David for several days.

For president, Donald Trump has also been somewhere you don't typically find him this time of year at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. Normally, he's at his New Jersey club. Reporters who covered him know well during the summer months, but he has been there because it was a more seclusionary space for him to be thinking about debate prep. He wasn't around everyone at lunches and dinners like he typically is at his clubs. It does show how differently the two of them, Shermichael, have prepared for this moment and how they've been approaching it where, you know, Joe Biden, they used -- with President Biden used an airplane hangar at Camp David, a movie theater they set up with lights and outfitted it to look similar to what the debate stage will look like tonight to really get him prepped for this.

Obviously, that's how President Biden is known to prep intensively. Donald Trump takes a different tactic. He's still been doing debate prep. It hasn't been that informal based on what we've been hearing from his aides and allies. But it will maybe show up on the debate stage tonight how they've prepped for the mics, for the no audience, two things that neither of them have ever done before.

SINGLETON: I mean, look, depending on the questions, it will show whether or not a candidate has a command of the issues. When I worked for Mitt Romney, it was a very thorough debate process. Newt Gingrich, a very thorough debate process. But these were two men who were interested in the nuances of policy.

President Trump, I don't think, is one who's interested in the nuances of policies. And that will show when there are questions about China, when there are nuanced questions about Russia, I expect President Biden to probably do better on some of those issues. When there are more nuanced questions about monetary theories, if Biden decides to get into that about the economy, most voters may not care. But what he showcases as people watching, this is someone who I can trust to do the job, whether I agree with them on everything or not.

And I think considering how close this election is going to be, Jonah keeps bringing up the very slim folks in the middle, I think those people are more astute, they're typically more educated, they do care about someone who is more nuanced and has a command of those critical issues because they want to be able to trust that you can lead the country forward in a very critical time.

ALLISON: And it's doing it without notes. And I think that's -- we haven't talked about that yet. But there has been a lot of criticism for Joe Biden for always having notes and needing something to rely on because he can't remember. Tonight is a test. He will have 90 minutes where he will talk to the American people, where he will have to go from his memory about the issues.

And if he gets nuanced and can really say, show a command, as you said, of the issues --


ALLISON: -- that can help quell some of the concern that these voters have about Joe Biden's age.

COLLINS: That's a great point. And also, Donald Trump himself uses a prompter when he's on the debate stage.

ALLISON: Well, sometimes.

COLLINS: He often -- he does go off prompter, which may be some of his aide --

ALLISON: Starts with a prompter.

COLLINS: -- would like for him to not. There will be, obviously, no prompter for those candidates tonight. And that is a really big impact on this, that this is just the candidates and themselves and what they've rehearsed and been prepared to do, but no other assistance.

And also, during the two commercial breaks, only two breaks that they'll have this whole 90 minutes stretch, Bakari, none of their advisors can come up and talk to them and say, you're doing a great job or you need to fix this. It's just them with their thoughts.

SELLERS: Yes. And I think -- I mean, I think the preparation is key. And I do know for a fact, you know, just talking to my friends around Biden world, you know, how they've changed, you know, scheduling, etcetera, because of the time of day the debate is and how he's preparing for this intently, how he prepares for the day of being president.


And I think one of the things we're going to go back to is the presentation, because when you're talking policy and you have someone give answer that although you may disagree with, you can also juxtapose that against somebody who's spousing utter BS, right?


SELLERS: And that may be the split screen image. Like, I don't necessarily agree with Donald Trump in this position -- I mean, excuse me, Joe Biden in this position, but I don't know what Donald Trump is even talking about. For me, I know you've been watching debates, I spent a lot of time in the old world of the 44th president of the United States and I remind people like our colleague David Axelrod, how they got there behind kicked by Mitt Romney in the first debate. It was clinical, it was surgical the way that Mitt Romney thoroughly destroyed one of the smartest men I knew because Mitt Romney was more prepared form and Mitt Romney actually put that preparation forward. Somebody who we thought Barack Obama could just go on stage and be God's gift to debate got smacked around. He didn't do it the second time, he performed better.

And so I do think this preparation is going to really matter in this debate. We shall see if Donald Trump is taking this serious or not. COLLINS: Yes, both can be rusty for this. And of course, another thing, Wolf, that we're watching as Donald Trump's plane has just pulled up and landed here in Atlanta, is who gets off the plane with him? We do know the first lady, Jill Biden, will be here accompanying her husband. She is expected to join him later on stage at the end of the debate. Where -- another thing we're watching is to see which family members are accompanying Donald Trump on this trip here tonight for this historic debate, Wolf.

