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Biden And Trump On Historic CNN Presidential Debate; Trump Tells Black Business Leaders His Conviction And Mugshot Strengthen His Appeal To Black & Hispanic Voters; Bloomberg: Supreme Court Briefly Posts Abortion Ruling On Website; Biden And Trump On Eve Of Historic CNN Presidential Debate; Russia Begins Closed-Door Trial For U.S. Journalist Evan Gershkovich. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired June 26, 2024 - 17:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now the final countdown to CNN's historic presidential debate with just one day to go before President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump go head to head right here in Atlanta. We're getting new behind the scenes details on how the candidates hope to impress voters and attack one another.

We're also following a breaking story the United States Supreme Court reportedly tips its hand briefly posting a draft ruling on a pivotal abortion case. We're breaking down the apparent decision and how it was mistakenly released.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Atlanta, and you're in the Situation Room.

We're coming to you live from CNN studios in Atlanta, the backdrop for the first debate between a sitting president and a former U.S. president in the history of this country. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump now in the final stages of their very different forms of preparation for tomorrow's critically important debate. CNN's political team is here in force working their sources just ahead of this unprecedented event.

Kristen Holmes, I want to start with you. You've got some new reporting, I take it, on the Trump team's plans and how they're going about what's about to happen.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we were talking a lot about the format in recent days, and how this would affect whether it be Donald Trump or President Joe Biden. And one of the things that I had noticed was a real shift in how the Trump team was discussing the format. Now of course, unsurprisingly, they were complaining about it originally talking about how this was actually going to hurt Donald Trump, because he didn't have an audience to work off of that muted mics might hurt him. But now what I've started to hear from the Trump team is that they're hoping that this actually helps him talking about this idea that particularly because there is no audience that Donald Trump can't get distracted. I mean, what we have seen over and over again in these various rallies is Donald Trump really feeding off of his base, feeding off of their sometimes enthusiasm to go on these rants, which is exactly the opposite of what they want Donald Trump doing.

What they really want Donald Trump to do is to focus on three key issues the economy, particularly inflation, immigration and crime, because if you look at recent polling, those are the areas in which he outperforms President Joe Biden. So even if there are questions and they're preparing him for, questions on abortion or on democracy, what they want him to do is figure out how to pivot to those three -- to those three issues. And what they're hoping is that this lack of audience will help with that.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Isn't there a possibility, though, that if his mic is muted, he'll get angry, and that he'll talk over a muted mic, and could make it worse than they then they want rather than calm him down it could rev him up?

HOLMES: Well, it has been interesting to see the reflection that Donald Trump has done, something that we don't often see from the former president of watching old clips of himself. He actually said in a rather candid interview with the Washington Examiner that he thought he interrupted Joe Biden too much --

BORGER: Right.

HOLMES: -- in 2020. So clearly something that he is paying attention to. Now, whether or not that stops him, obviously, no one can control Donald Trump and no one can say they will, but clearly, somebody's paying attention to.

BLITZER: MJ, you have some new reporting on Biden advisors who have been watching Trump and what Trump has been saying in recent days.

MJ LEE, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, the Biden team has essentially been watching really closely, everything that Kristen just laid out all of the expectation setting that they've been doing, including really downplaying how much debate prep they've actually been doing. They're not spending a lot of time on debate prep, there are no formal sessions. They basically think that none of that is true. They actually believe that on Thursday night, the Trump version that we will end up seeing could end up being the most prepared that Donald Trump has ever been heading into a debate. One advisor I was talking to was making note of the fact that Trump even commented recently on watching and seeing and making notes on when President Biden when he was vice president, going up against Paul Ryan.

So that sort of shows you what the Biden team is actually expecting. They expect him to be more prepared, perhaps than we've ever seen him. They're also very attuned to the fact that they have now up the expectations for President Biden after months of saying he's not physically all there, he's not mentally all they are now all of a sudden he's supposed to be this formidable candidate on the debate stage.


I will say in the final sort of hours as we head into tomorrow, it is really about fine tuning those details. They are in mock debate sessions. They have the president's lawyer behind the podium standing next to the President doing the full run throughs. And we know from speaking to aides at the experience that they want to give the President is that having him sort of experience everything that might come up in those 90 minutes.

