Monday briefing: Strap in or run for the hills – it’s the return of the Biden v Trump debates

<span>President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.</span><span>Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP</span>
President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

Good morning

The last time Donald Trump and Joe Biden were on stage together feels like a lifetime ago. The pandemic was at the very top of the agenda, Russia had not yet invaded Ukraine and the US election was coming on the back of a wave of historic civil rights protests. Four years later, we somehow find ourselves facing a historic rematch but the context could not feel more different and, alarmingly, more fraught. On Thursday, at 9pm EST, CNN will host the first presidential debate of the election race from Atlanta, Georgia.

Though there will be some new issues on the agenda – abortion access and the mental competence of the candidates chief among them – perennial themes like the economy and immigration will still dominate the discussion.

The 90-minute debate, moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, will not have a studio audience, a request from the Biden team and a departure from previous debate setups. To avoid another frustrated outburst, Biden’s team also asked for the candidates’ microphones to be muted when it is not their turn to speak, which Trump’s campaign agreed to. Only Trump and Biden will be on stage, with Biden on the right podium and Trump on the left – even this needed to be decided by coin flip lest one side felt their positioning unfair. And unlike their last debate, Trump will get the final word during closing statements (this was also decided by coin flip).

In today’s newsletter I’ll run through what to look out for later this week if you are planning on tuning into (or out of) the debate. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Conservatives | Rishi Sunak is facing a growing clamour to come clean about the betting scandal engulfing Westminster after a fifth figure was drawn into the row. Nick Mason, a senior Conservative official, was the latest to be drawn into investigations by the gambling watchdog, amid reports he placed dozens of bets on the timing of the UK general election before it was announced.

  2. The hajj | At least 1,300 people have died during the hajj pilgrimage, which took place during intense heat, Saudi Arabia has said, adding that most of the deceased did not have official permits.

  3. Environment | A huge citizen testing blitz of rivers across Britain this summer has found 75% are in poor ecological health as a result of pollution from water companies and agricultural runoff.

  4. Labour | Labour is to appoint dozens of peers if it wins the election, to push through its policies and improve the representation of women in the House of Lords, the Guardian has learned. The plan comes despite Keir Starmer’s pledge to eventually abolish the Lords and amid growing concerns over the ballooning size and cost of the chamber.

  5. Housing | The monthly mortgage of a first-time buyer has soared by more than 60% to exceed £1,000 a month since the last general election. The financial squeeze has forced many younger borrowers to either look for smaller properties or to take out an ultra-long mortgage.

In depth: What to look out for between the low blows and embarrassing gaffes

Despite the criminal convictions and standard controversy surrounding Donald Trump, extensive polling shows the presidential race is still close – with many indicating Trump has the edge. So there is no doubt that both sides are taking this upcoming debate very seriously: Joe Biden has reportedly run away to the mountains with a close circle of advisers to tighten his argument and prepare retorts to the inevitable personal smears, while Trump is likely workshopping said insults and other attack lines with his vice-presidential hopefuls.

Trump’s campaign so far has been focused on revenge, retribution and apocalyptic narratives about what will happen if Biden is re-elected. A rally in Wisconsin perhaps gives some insight into where he plans to take the debate: “We’re going to end up in world war three with this person. He’s the worst president ever.” Biden’s team are hoping to remind the public of the kind of demagogic figure Trump has been and is vowing to be again if he returns to office – banking on the notion that the more the American public see of Trump the less they like him. The president will be hoping that this debate will be the turning point in the race, a reminder to the country of why Trumpism was rejected four years ago.

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The age factor

It’s important to remember that while all the attention seems to be on Biden, most Americans think both candidates are too old to serve second terms according to an Ipsos poll. When Biden was sworn in he became the oldest president in history, although at 77 Trump is hot on his heels. Together the pair make the oldest presidential matchup ever, so the health and competence of both nominees will be a heated topic.

The Trump campaign told a crowd earlier this year: ​“I don’t think [Biden] knows he’s alive.” Meanwhile, the current president has not been above age-related digs, frequently calling Trump “confused”, accusing the former president of “unhinged ramblings” and seizing on every opportunity to highlight Trump’s mix-ups. A verbal slip here – something both candidates have been prone to in recent months – could prove fatal to their electoral hopes.

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Immigration

When Biden ran for office in 2020, reversing Trump’s punitive and haphazard immigration policy was a central plank of his campaign. But as this election draws closer he has changed his tune, taking a more restrictive stance after signing an executive order that temporarily closed the southern border to asylum seekers to shore up support from voters who have consistently shown disapproval of how he has handled the situation there. The move received significant pushback from the left so, to appease his progressive critics, Biden has since announced another policy granting some undocumented migrants a path to citizenship if they have an American spouse, giving 550,000 people protection from deportation. He has also been keen to denounce the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for blocking long-term immigration reform, at Trump’s behest. Biden’s camp is hoping that this will lure Trump into a trap: discussing one of his most contentious policies, family separation at the border. Biden will probably try to make himself a firm but fair figure on immigration, while portraying Trump’s past and future agendas as extreme and cruel.

Since he entered politics in 2016, Trump has always centred immigration. A second Trump term will see the resurrection of some of his old favourites, like the “Remain in Mexico” policy which forces non-Mexican asylum seekers to stay in Mexico and restarting construction of the border wall between the two countries. He also has vowed to launch the biggest “domestic deportation operation” ever and has said that he will seek to limit legal migration in to the US too.

