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Trump and Christie. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Two weekends ago, President Trump met with a group of his closest aides in the conference room of his Bedminster golf club to discuss a subject that has been weighing heavily on his mind: the three scheduled debates with Joe Biden.

Behind the scenes: In the room with Trump were his son-in-law Jared Kushner, campaign manager Bill Stepien, senior adviser Jason Miller, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who role-played Hillary Clinton in Trump's 2016 debate prep sessions.

  • The team agreed to meet at least every 10 days or so between now and the first debate, according to two sources familiar with the results of the meeting.
  • They resolved to keep the group very small. They may bring in different people based on subject matter expertise, but the group would remain five to six people to limit the potential for leaks.
  • The group did not specifically discuss whether Christie will play Biden in debate rehearsals. But Trump has made private comments indicating Christie is likely to role-play Biden as he did Clinton. Trump has told associates that Christie "was better than Hillary" and "harder to debate than Hillary" in 2016.

Why it matters: Among President Trump's closest aides, these debates have taken on outsized importance to close the polling gap and get Trump within striking distance by Election Day. The Trump campaign views the debates as the crucial inflection points left before Nov. 3.

  • "I don't think he [Trump] sees the debates as the last inflection points, but potentially the most important," said a source familiar with the results of the planning meeting. "I think he always thinks he can create an inflection point.
  • "But he has verbalized how important these are going to be," the source added. "He's said, 'We gotta win. The press will never give me the credit for it, but the people will.'"

Team Trump doubts Biden will submit himself to any tough interviews before Election Day, so they view the debates as the only opportunity to batter him before a national audience, according to three sources involved in the internal discussions.

  • Key Trump advisers, including Miller and Christie, have cautioned Trump that Biden is actually a decent, experienced and relatively disciplined debater. 
  • Miller has also been publicly trying to reset expectations about Biden's performance in the debates. "Joe Biden is actually a very good debater," Miller told the Washington Post. "He doesn't have as many gaffes as he does in his everyday interviews."

Between the lines: The problem for the Trump campaign is they have no leverage over the Commission on Presidential Debates — the independent body that will manage this fall's presidential debates.

  • Team Trump has made clear they're itching to debate Biden, so Trump can't credibly threaten to withdraw from the debates if he doesn't get one of his preferred moderators from the list Rudy Giuliani sent to the commission.

What we're hearing: A source familiar with the debate planning said the commission will announce the debate moderators the first week of September. In keeping with its history of independence, dating back to 1988, the commission will not let either campaign pressure it into choosing a particular moderator.

  • The commission will select the moderators entirely itself. It may give the campaigns a courtesy heads-up before publicly announcing, the source said, but under no circumstances will the commission let the campaigns influence its decisions.
  • Since 1988, the commission has always sought to choose moderators that would be broadly seen as fair and would not provoke a violent reaction from either campaign. Never, in 30 years, has a campaign vetoed a selection, though they've complained afterward about "unfair" moderators.

The big picture: The commission is not willing to bow to the Trump campaign's request that it change the debate schedule to add a September debate before early voting begins in some states.

  • "If the campaigns agree they want another debate, we will take a look at that and see if that will work," the source said. But the commission won't change the debate schedule or add another debate unless the Biden campaign also pushes for it. And so far, the Biden campaign has indicated it won't do that.
  • "It would be nice if people understood how complicated this is," the source added.
  • This year, the commission needs to manage the biggest television event of the year during the worst pandemic in a century. The debates will have tiny on-campus audiences — "two-digit sized," the source said. Attendees will be socially distanced and wear masks.
  • The Cleveland Clinic will supervise all of the debates, and everyone will be tested for the coronavirus before entering the room.

Go deeper

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Nov 16, 2020 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Biden's Day 1 challenges: Climate change

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President-elect Joe Biden will face constraints of both politics and time when it comes to pursuing his aggressive climate-change agenda.

Driving the news: Biden will enter a White House after four years of President Trump rolling back climate policies and time running out to substantively address the problem.

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Scoop: Hundreds of Biden staffers receive COVID vaccine

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A week into the job, President Biden's White House medical team has administered the coronavirus vaccine to several hundred staffers — and aims to vaccinate all in-person staff over the next few weeks, officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: The new administration is ramping up steps to protect President Biden and all staff working inside the White House complex. The administration is also requiring daily employee COVID tests and N95 masks at all times.

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The Leon Black clock strikes midnight

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Leon Black is "retiring" as CEO of Apollo Global Management, the alternative investment giant he has led since co-founding it in 1990. But he is not making a full break, as Black will remain chair of Apollo's board of directors.

Why it matters: This is the culmination of 18 months of head-in-the-sand obfuscation of Black's dealings with Jeffrey Epstein.