BLITZER: We know one family member who won't be accompanying Donald Trump tonight. We're going to talk with her in just a moment. This on the cusp of tonight's debate, there's a new surrogate right now, get this, for the Biden campaign, an actual member of the Trump family. And she's joining us right now, Donald Trump's niece and frequent critic of her uncle, Mary Trump.

Mary, thanks very much for joining us. You say you've witnessed your uncle's quote, and I'm quoting you now, "narcissism and cruelty your entire life." Why are you coming out for Biden right now? And why do you feel it was actually so important to say all this right before this debate tonight and show up actually here in Atlanta?

MARY TRUMP, BIDEN CAMPAIGN SURROGATE: Well, first of all, Wolf, thank you so much for having me. And I just want to make it clear, I have always been a huge supporter of President Biden. And I have been saying for a long time, I believe that this is the most important election, certainly of my lifetime. And I think this is a perfect moment for me to come out publicly, not just with my support of President Biden, but to send a very clear message to the American people that we could not make a more egregious mistake than letting Donald Trump again anywhere near the levers of power.

BLITZER: And by the way, Mary, we're showing a live picture of your uncle's plane, which just landed here at Hartsfield Jackson, Atlanta International Airport. We expect him to be walking off that plane momentarily. Will show our viewers when that happens. We've heard, as you probably have heard as well, supposedly, about a more subdued Donald Trump showing up tonight's debate. Given what you know about your uncle, can he keep that up for 90 minutes?

TRUMP: Absolutely not. I think some of the conditions of the debate that his team agreed to will make the situation even worse for him. Having his mic muted, not having an audience, all of those play to his weaknesses. And I think it, as the debate continues, especially as President Biden shows up completely prepared to run circles around a much inferior candidate, Donald will not be able to contain himself for that long.

BLITZER: We're still trying to confirm where Donald Trump's immediate family will be tonight. Mary. We're wondering about Melania, Ivanka, Jared Kushner, son-in-law, if any of them show up, what does that say to you? Do you think they, first of all, will show up?

TRUMP: I have no inside knowledge of that, but I think we've seen over the last many months that they don't seem interested in supporting Donald in any active public way. That doesn't mean they won't show up. And if they do, I honestly don't think it means much. All of his relationships are transactional, and it would simply mean that they are keeping all of their options open. So, I don't make much of it at all either way.

BLITZER: Do you plan to campaign with President Biden in the days, weeks, and months ahead? And what can we expect from you over this coming period?

TRUMP: I am available to help the Biden campaign in any way I can. I would be honored to be of service to them in any capacity. But outside of that, I'll continue to do what I've been doing since the 20 -- before the 2020 election to speak out against Donald. He is an authoritarian want to be. He would be terrible for the future of this country and its citizens, as he's proven time and time again. And President Biden is the man for our time. And I will do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible support him as much as I do.


BLITZER: Mary Trump, thanks so much for joining us.

TRUMP: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Kaitlan, we're showing our viewers, as you well know, these live pictures over at the Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport. We expect Donald Trump to be walking down those stairs momentarily. This is a huge, huge deal that's coming up at this debate tonight, and it potentially could set the stage for an eventual outcome of the actual election. It's going to be watched by tens of millions of Americans. Indeed, people all over the world will be watching as well, Kaitlan?

COLLINS: Yes, well, it's more eyeballs than either of these candidates have gotten probably in this entire campaign season as they have both been battling it out with relatively stable polling, as we've seen. Obviously, one thing that's different about this debate that we have emphasized is there is no audience here. So you will not see the typical, you know, huge line of surrogates and allies that are seated in the audience for these candidates, but they will have some that they are bringing with them. They will be here in the spin room after the debate to talk about their respective candidate's performance.

And so that's one thing I'm watching as we see former President Trump in moments come down these stairs is who is accompanying him on this trip. Are members of his family with him? We obviously know members of his campaign that have been down with him at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, are going to be there with him. And they are indeed on the plane with him. They've been rehearsing and practicing as they've made their way here to Atlanta, Georgia.

The other thing, Wolf, course, is the second contest that's happening tonight is the Veep stakes that is still very much playing out. We heard a few days ago Donald Trump say he does believe likely the person he is going to be on the ticket, the person is going to pick to be on the ticket with him, will be accompanying him on this trip. They'll be here in the spin room.

