Biden again gambles on interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos

As his poll numbers plummeted and Democrats dismissed his candidacy, Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in hopes that a major TV interview would revive a presidential campaign that seemed all but over.

The date was February 9, 2020. Biden would finish fifth in the New Hampshire primary two days later, but then staged a remarkable comeback, sweeping back to win South Carolina and ultimately storming his way to the presidency.

Four and a half years later, as Biden faces increasing calls to withdraw from the presidential race, he and his advisers are again betting on a host who interviewed him at some of the most critical moments of his political career.

Mr. Stephanopoulos’ high-stakes interview with Mr. Biden on Friday is expected to be taped in the afternoon in Madison, Wis., and air in its entirety at 8 p.m. Eastern Time. For many of the president’s supporters, the interview is seen as the president’s best hope for easing questions about his mental and physical fitness after a disastrous performance in last week’s debate against former President Donald J. Trump. For Mr. Biden’s doubters, however, even a solid performance with Mr. Stephanopoulos may not be enough to erase the terrible impression the debate left on the public.

Friday’s interview is likely to last 15 to 25 minutes, according to three people familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share details of private conversations between ABC and Biden’s aides. While presidential advisers routinely negotiate the timing of each major interview, the exact length often depends on what happens during the taping. Biden could extend the interview on his own initiative, or Stephanopoulos could push for more time to ask follow-up questions.

ABC has pledged to air the interview in full and without edits, meaning any attempt by a Biden adviser to cut the conversation short would be captured on camera and likely shown to viewers. The primetime special, “One on One with President Biden,” is pre-programmed for affiliates and will run for 30 minutes but could be extended.

The plan for the interview began to take shape late Tuesday morning, when Mr. Stephanopoulos received a text message from Ben LaBolt, the White House communications director, according to a person familiar with the incident. Mr. Biden’s team wanted to know whether the host would be willing to speak to the president.

According to another source familiar with the Biden team’s strategy, ABC was chosen by the White House because its program draws a large viewership compared to competitors and because it is widely regarded as a nonpartisan news channel.

ABC’s “World News Tonight,” which will air the first segment of the interview at 6:30 p.m. Eastern on Friday, is the most-watched evening newscast, beating out NBC and CBS. ABC also recorded the highest viewership of the debate of the three major networks, nearly matching the audience of the debate’s host, CNN.

Mr. Biden is also well acquainted with Mr. Stephanopoulos, having conducted dozens of interviews with him during his career as a senator, vice president and ultimately president. Mr. Stephanopoulos last interviewed Mr. Biden at the White House in August 2021, as the president faced intense criticism following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Now Mr. Stephanopoulos, a star broadcaster and former Democratic strategist who helped oversee Bill Clinton’s message in the 1990s, has the delicate task of pressing the commander in chief on intimate issues of aging, physical decline and what exactly was happening under the spotlight of the debate stage, where Mr. Biden repeatedly lost his thread, stared open-mouthed at his opponent and struggled to convey simple political arguments.

Mr. Stephanopoulos has been preparing for the interview in recent days before flying to Wisconsin, where Mr. Biden is making a campaign stop on Friday. “Good Morning America” executive producer Simone Swink and ABC News political director Rick Klein are expected to attend the taping, a person familiar with the plans said.

Mr. Stephanopoulos, who joined ABC in 1997, will inevitably face scrutiny of his own. Will his questions be seen as too soft and sympathetic, or too hard and insensitive? What level of candor will he be able to elicit from Mr. Biden in the time allotted?

Some right-wing websites have already spread conspiracy theories that because the interview is not being broadcast live, ABC could selectively edit and reword Biden’s answers. ABC initially said it would air the interview in full on Sunday morning’s episode of “This Week.” But hours later, the network reversed course and announced that the unedited interview would instead air on Friday’s primetime episode.

ABC informed the Biden camp of that decision on Tuesday and has received no objections, two people familiar with the matter said.

Fans of “Jeopardy! Masters” may be out of luck: ABC’s parent company, the Walt Disney Company, agreed to interrupt a Friday night rerun of the game show to accommodate the interview’s primetime broadcast.

Katie Rogers contributed to the reporting.

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