Yahoo News discusses the final presidential debate before candidates take the stage

Yahoo News Editor in Chief Dan Klaidman and Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff are joined by Yahoo reporters Hunter Walker and Brittany Shepherd to discuss the final presidential debate in Nashville on Thursday night.

Video Transcript

DAN KLAIDMAN: Hi, everyone. I'm Dan Klaidman, editor-in-chief of Yahoo News. And we are just moments away from the second and final debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. We are looking live at the debate stage at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, where many may be wondering whether we're going to see a spectacle like the last time these two men squared off just a few weeks ago. And Donald Trump tried steamrolling Biden with his combative tone and constant interruptions, one commentator memorably calling it a "hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck."

I'm joined by my colleague Mike Isikoff, Yahoo News's chief investigative correspondent, and my co-host on the "Skullduggery" podcast; Hunter Walker, chief-- White House correspondent for Yahoo News, who's been covering the Trump campaign; and Brittany Shepherd, national politics reporter, who's on the Biden campaign. Guys, welcome.

Let me start with you, Isikoff. All the polling suggests that the last debate was nothing short of a catastrophe for Trump. He is down by double digits in most national polls and trailing Biden in just about all the key battleground states. We've got 12 days to go before the election, and 40 million Americans have already voted. What does he need to do tonight-- indeed, what can he do tonight to change the trajectory of this race?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, you know, he needs to change the narrative. It's very clear. He is behind. He's behind decisively in the national polls. Nothing that he's done so far has worked or gotten traction with the electorate, and this is his last chance, so it's a tough haul.

Now, I should point out that the-- while he's pretty decisively behind in the national polls, some of those as-- some of the polls in the key battleground states are pretty close, or he's within striking distance. So if he can succeed, you know, he's got an outside shot. I think there's two issues to look for in this debate.

From the Biden camp, it's the coronavirus. I was just looking, just before we went on-- 71,000 new cases today reported nationally, including in some pretty key states-- more than 6,000 in Texas, which the polls show, surprisingly, is pretty close; in North Carolina, 2,400 new cases. Those are very bad numbers for the president.

But on the president, what we can look for, and I think everybody is looking for at this point, is how forcefully does he go after this Hunter Biden email story? It's gained a lot of traction in conservative media. We had one of Hunter Biden's former business partners stepping forward just in the last day saying, yes, these emails are authentic, they're not Russian disinformation, and the references to the "big guy" in the emails is indeed Joe Biden. So that gives the president something to work with. How does Biden respond to what, inevitably, Trump is gonna bring up is something we're all gonna be looking for.

DAN KLAIDMAN: OK, Hunter. So we've been hearing a couple of different things from the Trump campaign. One is that he came in too hot last time. I think the American people saw that. And so he's gonna kind of tone things down a bit, maybe, and let Joe Biden do more talking. Maybe he'll hang himself with his own words.

On the other hand, he's gonna be on the attack on all of the issues that Isikoff just referenced, particularly Hunter Biden's business dealings. That is a fine line to walk. Tell us what you think Trump is gonna do tonight and how well he'll be able to execute.

HUNTER WALKER: What I think Trump is gonna do-- I mean, I never want to be in the position trying to predict what Donald Trump is going to do. But I think one thing is certain, and you're right that Joe Biden is gonna have more of a chance to talk here. And that's in part because the Commission on Presidential Debates has installed a bit of a mute button where the candidates are going to be allowed to make two minutes of remarks without interruption. And you know, that's widely seen as a move to stop President Trump from just steamrolling over the moderator, steamrolling over Joe Biden as he did in that first debate.

Trump's response to that has been kind of, let Joe Biden talk, he always hangs himself. But really, I think it actually could be good for President Trump because, as you guys pointed out, the feedback on his interrupting in that first debate was just dismal. The other thing that we've seen from him is complaining about the CPD, complaining about the debate rules, complaining about the topics, complaining about the moderator, all of this working the refs.

And I think that is part of a larger strategy, where, as Mike was outlining, President Trump's in trouble. He needs to do something big here. His people always talk about him as a counterpuncher, and he's at his best when he's had-- has his back against the wall. What we've also seen is that when he has his back against the wall, he's willing to use unconventional warfare.

He's willing to work the refs as he has done. He's willing to throw things out, like, you know, Rudy Giuliani with this questionable laptop of Hunter Biden emails. And as Mike mentioned, we also saw this as the Tony Bobulinski debate. President Trump brought this guy, who was a business partner of Hunter Biden, with him to the debate, had him speak to reporters beforehand, and he's definitely gonna want to lean in to this controversy that he's been trying to promote about Biden's family.

DAN KLAIDMAN: So Bobulinski may become a household name?


Seems unlikely to me.


DAN KLAIDMAN: All right. Let's bring in Brittany.

Brittany, Biden has been hunkered down over the last few days doing debate prep. He's had, you know, mega wattage surrogates out there for him, in particular, Barack Obama. He has run a conservative campaign all along. Coming into this debate, it seems to me he just needs to get through it. What is his strategy, and how do you think he is going to respond to the attacks that he knows are coming from Donald Trump on his family?

BRITTANY SHEPHERD: Well, Dan, just get through it essentially is what Biden wants to do. Ever since the beginning of the primary, Joe Biden strategists have been telling him, honestly, don't make news, just kind of sit there and let everyone else around you punch themselves until you're the last one standing. We've been seeing him do this with Trump. In the first debate, he barely spoke and kind of stood there as Trump hung himself, as Hunter and Mike were saying. And I think we're gonna see that again today.

