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Tax Revelations Set The Stage For Presidential Debate In Cleveland


President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will debate for the first time tonight. This is the first of three presidential debates. This one comes right after The New York Times came out with its big investigation of Trump's taxes. He reportedly paid very little federal personal income tax for years as he claimed massive business losses.

We should say, NPR has not independently examined the tax records that the Times has, but these revelations do set the stage for tonight's debate in Cleveland. And that is where we find NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid. Asma, good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So how do we think these taxes in The New York Times reporting will factor in tonight?

KHALID: Well, David, I should point out that we have not yet heard anything from Joe Biden in regards to this story. So tonight is really our first chance to hear his response. And I anticipate he will find a way to bring it up if the moderator doesn't bring it up first. And I say that because, you know, his campaign has been trying to capitalize on this. They, you know, instantly within hours had, you know, were selling merchandise - T-shirts, buttons in regards to this. It also fits into a broader narrative that the Biden campaign has been trying to talk about, which is Scranton versus Park Avenue - this idea that Joe Biden's for the common man and Donald Trump is for the ultrarich.

But I will say, you know, no matter how this story comes up tonight, we can also anticipate President Trump defending himself, either by saying the story is fake news or that he is smart and entitled to tax credits like other people.

GREENE: I mean, I just think about this year and what our country and what the world has been through (laughter). There is so much to bring up in a moment, an evening like this. Surely the pandemic is something that will be discussed at length. What else do we expect?

KHALID: Yeah, well, definitely the pandemic - other topics include the economy, election integrity, race and violence, Trump's and Biden's records and, of course, the Supreme Court. Over the weekend, President Trump announced his nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. And it appears he has the Republican votes to confirm her. So what I'll be interested to see is how Biden confronts this issue. You know, he has been trying to tie this to health care since Judge Barrett has criticized past rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act.

GREENE: And Asma, I mean, such interesting timing here - an estimated million voters have already cast votes this election season. I mean, does that change the meaning of tonight or the stakes in some way?

KHALID: I think that's such an interesting question, David. Right? I mean, polls have shown President Trump trailing. So I will say that even though many people have voted, there are still many, many more people who will likely vote. And so we will (laughter) expect to see President Trump kind of seek out opportunities to alter the trajectory of the race. He has shown in 2016 that he is an unpredictable and forceful debater.

And Joe Biden has said that, you know, really tonight to be successful, he just needs to tell the truth. But President Trump is a TV entertainer who has kind of a loose definition of the truth, and I am curious how that might change the parameters of the debate. I will say, we have an extremely polarized electorate. There are not that many undecided voters. So how people respond to this debate - and I will also say, how, if at all, they respond to The New York Times reporting on President Trump's tax returns are two big new wildcards in this race.

GREENE: We know it's going to be a long night. Thanks to you, Asma, and the whole political team for all the work tonight.

KHALID: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: That's NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid reporting from Cleveland, where tonight's debate will take place. And we'll bring you that debate live on NPR and at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.