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny, what are the steaks for tomorrow? Steaks are going to be really important. But what would be a win for either side?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're tremendously high. I mean, this isn't hyperbole to say it's a historic setting. But the history books don't offer a lot of examples, because we've never seen this before. But the reason that this debate is the earliest in presidential campaign history is because both sides see an imperative here to kind of up in this race, to unstick this race, if you will. But for President Biden, I think beyond anything to show that he is not only in control, a strong leader, but he is capable and fit to serve a second term.

That is one of the questions when you talk to Democratic voters and others. How's he doing? So I think his appearance is going to be -- and his stamina will be central to this, but it's also his record. He's done many debates over the course of his time, but never one like this, never one where his sort of own stewardship and record of the economy of inflation is going to be agenda item A here. So yes, I'm told by one advisor he wants to remind people what the Trump presidency was like, sort of chaotic and the like, but also he'll be defending his own record, which he hasn't done a lot of.

So win for him is looking strong. But I think for the former president, a win for him is being calm and saying, look, are you better off than you were at the beginning of my term or right now economically speaking?

BLITZER: Gloria Borger.

BORGER: Yes. In talking to Biden advisor, I think one of the things that they really want to do is make the case that Donald Trump doesn't deserve to be president of the United States, period. That's it. He doesn't deserve it. Look at who he is, felony convictions, whatever.

Look at what he's done. Look at what he says he's going to do in the future, because he hasn't kept it a secret. And they want Biden to make the case that this is not somebody deserving of the highest office, in the land. And that they want to do that in a way that points out exactly what Donald Trump has been talking about, which perhaps people haven't been paying that much attention to, right? And so, they're going to -- they're going to raise it.

Look, this is what he says, mass deportations. This is what -- so I think it's kind of one of his challenges, which is to say, this man doesn't deserve to be in the Oval Office. BLITZER: You know, Kristen, I know that Trump made some rather controversial comments to black business leaders about his mugshot. Talk about that.

HOLMES: Yes, I mean, this is something he is that kind of before just not directly to black business leaders, but he has said it in rallies before. I mean, two things can be true at once, which are is often the case when it comes to Donald Trump. He is seeing a spike, obviously, that he's not going to win over black voters in total, but he is seeing a spike among minority voters, particularly black and Latino voters. Now, that is a true part of this.

But the other part of this is what he is saying in attributing to that spike, which we heard today. So, let's take a listen to that.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's just a terrible thing. It's weaponization, and it comes out of the White House, even when it's city and state comes out of the White House in order to attack a political opponent. But since that happened, the black support -- I think by representatives will tell you this, the black support has gone through the roof. And I guess they equated to problems that they've had. But since this has happened, like the mug shot, the mug shot is the best thing.


HOLMES: Obviously, these are controversial remarks, because he is acquainting himself to what has been persecution of African Americans for decades in the United States of America and saying that his mugshot over his legal crimes are -- his legal problems are linked to them. So obviously a controversial remark, something he clearly believes to be true. But again, they are seeing some kind of movement within the black community in terms of voters. He himself is equating it to this.

BLITZER: Interesting. Gloria, what's your reaction?

BORGER: Well, I think it's absurd. I mean, I think what he's saying is that black voters can relate to criminality. That they look at his mug shot and they say, oh, yes, I can relate to that. Felonies, yes, oh, yes, I can relate to that. Sure.


I've been unjustly convicted of things in my own life. And I think that it's insulting, to be honest, to the black community. And obviously Trump doesn't mean for it to be insulting because he's looking for black support, but it is incredibly insulting to say to black voters, oh, yes, this is something maybe you can relate to, and that's why my numbers are going up.

BLITZER: All right, there's a lot going on. And we're only just getting started this hour. Thanks to all of you. Coming up, the moderator of the first Trump Biden debate back in 2020, CNN's Chris Wallace, joins us live to discuss the challenges of keeping the candidates on topic after that famously chaotic face off. And the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to side with the Biden administration in a major abortion case. We have details on the premature reveal of the decision. We're live here in Atlanta, and you're in the Situation Room.



BLITZER: We're back with our live coverage from here in Atlanta on this the eve of CNNs groundbreaking presidential debate, giving voters an earlier than ever chance to compare the candidates side by side. Right now let's take a deeper dive into the rules for this upcoming debate that both candidates have agreed to. Here's CNN Phil Mattingly.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to the set of the CNN presidential debate. We want to give our viewers a sense of the rules of the debate so that when they watch it, they can understand how President Biden and President Trump will be engaging with each other.