His advisors know that Biden gets hot under the collar when his son is mentioned, whether it's Hunter or his son who has passed, Beau Biden. And when Joe Biden begins to fly off the handle, he goes off course, and he begins to ramble. He begins to become, like, a pawn of Donald Trump's tactics that the campaign just doesn't even want to play in that sandbox.

We have an idea of how he might respond. About an hour ago, the Trump-- the Biden campaign released a statement about Tony Bobulinski and this Hunter Biden email. I'd like to read the last line. It's a bit lengthy.

But the Biden campaign calls Donald Trump bringing Hunter Biden's ex-business associate a "desperate, pathetic farce executed by a flailing campaign with no rationale for putting our country through another four years of hell." We have not heard a full-throated condemnation of the "New York Post" Hunter Biden laptop story like this from the Biden campaign before.

Honestly, Joe Biden is known as kind of this conservative Democrat, down the middle, not trying to ruffle any feathers. If anything, you're gonna see a more angered, more pointed Biden today, someone who kind of has that juice that Obama has and that critics from both sides say that Joe Biden is lacking. So if the statement earlier is of any indication, Joe Biden's not going to hold back, but his campaign really wants him to focus on the president's bungling of the coronavirus pandemic response and how he could course correct if he's elected in just two weeks.

DAN KLAIDMAN: Let me just follow up with you on one thing, because the one area of criticism that Biden has gotten consistently, going back to the last debate, the last town hall, is this whole question of expanding the court, or packing the court, as it is described more pejoratively. Now, he just put out a-- in his "60 Minutes" interview, he said that he was going to appoint a kind of blue ribbon panel of constitutional scholars to study the question. Is he gonna say any more about it, or is that basically sort of they put a pin in it, that's all they're gonna do, and they think that they can continue through the election without saying any more about this?

BRITTANY SHEPHERD: Well, yeah. They're certainly gonna try to dodge this question as much as possible. So yeah, this clip from the upcoming "60 Minutes" interview Biden did with Norah O'Donnell came out. Joe Biden said that court packing is a "live ball." He would not come down and give it exact answer on whether he's pro or against it during the primaries, so that he's-- something that he's not looking into doing, but instead he wants to get a bipartisan committee together to study it.

Of course, that's pretty much a non-answer, right? He's not committing either way. He doesn't even want to get into that political argument, because him and his surrogates are saying it's a distraction from more important things like coronavirus or health care or unemployment. He did kind of promise during the last town hall that he would give a more definitive answer during Election Day, but like you said, 40 million people have already voted. It's election season. It's past Election Day for many people. So if he can fly under--

DAN KLAIDMAN: Right. Which--

BRITTANY SHEPHERD: --the radar with this one, I think he's gonna keep doing it.

DAN KLAIDMAN: Which raises the question, of course, whether a debate like this, after so many people have voted, after so many people have made their minds up-- there are so few undecided voters left-- is actually going to make any difference. You know, it's certainly going to be thrilling to watch because these debates are, but it'll be interesting to see whether it will have real impact. Mike, your thoughts?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, you're right. I mean, tens of millions of people have already voted. And that's an extraordinary-- the numbers are extraordinary on the early voting. But, you know, look, clearly there's plenty of people who haven't.

I do think that there are some risks for the Biden camp here on the Hunter Biden story. I think the full statement that Brittany was referring to also doubles down on the idea that this is Russian disinformation. But now that we have a real live guy, Tony Bobulinsky, who was a business partner with Hunter Biden in his business dealings with China, and he is-- he's gonna be interviewed by Senate Homeland Security tomorrow. I wouldn't be surprised if they bring him forward as a witness, a public witness, next week. And you know, if this is Russian disinformation, the Biden camp is gonna have to show that Bobulinsky, a retired Naval officer who has contributed to Democrats in the past, is somehow a part of this Russian operation. And that could be a little difficult.

Look, I think there's a better response for the Biden folks, and that is the point that Donald Trump's business dealings-- we just had the story from "The New York Times" the other day that Trump tried himself to do business in Russia, in China, and even had a bank account in China. I think that's a better response for Biden than to try to make the argument that it's all Russian disinformation--

DAN KLAIDMAN: And of course we saw--

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: --because the fact is we just don't know.

DAN KLAIDMAN: And of course, we saw Pete Buttigieg, who is one of-- they call him one of Biden's most effective surrogates-- making exactly that point on Fox News earlier today. It went viral, so I think you're probably right. We're probably gonna hear that retort from Biden.

Hunter, the Trump campaign may feel a little bit energized by this Hunter Biden story. But what is the mood really like inside Trump world as the president gets ready to debate? How are they feeling about how things are going?

HUNTER WALKER: So I've been on press calls with the Trump campaign leadership. I was on Air Force One, where they were sort of strategizing in a little conference room together on Tuesday after the president's rally. They all seemed very upbeat. They're insisting they're very confident.

In light of the polls that we actually have seen, I can't help but feel like Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien has taken on a bit of a Baghdad Bob air as he sits there and says, I've never felt better than-- about the numbers, I've never been more confident than I am now. That comes right after I even had people in the president's inner circle suggest that, for the first time in my conversations with them, they thought he was going to lose. That being said, this Hunter Biden story, a little bit of tightening in Pennsylvania--

DAN KLAIDMAN: OK, Hunter, I'm gonna-- Hunter, I'm gonna cut you off here 'cause we're about to start the debate. Kristen Welker is getting ready, and the candidates will be on shortly. So let's wait for the debate to start, and we will be back for analysis and commentary right after the debate. So stay with us on Yahoo News.