Trump will wield the immigration debate like a hammer against Biden, likely pointing to the record-breaking number of border crossings as a reason not to trust Biden with immigration. At a rally earlier this month, Trump summarised his position like this: “Joe Biden wants an invasion. I want a deportation”.

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Abortion

In April the former president bragged about his central role in overturning the constitutional right to abortion: “we broke Roe v Wade” he told the press. But Trump’s team has since come to realise that he is walking a fine line when it comes to reproductive rights. Republican efforts to restrict or completely ban abortion have backfired significantly in the polls, energising voters to turn out and vote Democrat. Trump has to balance the support of his evangelical and anti-abortion base with the general public who broadly support abortion access.

The Democratic party believe abortion is their magic bullet. Biden will be reminding everyone on Thursday that the rollback of reproductive rights is all Trump’s fault. The party has united around a message of protecting what is left of abortion access and strengthening support on other reproductive health measures like contraception. Not only do they believe it is the most effective stick to beat Trump with and galvanise their base further, it also holds the chance of bringing back voters who are disaffected with Biden’s other policies.

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Economy

American voters aren’t giving the president any credit for the robust economic recovery that Biden claims to have delivered for them. It turns out quarterly GDP figures are not enough to make the public feel good, with Americans pointing to unaffordable rents, mortgages and goods. Biden will probably come out with all of the relevant indicators to try to convince the public, as he has been for the last year, that “America has the best economy in the world” – while attempting to draw attention to his legislative success such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which provided much needed investment in the country’s infrastructure. Trump however has been painting a very different picture – one of a country that “is collapsing into a cesspool of ruin, whose supply chain is broken, whose stores are not stocked, whose deliveries are not coming” – while claiming the US was booming during his last term in office.

The candidates will also touch on a host of other issues including foreign policy, healthcare, Trump’s trials, education and crime. There will be zingers, sneering personal attacks and embarrassing blunders, but neither side is underestimating the challenge of convincing the American public to vote for one of the two most unpopular presidential candidates in decades.

What else we’ve been reading

  • “He could have chemistry with a lamp-post”: as his maiden voyage in the Tardis comes to an end, Leila Latif has written about how Ncuti Gatwa’s Time Lord has brought “televisual dopamine” to Doctor Who. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • Charlotte Edwardes’ interview with Keir Starmer is one of the most revealing portraits I’ve ever read of the man. He has no favourite novel or poem, there were no phobias when he was a child – he doesn’t even dream, perhaps a gloomy indication of what his government will look like. Edwardes followed Starmer around for two months to get a sense of who the man is, and the conclusions are fascinating. Nimo

  • Amelia Abraham offers a candid look at fertility coaching and how to deal with the pressure and uncertainty around whether to become a parent. Hannah

  • Mass tourism to a number of picturesque, remote Italian villages has begun to wear on residents. Angela Giuffrida finds out how locals are trying to keep “Insta-visitors” at bay. Nimo

  • Another week, another moving entry in this series on outstanding Olympians, as Simon Hattenstone meets James Cracknell or – as he sometimes refers to himself after a traumatic brain injury – “the man who used to be James Cracknell”. Hannah

Sport

Euros | It took Hungary until the 100th-minute of play to score the goal that sent Scotland out of the competition. Germany’s Euro 2024 journey stuttered and slowed after the team fell one goal behind Switzerland, but an equaliser from Niclas Füllkrug in injury time was enough to send them through to the final 16.

Euros | Harry Kane has hit back at Gary Lineker by saying that pundits and former players need to show more responsibility, remember that they wore the shirt and were part of England’s ­failures at previous tournaments. It comes after Lineker caused a stir within the England camp after describing the team’s performance against Denmark as “shit”.

Cricket | Fast bowler Chris Jordan got a hat-trick and the American cricket team lost five wickets in six balls as England secured its spot in the semi-finals of the Twenty20 World Cup. Defending champion England crushed the United States by 10 wickets with 62 balls remaining in their last Super Eight game.

The front pages

The Guardian leads with “Sunak urged to drop candidates as betting investigation widens”. The i follows the same story with “Tories question Sunak’s leadership as he resists calls to suspend betting scandal suspects”. The Financial Times reports “Conservatives lose a third of their voters since January, survey finds”.

The Telegraph leads with “Labour to rip up school trans ban”, while the Times has “Labour plan for changing gender with less evidence”. The Mail carries an “exclusive”, reporting that Rishi Sunak is set to warn of “Ten days left to stop ‘disaster’ of a Starmer supermajority”. Finally, the Mirror leads with “Frozen out by Sunak for telling the truth”.

Today in Focus

New towns and old ideas: Labour’s housing plan

What are Labour’s proposals for fixing the housing crisis? Robert Booth reports from Hitchin, North Hertfordshire.

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The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

What should you do when your children move out? It’s a familiar question to thousands of parents, but Kitty Johnson took an unusual path: she became an ambulance driver for hedgehogs. “I had a friend whose son was leaving home and she was so terrified of it happening, I knew I needed to plan ahead and keep myself occupied to avoid feeling the same,” she says. “A few members of my Women’s Institute group had been volunteering with Hodmedods Hedgehog Support, and it seemed like a worthy cause. I decided to join them.” Her first rescue came in May 2023, with some latex gloves and a box filled with newspaper, and she now spends her weekends driving around Norwich, hunting in bins, cemeteries and alleyways for injured animals. Kitty reckons she has completed close to 30 rescues in the year since.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.

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