We know Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, three names that have been mentioned repeatedly in the last several days are expected to be here to spin on Donald Trump's behalf. No word yet of if he's actually selected one of them to be his running mate, though, Wolf. So all of this is obviously, we'll be watching the main show, the two of them on stage tonight. But all of this is also a key part of the campaign as well.

BLITZER: I want to know, Kaitlan, you've covered Trump now for the past several years and you've watched him closely. Were you surprised that his niece, Mary Trump, has now not only endorsed Biden, but has actually shown up here at this debate to speak out so aggressively in favor of Biden's election?

COLLINS: And, Wolf, I remember when Mary Trump first came public with her criticism of her uncle. You can hear a crowd at the airport right now chanting as Donald Trump is about to get off his plane, I should note. But, but Mary Trump came out and she was -- she eviscerated Trump. She was everywhere. She was on cable news. She was doing interviews. And those were questions we posed to Donald Trump when he was in the White House as President Trump, to his aides, because it was remarkable to see a member of his family come out and be so heavily critical of him.

Obviously, Mary Trump has continued to do so. She has written books about it, as have other people in his orbit, and talked about this. And I do think that's another part of this that could come up tonight is when you see Donald Trump and his aides descend these stairs. He also has a slew of former advisers, cabinet officials, his own vice president who served with him, Mike Pence, ran against him for the GOP nomination and have criticized him and said he should not be back inside the White House. That's another thing we could see President Biden bring up on the debate stage tonight, Wolf, because he's used it in campaign ads against Donald Trump, that those who around him and are closest to him.

And as you just interviewed Mary, Wolf, there in that fascinating moment that have now since criticized him and said he shouldn't be back in the White House.

BLITZER: And I'm wondering, Kaitlan, give me your thoughts when he walks down these stairs. He has now landed. He's at the Atlanta airport. He's going to walk down a small crowd of Trump supporters, as you know, has gathered at the airport on the tarmac over there. Do you think the former president is actually going to go over and talk to these people a little bit? Do you think he's going to make a statement to the media which are there, or you think he's just going to get into the car and drive off?

COLLINS: Yes, we may see some retail politics, Wolf. I mean, we saw that when President Biden landed here earlier. He made an unexpected pit stop. He greeted some supporters of his before then making his way over to the hotel, where, of course, he was waiting and hanging out until he makes his way over here to the debate hall. Donald Trump, often when he gets off of his plane, whether it's at a rally or even when he was inside the White House and he was pulling up in White House events and there would be a crowd gathered.


They greet local officials typically when they get off the plane, and then they go and greet their supporters. One thing I should note, Wolf, is you saw the current mayor of Atlanta and the previous mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is now working as a surrogate for the Biden campaign, greeting President Biden when he got off Air Force One.

The governor here, Governor Brian Kemp, that you just interviewed in the last hour, Wolf, is not expected to be there greeting former President Trump. They haven't spoken in quite some time ever since they had an incredibly contentious relationship and a major fracture when Kemp didn't do what Trump wanted to do, wanted him to do to try to help overturn the election results here in the state of Georgia. So that's another factor as you're looking at Trump arriving here in Georgia.

You know, it was just a little over a year ago that Donald Trump was here when he was indicted in the Georgia election interference case, had his mugshot taken. That's about 3 miles from where I'm sitting right now. We were here covering it all. So there are just so many layers to this arrival here, Wolf, to seeing Donald Trump as he is preparing to come here to debate Joe Biden on stage in just a few hours from now.

BLITZER: Kaitlan, I want you to stand by. I want to bring in right now one of Donald Trump's vice presidential contenders, a Republican congressman from Florida, Byron Donalds. Thanks so much, Congressman, for joining us. I know you've arrived. You support Trump big time. What does a win for him look like tonight?

REP. BYRON DONALDS (R-FL): Well, Wolf, is good to be with you. I will tell you, success tonight is creating that direct contrast between the terrible agenda of Joe Biden and a successful agenda when Donald Trump was president of the United States. You have two clear contrasts in the way this country should go. That would be success tonight.