Tomorrow night just after 9:00 p.m. Eastern President Biden will enter from the right side of your screen. President Trump will enter from the left side of your screen. The podiums are eight feet apart directly across from them. The moderators, CNN's Jake Tapper and Dana Bash.

Now, a reminder, this is a television studio there's no audience. Candidates will have two minutes to answer questions and one minute for responses and rebuttals. At the moderators discretion there may be an additional minute for follow ups, clarifications or responses.

So how does a candidate know how much time is left to speak? Attached to the cameras in the studio and in the candidates' field of view are the timing lights. When the light show yellow, there are 15 seconds left in a candidate's answer or response. When the lights flash red, there are five seconds left. And when the display is solid red, the time is up.

At that point the candidates microphone will be turned off, and the other candidate will have their microphone turned on. My colleague, Victor Blackwell, has more on that.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Phil. If we go behind the podiums, you can see two green lights. When they're on they signaled to the candidate his microphone is on. When the green lights are off they've signaled to the candidate his microphone is off.

Now I want to give you a sense of what it will look like for viewers at home if a candidate whose microphone is off interrupts a candidate whose microphone is on. So I'm standing at one podium, and I'll ask Phil to come in and take the other podium. And so let's say I'm answering a question. My light is green, and I'm speaking Phil's microphone is off and his green lights are not illuminated. He's going to interrupt me as I'm speaking and this is what it will sound like.

My volume remains constant while Phil's interruption can be difficult to understand.

MATTINGLY: Let's try the opposite. My microphone is now on, Victor's microphone is off and he's going to interrupt me. My volume remains constant while Victor's interruption can be difficult to understand.

A CNN's production team has shared this demonstration with the campaign's earlier today and we're sharing it with you, our viewers, so everyone fully understands how tomorrow night will work. Now, we should note, by agreeing to participate in this debate, both campaigns and candidates have also agreed to abide by these rules. The CNN presidential debate airs live tomorrow night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern

BLITZER: Phil Mattingly and Victor Blackwell, to both of you, thank you very much.

Let's talk a little bit more about what to expect tomorrow night with the moderator of the very first Biden-Trump debate back in 2020, CNN Anchor Chris Wallace is joining me here in the Situation Room.

Chris, thanks very much. Let me play a clip from that 2020 debate. Remind you and our viewers --


BLITZER: -- one little segment that happened.


TRUMP: He's a racist.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You're the worst president America has ever had. Come on.

TRUMP: Did you use the word smart? So you said you went to Delaware State but you forgot the name of your college?

BIDEN: The question --

TRUMP: The news to bring more justice --

BIDEN: The question --

TRUMP: -- radical left.

BIDEN: Will you shut up, man?

TRUMP: Who is -- listen, who is on your list, Joe? Who is on your list?

BIDEN: This is so -- this is --

WALLACE: All right, gentlemen, I think we --

BIDEN: This is so unpresidential.


BLITZER: Chris, like that debate, this one is a critical moment in this presidential campaign. Give us the stakes here. What's your assessment?

WALLACE: Oh, I think it's enormously consequential. I think maybe more so for Joe Biden than Donald Trump. But whoever has a good night versus whoever has a bad night, it's going to be a big deal.

And I say that Biden because he's the one who asked for this early debate, you know, this is -- the earliest debate ever had been September 19 of 1980, now we're going to have one in June. And I think that the reason the Biden camp called for this is because in the swing states that were behind, they feel that they need to sharpen the contrast and to emphasize the stakes of this race. And that there may be some Trump amnesia, people may have forgotten some of the things that Donald Trump did as president and since he's been President, and they want to remind him.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. The recent interview is, you know, with the Washington Examiner, Trump said this about the debate you moderated back in 2020. He said this, and I'm quoting him now, "I was very aggressive in the first one. The second one, I was different, and I got great marks on the second one." So what kind of Donald Trump are you expecting to show up tomorrow?

WALLACE: Well, it's interesting. It took them four years, but he finally admitted that he acted foolishly as a bully, crudely in the first debate and that it hurt him, it didn't hurt Biden. I think he thought if I just keep interrupting them it's going to throw him off. But as I say, I'd heard Trump not Biden.


