At a Key Juncture, Biden Again Gambles on ABC’s George Stephanopoulos

With his poll numbers dropping and Democrats writing off his candidacy, Joseph R. Biden Jr. sat down with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News in the hope that a major TV interview could help revive a presidential campaign that appeared all but finished.

The date was Feb. 9, 2020. Mr. Biden would finish fifth in the New Hampshire primary two days later — but he then staged a remarkable comeback, soaring back to win South Carolina and ultimately fighting his way to the presidency.

Four and a half years later, as Mr. Biden faces mounting calls to withdraw from the presidential race, he and his advisers are once again gambling on an anchor who has interviewed him at some of the most dire moments of his political career.

Mr. Stephanopoulos’s high-stakes interview on Friday with Mr. Biden is set to be taped in the afternoon in Madison, Wis., and broadcast in its entirety at 8 p.m. Eastern. It is widely viewed as the president’s best hope to quiet the cascading alarm over his mental and physical fitness in the wake of a cataclysmic performance at last week’s debate against former President Donald J. Trump.

Friday’s interview is likely to last between 15 and 25 minutes, according to three people familiar with the negotiations, who requested anonymity to share details of private discussions between ABC and Mr. Biden’s aides. While presidential advisers routinely haggle over the framework for any major interview, the exact length often depends on what transpires during the taping. Mr. Biden could extend the interview of his own accord, or Mr. Stephanopoulos might press for more time to ask additional questions.

ABC has pledged to air the interview in full and without edits, meaning that any attempt by a Biden aide to cut off the conversation early would be captured by cameras and likely shown to viewers. The prime-time special, “One on One with President Biden,” has been previewed to affiliates as lasting for 30 minutes, but it could be extended.

The plan for the interview began to come together 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 sequence of events. Mr. Biden’s team wanted to know if the anchor would be up for sitting down with the president.

ABC was chosen by the White House in part because it has a large viewership compared with competitors, and also because it is widely considered a nonpartisan news outlet, according to another person familiar with the Biden team’s strategy.

ABC’s “World News Tonight,” which will air the first clips from the interview at 6:30 p.m. Eastern on Friday, is the highest-rated evening newscast, beating NBC and CBS. ABC also recorded the highest debate viewership of the three big broadcast networks, nearly equaling the audience of the debate’s host, CNN.

Mr. Biden is also well acquainted with Mr. Stephanopoulos, who has conducted dozens of interviews with him throughout his career as a senator, as vice president and finally as president. Mr. Stephanopoulos last interviewed Mr. Biden at the White House in August 2021, when the president faced intense criticism in the aftermath of the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Now Mr. Stephanopoulos, a star anchor and a former Democratic strategist who helped oversee Bill Clinton’s messaging in the 1990s, has the delicate task of pressing the commander in chief on intimate questions of aging, physical decline and what exactly transpired under the lights of the debate stage, where Mr. Biden repeatedly lost his train of thought, stared agape at his opponent and struggled to convey simple political arguments.

Mr. Stephanopoulos has spent the last few days preparing for the interview before he flies to Wisconsin, where Mr. Biden is making a campaign stop on Friday. The executive producer of “Good Morning America,” Simone Swink, and the political director of ABC News, Rick Klein, are expected to be present for the taping, according to one person familiar with the plans.

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

Already, some right-wing websites have peddled conspiracy theories that, because the interview is not airing live, ABC could selectively edit and reframe Mr. Biden’s answers. ABC initially said that it would air the interview in full on Sunday morning’s episode of “This Week.” But hours later, the network changed course, announcing that the unedited interview would air on Friday in prime-time instead.

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

Fans of “Jeopardy! Masters” may be out of luck: ABC’s corporate parent, the Walt Disney Company, agreed to interrupt a rerun of the game show on Friday night to accommodate the prime-time airing of the interview.

Katie Rogers contributed reporting.

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