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Donald Trump will face Joe Biden within days for the first of three presidential debates, and some of the president’s supporters are already bracing for a humiliating loss.
White House allies, Republican donors and some of Trump’s closest advisers worry that a recent, frenzied push by his top lieutenants to portray Biden as a seasoned debater — with the goal of raising expectations for the Democratic presidential nominee — is too late and too disingenuous to have an impact when the two meet on the debate stage next Tuesday.
They worry Trump has set a trap for himself by incessantly attacking Biden’s age and mental acumen. It’s a tactic the president has maintained even as his campaign publicly insists the former vice president is fully capable of a satisfactory performance. Unlike the president, who has spuriously claimed Biden is “probably” on performance-enhancing drugs, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh attributed Biden’s “quite good” performance in past debates to the Democrat’s ability “to turn it on when the cameras come” after years of experience in politics.
“Eight years as vice president, three decades in the Senate, two debates as vice president and he just came through about a dozen debates in the Democratic primaries where he vanquished two dozen opponents — that’s the Joe Biden we’re expecting,” Murtaugh said.
It’s this type of expectation-setting that some of the president’s allies believe he and his campaign should have engaged in all along, an approach they’re now frustrated to see deployed so close to the Sept. 29 debate in Cleveland. The Trump campaign spent the bulk of this summer questioning whether “Sleepy Joe” is fit for office and accusing the Biden campaign of trying to circumvent the traditional debates to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation for their candidate.
“This idea of Biden not knowing how to debate is ridiculous. The more that expectations are lowered for him the worse,” said former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
“A lot of folks are looking for a reason to declare him the victor and now they’ll be able to use Trump’s words as a way to justify their verdict that Biden won,” added Spicer, who believes Biden “will land a punch or two” against Trump but doubts either candidate’s performance will affect the race all that much.
Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist who currently runs a pro-Trump super PAC, said the Trump campaign has “so diminished” Biden that he is virtually guaranteed to be perceived as the winner once he and Trump emerge from their first debate.
“Biden has clearly shown he can function, the bar is low and the expectations are so low, all he has to do is exceed those expectations,” Rollins said.
Several Trump allies pointed to Biden’s sharp debate earlier this year against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, his last remaining opponent in the Democratic primary and a skilled sparring partner, as the clearest indication that he is capable of going toe-to-toe against the president. Biden scored slightly higher than Sanders in a poll following their March debate, where the former vice president delivered a strong case against Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a practical rebuke of Sanders’ so-called political revolution.
“We have problems we have to solve now. What’s a revolution going to do? Disrupt everything in the meantime?” asked Biden in one memorable line.
Trump has been studying his opponent’s past debate performances and working with a small team of advisers for several weeks to prepare for the trio of fall debates.
The president’s advisers expect Biden will use the current political landscape — as voters face a battered economy, global pandemic, social upheaval and a Supreme Court battle that is likely to sow further division on Capitol Hill — to build a case during each of the debates that Trump has created problems he is incapable of solving.
While they don’t expect Biden, who is prone to verbal blunders and often stumbles over his words, to maintain a strong posture for the entire 90-minute televised debate, they acknowledge that it will take only a couple of stinging soundbites and memorable zingers to surpass the bar Trump has set for him.
“The danger with [Trump’s] sustained attack against Biden’s cognitive abilities is that he’s now created a situation for himself where he has no excuse to fall back on if Biden lands a few punches and he struggles to return blows,” said a Republican close to the Trump campaign.
“I get why the president has gone after Biden for his age and gaffes — no reasonable person can ignore those things — but at some point he should have flipped the script to increase expectations heading into the debates,” this person added.
To some degree, Trump allies and campaign officials have already previewed ways in which they plan to undercut Biden and defend the president if his opponent delivers a passable performance. Beyond attacking the substance of Biden’s anticipated answers to questions about China, climate change, taxes and law enforcement — issues that campaign officials said they will pay close attention to in the first debate — they are already laying the groundwork to attack the pundit class if Biden emerges from the first debate as the declared winner.
While most of the Trump aides who spoke with POLITICO for this story conceded that the president’s insistence that Biden is mentally unfit has made it easier for his opponent to do well in the first debate, they have simultaneously accused the media of predetermining the winner in next Tuesday’s debate.
“People understand that the media is dying to just declare Joe Biden the winner when instead he should be judged the same way that any presidential candidate should be judged on the debate stage,” said one adviser to the Trump campaign.
“It’s going to be a very low bar for the Washington elite to say Biden did well and because he didn’t fall down, he won. That is partly because of Trump and partly because they want to prop Biden up,” added Spicer.
Others have chalked up Biden’s recent performances — including his closing speech at the Democratic National Convention and his participation in a CNN town hall last week — as non-challenging. They point to his use of a teleprompter during the convention (something Trump also used in his own acceptance speech for the Republican nomination) or, in the case of the televised town hall in Scranton, Pa., argue that he was handed softball questions.
“Virtually every question for Joe Biden was an invitation for him to attack President Trump, while moderator Anderson Cooper offered almost no pushback, giving Biden a total pass on his lies and misrepresentations,” said the Trump campaign in a statement after Biden’s appearance on the network.
Another Trump supporter accused Biden of receiving advance notice of the questions in a bid to rationalize his performance last week. “Looks to me that Biden had an idea of what the questions would be, at least areas of questioning,” tweeted former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly during the town hall. In a subsequent tweet, O’Reilly said he had “simply tweeted an observation.”