In the second debate, he let Biden talk. And, you know, Biden makes mistakes of his own. And there was one famous moment in that second debate where Biden said I'm going to transition away from oil. And Trump said, a transition away from oil, hey, Texas, I hope you're listening to that. And I think that there -- who knows what's going to happen. But I think their plan going in is to let Biden talk war, not interrupt, and then counter punch when they think that he has stepped up.

BLITZER: What does it tell you about the fact that these two candidates are preparing for this debate in very, very different ways?

WALLACE: Well, you know, Biden is doing it the conventional way, although I have to say a week of preparation is pretty extreme. I've never heard.

BLITZER: He's been hunkered down at Camp David.

WALLACE: Oh, that, yes, with about a dozen people. And I wonder there's such a thing as over preparation. Trump, for whatever reason, has never liked the idea of formal debates. And you know, somebody playing his opponent, people playing the moderators. He likes to just wing it and discuss things with people.

That's just the Trump style. If he does, well, tomorrow, it'll work. If it doesn't, it'll be a bad idea.

BLITZER: Biden who clearly wanted this early debate to try to shake things up a bit in the polls that are ongoing right now, how does he do that?

WALLACE: I -- the talk is that he's going to be very forceful. This is coming from the White House, very forceful in pointing out the differences between them, obviously, on reproductive rights, on democracy, and just behavior and conduct and integrity. And you know, the fact that one of them is a convicted felon, yes, I'm sure Trump will strike back and talk about Hunter Biden, but that's the son, that's not the man himself. So I just think they felt if we continue in this way, we'll be in September, and we'll still be behind. We need to shake this race up.

And one way or the other for good or ill for both of these guys, tomorrow night will shake things up.

BLITZER: It certainly will. And will, of course, I'll be watching.

Chris Wallace, thank you very, very much.

And up next, the big headline back in Washington today in what appears to be an accidental bombshell from the United States Supreme Court, the High Court mistakenly posting a key document online, giving a major clue in one of the most closely watched outstanding cases.



BLITZER: Breaking news from the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices appearing to side with the Biden administration on a critical abortion case in Idaho according to Bloomberg News. The court accidentally posted a draft of the major ruling on its website before taking it down. A critically important development. Let's bring in CNN Senior Supreme Court Analyst Joan Biskupic.

Joan, what more can you tell us about this expected opinion? And how this so called accident may have happened?


We're down to the final days of this Supreme Court session. And this decision is one of the ones we have been waiting for. And frankly, it looks like it's surreal thing with probably some modifications that will occur over the next couple days. But if indeed it is surreal thing, and there's no reason to completely doubted. It said Idaho will not be able to enforce its ban on abortions for all women, except if to prevent a death. What the justices did was ensure that a federal law that dates to 1986 that guarantees emergency room treatment for needy patients, including someone who might come in with complications from a pregnancy and require an abortion to preserve her health. That was where the split was if an abortion can be done in emergency situations, as opposed to only to prevent death as the Idaho law said.

Now, Wolf, here's the key thing. According to the draft opinion that's been put up by Bloomberg News, it looks like the courts split 63 to dismiss the case. Six justices said that they had intervened too early in this matter, and indeed the merits are still being resolved in lower court hearings. But this is a -- while this is a win, as you've noted in the introduction, for the Biden administration at this stage, the liberal justices pointed out that this is no permanent victory for women's reproductive rights. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, according to a partial dissent, that was part of the opinion that Bloomberg posted said that, you know, do not think of this is a victory. While the court dawdles and delays women have this uncertainty over exactly how abortion bans nationwide are intersection with this guarantee of emergency room treatment.

And let's just remind everyone that it was two years ago this month that the Supreme Court completely reversed constitutional abortion rights and several states including Idaho enacted bans. It's one of 14 states. So there's a lot of uncertainty out there about whether this federal law can at least preserve some abortion access in emergency room situations. And for now at least things will stay, Idaho will allow that for women, but more to come down the road, Wolf.

BLITZER: John Biskupic, thank you very much.


BLITZER: I want to bring in our CNN Legal Analyst right now, Carrie Cordero and Steve Vladeck. Carrie, we weren't supposed to learn about this ruling today. What's your reaction?


CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, if this really was just an accident, that the court put it up, I mean, accidents do happen. Something like this is really unusual for the Supreme Court. But there was -- it was a related opinion, a Dobbs opinion that was leaked and released early. So we'll see if the Court actually releases it. You know, the one thing I would say is the Court just from a perspective of managing a mistake, the Court issued a statement that said it would release the opinion in due course. And I do think that from a perspective of managing something like this, if they've made a mistake, and they know that they're going to release the opinion, tomorrow or Friday or Monday, then I think the court should just say that.

BLITZER: You know, Steve, as Joan reported, it certainly leaves a lot of uncertainty about emergency abortion care, doesn't it?

STEVE VLADECK, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It sure does, Wolf. And I think it's really important to distinguish between what's going to be true once this ruling comes down officially in Idaho, which is, as Joan says, if you are pregnant and have an emergency, you can go to your emergency room, and doctors will follow the federal rule, Wolf, versus states like Texas, where this ruling by dismissing the case won't have any effect. And where it is still the law based on a separate lawsuit that is still pending in Texas, that actually doctors cannot perform emergency abortions, except when necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman.

So, Wolf, I think we have to be very careful about what this means, all that the Supreme Court seems to be doing if this is the ruling we're getting is kicking the can down the road, maybe six months, maybe a year, not coincidentally, to the far side of the presidential election, where the only folks who will benefit in the short term are pregnant women in Idaho, in every other state in the country. You know, the laws still going to be pretty complicated about when if your state has an abortion ban, you're nevertheless eligible for emergency medical treatment, this ruling is not going to resolve any of that.

BLITZER: Interesting Carrie, we're still waiting on the Supreme Court opinions on Trump immunity and January 6th obstruction charges. What are the implications for Trump and indeed, for the country?

CORDERO: Well, they're enormous in both of those cases, but for different reasons. So the immunity case is relevant to President Trump, because if he were to win that case, then the January 6th, federal January 6th charges against him would be dropped. It also was important not just to him, but for the institution of the presidency. The obstruction case is also very important from the perspective of it would -- if the decision were to go against the use of the obstruction charge in the way that the Justice Department has prosecuted it, it would affect former President Trump by having if the charges against him go away, and it would affect potentially hundreds of January 6th defendants. So a ruling against the government in that case really would be something against how the Justice Department has prosecuted many of the January 6th cases.

BLITZER: And Steve, as you know, these are opinions with major, major political implications at a time when the court itself has dealt with a series of scandals.

VLADECK: I think that's right, Wolf. And part of I think what is so interesting about this glitch, the opinion that apparently was posted by accident today is, Wolf, it suggests that the opinion was ready to be handed down. And it begs the question, why didn't the court actually just release it today? What that suggests, Wolf, there's something that you and I have talked about before, which is that maybe the justices actually are a little bit strategic, not just about what they're saying in these decisions, but about when they're coming down.

Maybe they're well aware that the first presidential debate is tomorrow night. And so we're not going to get an immunity ruling or a January 6th ruling tomorrow, maybe not even Friday. And what that really underscores, Wolf, is that this is an institution that even though it says, even though it swears six ways from Sunday, that it's above politics, it's actually right in the middle of it. And maybe the more that it were to be candid about that, the easier it would be to see how its decisions should and should not be shaping our political debates.

BLITZER: Steve Vladeck and Carrie Cordero to both of you thank you very much.

Just ahead, with just hours until CNN's historic presidential debate, we'll take a closer look at some of the most memorable moments in past debates and the impact they had on the race.



SEN. LLOYD BENTSEN (D), FORMER VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.



BLITZER: All eyes are on CNN debate stage here in Atlanta, where President Biden and former President Trump will face off tomorrow night. It will be a new chapter in modern political history that's featured quite a few memorable debates over these many years. CNN's Brian Todd reports.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, so much debate history has been made in moments that no one saw coming. Tonight, we look at the most colorful moments in debate history, many of them involving mistakes made under an intense spotlight.


TODD (voice-over): For more than 60 years, televised presidential debates have provided us with extraordinary, decisive moments, which often changed the tenor of the race.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The candidates need no introduction.

TODD (voice-over): September 1960, in the very first televised presidential debate, Richard Nixon, who was ill, was visibly sweating compared to his cool and youthful opponent, John F. Kennedy.