BLITZER: We're seeing the former president getting off the plane right now. He's about to walk down those stairs, but he's waving to a group of supporters who have gathered there on the tarmac. I'm curious to see if he's actually going to go over there and speak with them, shake some hands, talk to the media a little bit. So hold on one second as we watch this unfold, Congressman. We'll discuss this and a lot more in just a moment. But let's see what he does right now as he's getting down these stairs. And let's see if he walks over and sees some of these supporters or goes right to the car, to the limo and heads off to the debate.

He's going to the car. He's not going to go to the supporters. He's got his van right there. So, Congressman, what do you think? What are your expectations for tonight?

DONALDS: I think Donald Trump's going to be very clear. He's going to be very direct to the American people about what his agenda means in their lives on an individual basis, what it means for our country overall, what it means for our standing in the world. And you don't have to look very far to look at the stark contrast when looking at what Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have done with the United States. Our standing around the world has fallen.

There are conflicts across the globe. Inflation has ravaged the purchasing power of so many Americans, especially working families and seniors on fixed incomes. And then you look at our border. The drug cartels have operational control over our southern border, trafficking millions and millions of people and deadly fentanyl into the streets of America. The picture could not be starker. Donald Trump has the prescription to save our country.

BLITZER: You know, as you know, Congressman, President Biden has argued that Trump is only working for himself, not working for Americans. If Trump lists his grievances, including about his criminal trials, will he prove Biden right tonight?

DONALDS: Well, actually, if anybody is going to be bringing that stuff up, Wolf, it's going to be Joe Biden, because he has nothing else to talk about. He's got nothing to run on except what he wants to bring up in terms of slights against President Trump. If you've watched the President on the campaign trail, he's been focused on the American people. Of course, he brings up what happened in lower Manhattan. His constitutional rights were violated in that courtroom. That's why everybody believes that case is going to be overturned.

But at the end of the day, he has been laser focused on the American people. It's Joe Biden that wants to go back four years and talk about January 6th. It's Joe Biden who wants to talk about these threats to democracy, which, frankly, Joe Biden is the one that's bringing to our country.

BLITZER: We see Trump's vehicle leaving the airport now, driving away from the plane, from the tarmac and heading to where I am right now here at the site of the presidential debate tonight. He's going to be heading over here fair very soon for this major debate tonight. As you know, Congressman, this week Trump asked some of his supporters if he should be nasty or nice during the course of this debate. What do you think? What advice would you give him? Should he be nasty or should he be nice?

DONALDS: Wolf, if I'll tell you, I think he's going to be direct. He's going to present leadership. And when a time comes where he's going to have to push back, he's going to push back. And if the time comes back where he needs to push back hard, he's going to do that, too. This is not about naughty or nice. We're not talking about Christmas presents here. We're talking about leadership for the American people. He's going to demonstrate that mantle of leadership. That's what you're going to see tonight from Donald Trump.


BLITZER: One quick final question. Do you want to be his running mate? DONALDS: Of course. Who wouldn't? Listen, I'm in it to make sure, number one, we win this election, but number two, we save our country. We got the best country in the world. Obviously, we have our own problems. But we are the best thing going today. It is a shame what's happening to America right now. We can do better. And I'll tell you this, whether it's me or anybody on that list, it'll be a significant upgrade over Kamala Harris.

BLITZER: Republican Congressman Byron Donalds of Florida, thanks so much for joining us.

DONALDS: Thank you.

BLITZER: And let me bring in our panelist here with me in Atlanta. And, Jamie, let's talk a little bit about this historic night right now. What should we be looking for? What are you going to be looking for once this debate actually gets underway?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it's the things we don't know, the surprises. Are they going to shake hands when these two men come together? What will the energy be in the room? We've heard, you know, we know that the mics will be muted. That's not so good for Donald Trump because he likes to interrupt, but there are other ways to interrupt. I think we all remember when he debated Hillary Clinton and they were sitting on two stools and he started walking back and forth. So you don't need your voice. And Donald Trump is a showman. He will figure out how to get attention.

BLITZER: Do you think they'll shake hands?

GANGEL: I do think they'll shake hands. I do.

BLITZER: All right. Let's see.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, I think also it's -- just to take a step back here, Wolf. There will be so many voters tonight who have been tuned out of politics, have really not been paying attention to anything that has happened in the last four years, may have their impression about what Joe Biden has done in office, not by basically what he said, but maybe with some, a friend has said or may have not paying attention to anything that Trump has done over the past four years and may have forgotten what the Trump presidency is like. Those voters often called in political terms, low information voters, are going to be key targets, of course, for Trump and Biden.

