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As Trump takes to the debate stage Thursday, his signature style may be muted

Then-President Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in a presidential debate moderated by then-Fox News anchor Chris Wallace on Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland. This year, the first presidential debate will not have an audience but will have a mute button.
Scott Olson
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Getty Images
Then-President Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in a presidential debate moderated by then-Fox News anchor Chris Wallace on Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland. This year, the first presidential debate will not have an audience but will have a mute button.

Updated June 27, 2024 at 11:00 AM ET

When President Biden and former President Donald Trump face off Thursday, it will mark the first time a sitting president and a former president have ever debated.

One of Trump and his team’s objectives has been to frame this election as a contest between strength and weakness.

Those efforts could be undercut by a new format designed to avoid the chaos that marked their first faceoff.

Trump has given little indication that he plans to play along.

"How should I handle him?" Trump asked supporters this weekend in Philadelphia. "Should I be tough and nasty? ... Or should I be nice and calm and let him speak?"

Their first debate four years ago quickly unraveled into a mess of angry insults and personal attacks as Trump sought to bulldoze over Biden, questioning what he said.

It’s largely because of those interruptions that this debate switches up that format, eliminating an audience and muting microphones to avoid the chaos that marked their first faceoff.

The change is largely expected to hurt Trump.

Former debate coach Jennifer Mercieca, who teaches political rhetoric at Texas A&M University, describes Trump’s debate style as authoritarian. She argues that he wants to humiliate his opponents.

“He typically will run over time. He will run over the moderator. He will interrupt,” she said. “But in this case, he won't be able to do that because they're going to mute his microphone.”

But that’s just one school of thought.

Another is that the mute button could actually benefit Trump — by tamping down the aggressiveness that rubs some people the wrong way, according to Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster with North Star Opinion Research.

He thinks many Americans feel they were financially better off under Trump, which works in his favor.

“And the only hesitation people have in tossing the keys to the car back to former President Trump is that they're worried about his personality,” he explained.

Hogan Gidley, a former White House spokesman under Trump, says the former president may not be able to deliver his famous one-liners, but that won’t prevent him from getting his message across.

“Donald Trump has a way of — no question — being forceful, being tough,” Gidley said. “But at the same time being relatable and funny. And I think you'll see all of those different attributes on the debate stage.”

Philippe Reines, who played Trump during Hillary Clinton's debate preparations eight years ago, expects that Trump’s anger will win out, which will ultimately work against his efforts to paint Biden as not being with it.

“Being yelled at by Donald Trump from 10 feet away is hardly the time someone is going to fall asleep,” he said, calling Trump “a human smelling salt.”

But Reines says he will be watching one particular moment very closely: when the two are introduced and meet onstage.

Debates are all about contrasts, he said.

It’s a moment when neither will be talking and there’s nothing to do but watch them walk — and shake hands.

“Debates are about contrast. He wants the very first thing you see to be the contrast in them physically. Don't forget, he's 6'3". Joe Biden is about 6 feet," Reines predicted.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.