TIMOTHY NAFTALI, FORMER DIRECTOR, NIXON PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY: When the two were viewed side by side and you asked yourself, whose finger would you like to be on the nuclear button? It became clear you didn't want the sweaty guy from California.

TODD (voice-over): In 1984, Ronald Reagan, then 73 years old, used humor to deftly deflect concerns about his age in a debate with Walter Mondale. RONALD REAGAN (R), FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.

NAFTALI: The effect was magical and politically devastating for Walter Mondale.

TODD (voice-over): Most of those defining moments came with no warning or calculation.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: A bad moment in a debate can hurt you significantly more than a good moment can help you.

TODD (voice-over): In the vice-presidential debate in 1988, Dan Quayle characterized himself as a Republican version of a young John Kennedy, which teed up his opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, perfectly.

BENTSEN: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

TODD (voice-over): That election season, Bentsen's running mate, Michael Dukakis, in his debate with George H.W. Bush, was asked a fateful question referencing his wife by CNN's Bernard Shaw.

BERNARD SHAW, FORMER CNN ANCHOR: Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life.

NAFTALI: It was terrible. This was his opportunity to show humanity, and instead he made himself look like more of a humorless, emotionless robot than he had seen before.

TODD (voice-over): There were the wordless missteps, the body language gaffes. 1992, George H.W. Bush looking out of touch by glancing at his watch when an audience member spoke about the lagging economy. 2000, Al Gore audibly sighs. And in another debate that year, Gore gets a little too close to George W. Bush on stage.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Any little tick or a habit that a candidate may have is something that voters could seize on and it could change the way they view the candidate.


TODD (on camera): If there are colorful moments like those in the debates coming up, analysts, Laura Barron-Lopez says they may be less impactful than those past moments were because she says so many voters have already made up their minds who they're going to vote for. And those moments no matter how colorful, they are, may simply not move the needle as much. Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much. Lots of history in these debates. So let's discuss with presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. Doug, thanks very much for joining us, what lessons should Biden and Trump each draw from these past, past presidential debates?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, not to be like Michael Dukakis or Richard Nixon, you want to be comfortable in your own skin, you want to be loose enough to not feel like you're uptight, you've got to -- you're projecting what American people are going to have to live with for the next four years. And the clips you played were great. But, you know, one has to wonder why did Nixon even agree to do four debates with John F. Kennedy. He was eight years of vice president for Eisenhower.

He's the first -- that's the first debate in U.S. history, not just televised first presidential debate, period, Lincoln-Douglas of 1858, was about Illinois. And he gave Kennedy the opening. I don't think without those -- if Nixon didn't debate, Nixon probably would have won in 1960. I think history is going to look on why are we doing this debate in the spring. So it's a big deal for CNN, it's a giant moment.

But the thing that, you know, we usually wait until September for this. So we're going to be looking at also a lot of body language now. People are going to be looking at those weird moments of eye rolls and, you know, strange gestures. And it's been helpful, Wolf, to see that the story of the microphones that even though they're turned off, somebody could mumble or talk and it could create a distraction for the other. So it's really a psychological warfare game between these two standing there, with Trump really seething that he has those 34 felony accounts and blames Biden for going after him.

BLITZER: As, you know, this will be the first time a current and a former president actually debate. It's the earliest debate in recent memory, and it's a complete transformation of the usual debate format, as you know, just how historic, Doug, is this moment?

BRINKLEY: Unbelievably historic. You can't hype up the importance of this for a couple of reasons. One is the wrap on Trump is, is he unhinged and mean spirited? We saw how terrible believe he did at a previous debate when finally Biden had to say shut up man. And even and Trump submitted with, you know, Chris Wallace and others that he was like over the top.


On the other hand, Biden has been getting the -- he's not, he's too old to be president wrap. So he needs to do what he did for the State of the Union address and seem to be really there, very present. And he's had a lot of practice. I mean, he's not only practicing at Camp David now, but all of his 30 plus years in the U.S. Senate and vice presidency, and also, both are coming in with their A game, with the Biden hyper prepared and Trump kind of winging it, and being more about intuition and seizing the moment.

BLITZER: Douglas Brinkley, thank you very much for that historic analysis.