Can Trump appear presidential, alleviate the concerns of some of those voters who are concerned about his character, this bombast, things they didn't like. And for Biden, concerns about his age, his ability to do the job. Can he show them that he can stand there for 90 minutes and deliver a convincing argument about his vision for the future? That is going to be the key test for both of them, because there are going to be so many new voters who are tuning in tonight who will be weighing in for looking at him for the first time, essentially.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: And, you know, he's got real constituency work to do. Biden does. He's here in Georgia. This is a state that he won by about 12,000 votes in 2020. It's an electorate that could be something like 30 percent African American. You saw him there on the tarmac when he arrived, you know, sort of the royalty of the black political class in Atlanta.

And so he's got to figure out how to bring those voters back in higher numbers to the democratic fold, also young voters, Latino voters, and also suburban women voters. You know, Georgia is really, I think, a real test case for him. Can he do that kind of work here tonight? And I think, you know, it's obviously what Trump has to do, too. He's got some constituency work to do, too, reaching across the aisle, trying to get some of those independent voters and sort of Nikki Haley voters who are disaffected with him primarily on grounds around, you know, his morality and his character and his temperament. How does he do that tonight?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC CORRESPONDENT: And I think you can actually pull out Manu's point even further. It's not just low information voters, Wolf, or low propensity voters. I think it's voters generally, right? People have been very tuned out. People have been very apathetic. There are a lot of reasons why it has been a dramatic and really difficult last three, four, five years for a lot of people who aren't excited, at least according to polling by a significant margin, about the candidates they have and about a rematch.

This is the moment. Tens of millions of people, whether they want it to or not, are going to be watching tonight because they want to know. And there's a very real possibility, particularly, there's a second debate scheduled. We don't know necessarily whether or not it's going to happen. There's a lot of kind of chatter on both sides that this may be it. This may be kind of the last, final, best moment for both of these candidates to demonstrate, not just trying to get away from perceptions that they believe are inaccurate, but also they have dramatically divergent policy positions and what they believe the next four years should look like.

This is an opportunity for both of them tonight. But more importantly, it's an opportunity for voters to see these individuals, not clips of them, not snippets of them, not what they remember from four or six years ago, to see what they want to do.

BLITZER: You know, Jamie, it was noticeable that when Trump got off the plane and walked down those stairs, he walked down by himself. I didn't see Melania or any other family member walking down. And when he got into that vehicle by himself.

GANGEL: Yes. We've seen no family thus far. We have no reason to believe that Melania is going to be coming. He did something else when he walked down the stairs. We're replaying it now. He's looking down at those stairs very carefully when he walks. He stops. He does the fist thing. But then he's back watching every single one of those steps. We have two old men here, not just one. We've talked a lot about Joe Biden being old. Donald Trump is, too.

[17:45:25] I'm hearing -- I reached out, I think, to about 20 or 25 sources, Republicans and Democrats, to ask them what they thought about tonight, particularly Biden sources. They are worried. They want, quote, a knockout punch. They want Biden to trigger Trump, to get under his skin. And they want him to talk about democracy in peril, that he's a convicted felon, twice impeached January 6th. One thing I heard from both sides, they're both nervous about the debates. I'm just going to read one last thing.

One source sent me this. Remember Dan Rather's famous quotes -- quote, I feel more nervous than a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. But everybody I texted, they're all watching.

RAJU: Yes, yes. Look, so much of it is going to be stylistically how he responds because Biden, you know, Trump was going to lay out a number of attacks against Joe Biden, of course. Will Biden just go through a laundry list of things, responding to each charge? That is not actually what Democrats want. That's not what operatives say he should do. He should respond maybe one thing and then turn an attack back against Donald Trump. That is a much more effective debate strategy.

But what you see so many times, and especially incumbent presidents, when they come in, they get very defensive right away, and they'll go back and lay out a laundry list of their accomplishments. And that is not necessarily what's going to create a debate moment because those moments oftentimes define the perception of the debates.

BLITZER: And let's not forget tens and tens of millions of Americans will be watching this debate. Many of them are presumably undecided. We'll see they make up their minds and how it goes. Everybody stand by. We're just over three hours from the start of tonight's CNN presidential debate. President Biden and former President Trump are now both here in Atlanta. You saw Trump arrive just moments ago. We're back with more of our special coverage right after this.