BRINKLEY: Thanks Wolf. BLITZER: And be sure to tune in to CNN tomorrow night, when President Biden and former President Trump face off in their first debate moderated by my colleagues and friends Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. It's at 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Coming up, a live report on day one of the espionage trial against American journalist Evan Gershkovich in Russia.



BLITZER: We're live here in Atlanta just one day out from our CNN debate. But there's other important news we're following right now as well. We're getting a new look at American journalist, Evan Gershkovich, who appeared in a Russian courtroom today and this is closed door trial actually begins. He's been detained now for some 15 months accused of spying for the CIA, something the U.S. government, "The Wall Street Journal" and Gershkovich all strongly, strongly denied. CNN's Matthew Chance brings us this report.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CHIEF GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the first glimpse of Evan Gershkovich for months, cameras briefly allowed into the courthouse about 1,000 miles from Moscow, where his trial for espionage is finally underway. His head shaved, the 32-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter looked calm. But he faces a sentence of up to 20 years if all likely when he's found guilty. The statement the editor-in-chief of the Journal, wrote, this bogus accusation of espionage will inevitably lead to a bogus conviction for an innocent man.

CHANCE: Hi. I'm Matthew from CNN. Are you holding up all right? No, no questions.

CHANCE (voice-over): Nearly 15 months, Gershkovich has been held under tight security in Moscow's notorious Lefortovo Prison. He, his employer and the U.S. government will vigorously deny the spying allegations against him. But Russia appears determined to press ahead, despite the official U.S. objections. A new statement from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow says Evans did not commit any illegal acts and should not have been arrested at all. This trial isn't about the presentation of evidence due process or the rule of law. We're talking about the Kremlin using American citizens to achieve its political goals, the statement ads.

With the conflict raging in Ukraine, Russia began a crackdown at home on free speech and silencing dissidents or forcing them into exile. It's against this backdrop that Gershkovich was arrested on a reporting assignment in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. This is video from the website of the tank factory there were Russian Prosecutors alleged Gershkovich acted, quote, on the instructions of the CIA to collect secret information. Although no evidence has been made public, the trial will take place in the city, which is about 1,000 miles from Moscow amid an outcry. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Journalism is not a crime.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Journalism is not a crime.

CHANCE (voice-over): Some of the most prominent journalists in the United States are calling for his release. And Tucker Carlson even appealed directly to Putin in his recent sit down.

TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: And I just want to ask you directly without getting into the details of it or your version of what happened if as a sign of your decency, you will be willing to release him to us and we'll bring him back to the United States?

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): We have done so many gestures of goodwill out of decency that I think we have run out of them.

CHANCE (voice-over): But they're not running out of Americans in Russian prisons far from it.

PAUL WHELAN, FORMER U.S. MARINE: I'm innocent of any charge -- political kidnapping.

CHANCE (voice-over): Former Marine Paul Whelan is serving 16 years. What U.S. officials say were trumped up spying charges. Dual citizens, Ksenia Karelina an amateur ballerina from L.A. and journalist Alsu Kurmasheva were also in custody. As our Gordon Black, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army and U.S. school teacher Marc Fogel. Critics suspect the Kremlin is collecting U.S. citizens as bargaining chips for a future deal. With his trial for espionage now underway, Evan Gershkovich is one of the most valuable in the Kremlin's hand.


CHANCE (on camera): And Wolf, you can imagine how difficult it must be to see a loved one in that dire situation. Well, tonight the family of Evan Gershkovich, after those court proceedings took place, issued a very emotional statement talking about their pain for them and for Evan over the past 15 months and their disappointment at what they call the attempts to discredit and paint an unrecognizable picture of him. They also called on the U.S. government to do everything it can to bring Evan home off. Wolf?

BLITZER: And let's hope he gets home soon. Matthew Chance, thank you very, very much.


Coming up, we're on the eve of the biggest moment yet of the 2024 presidential campaign when all eyes will be on here in Atlanta Georgia for tomorrow's historic debate between President Biden and former President Trump. We'll take you inside the debate hall and give you an up close tour right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Happening now, we're taking you inside the CNN debate hall where presidential history will unfold a little over 24 hours from now. Standby for new details on the candidate's debate prep. President Biden planning to portray Donald Trump as dangerous as Trump allies are urging the former president to focus on issues not his grievances. CNN's political team is breaking it all down this hour.