COLLINS: Tonight, as Donald Trump is battling President Biden on the debate stage, another battle is going to be unfolding right outside the battle that is to be Donald Trump's running mate. His top vice presidential contenders like senators J.D. Vance and Marco Rubio, also North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, they are among several potential picks who are going to be here in Atlanta to show support for him. My panel is back with me. And Bakari, it is fascinating to see one debate playing out, one contest and then another one that is going to be playing out right here in the spin room after. And I think the question is if you are seeking to be Donald Trump's vice president, you know, how do you -- how do you distinguish yourself after a debate? Obviously, television's his favorite medium.

SELLERS: You know, I think that it is, it requires a certain level of being a sycophant that I don't think I'm capable of doing. It requires you setting aside most of what you've achieved or attempted to do that lane, you tried to cut out for yourself. I think the best example of that is probably somebody like Tim Scott, who is a friend of mine and who has somewhat changed, who we knew him to be throughout this process.

But, you know, and it's also hard because usually when you're attempting to get a job such as this, you want to at least have some relationship and know what that person is thinking. When Kamala Harris went through the process, Gretchen Whitmer went through the process, and I can't remember who the third possible candidate was. Kamala Harris literally knew Joe Biden, knew his thought process, came up with him, knew his son, Beau.

And so it was those relationships that mattered. I personally don't think, and I may be wrong, but if I were betting, I would say that Donald Trump's not going to pick any of them. I think that it's going to be a wild card. I think Donald Trump picks somebody like Ben Carson, who he has an amazing relationship with. I think he picked somebody like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, which is also somewhat of a wild card. And I think that if he was serious about winning, he'd pick Nikki Haley. The one who terrifies most democrats, though, is Marco Rubio.

COLLINS: Well, obviously, fundraising is going to be a huge part of whoever it is he picks. Axios is reporting about the RNC holding a fundraiser in a watch party. The tickets are going for $10,000 per couple, $25,000 for a seat at a table with a Trump surrogate. And all that's playing out as he's also very interested in who is going to boost his ticket, maybe not with voters, but certainly at least when it comes to fundraising.

SINGLETON: I mean, I look at this in two ways, Kaitlan. I think you need someone who can boost Donald Trump in the eyes of some swing voters who may not, maybe skeptical of him, maybe they're not comfortable voting for him, but with the right person, who's moderate, the right temperament, they could say, OK, I'll vote for him. I think that's why he chose Mike Pence, not only because of the evangelicals, but Pence did, for a lot of conservatives, bring a level of calm to Trump's chaos.

With that said, I do think you also want someone who can raise a lot of money and donors who don't like Trump, who are skeptical of Trump, who are slow to come on board, would probably be more comfortable with someone like a Rubio, with someone like a Dr. Carson. And so I think Trump has to be careful with whomever he chooses.

COLLINS: I mean, you mentioned Mike Pence. It is notable, Mike, what happened to Mike Pence, which we're all going to call that. It doesn't seem to give any of these candidates pause. I've spoken with at least Senator J.D. Vance about that, and he was, he downplayed what happened to Mike Pence on January --

SOLTIS-ANDERSON: Well, and the Mike Pence experience has made Donald Trump say that loyalty is one of the most important things to him. And that's why I think when you're looking at the boxes that these folks have to check in the great Apprentice vice presidential edition, that we're going to watch unfold. Loyalty, the ability to be a fighter, and somebody who looks good on T.V., somebody who fills the role, who looks the part, I think that's who he's going to be looking for.


So that could mean somebody like a Doug Burgum who comes to the table with a great deal of business success. We know Donald Trump thinks that's very important. The state of North Dakota has actually been doing great. He has an interesting record to run on there. He would be a steadying hand in addition to the fact that, you know, he, again, he's kind of this alternate universe Mitt Romney type character now. But does that hurt him, though? Is he going to be as aggressive out there as somebody like a J.D. Vance or an Elise Stefanik who has been known for going on T.V. and being more of that kind of pit bull in his corner?

ALLISON: You know what crazy is that in none of that, was it that they could be the president of the United States. Donald Trump is 78 years old and whoever is his presidential pick could become president. And that's not a part of the conversation, which is, I think, hypocritical in the Republican Party.

COLLINS: We are getting closer. We got to stand by, take a quick break. I do want to hear everyone's thoughts on the Veep stakes as we will see them here behind us in this room as we are getting even closer to the presidential debate tonight.

Up next, the messages that we are hearing from both campaigns, those final messages well ahead of the face off.