President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, in Latrobe, Pa. | AP Photo/Evan Vucci
During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump blew off his first round of debate prep.
He refused to do a mock debate with a fake lectern, didn’t want any single person to play Hillary Clinton and wouldn’t simulate the parrying of questions between the moderator and candidates. Prep sessions took the form of a roundtable discussion with a motley crew of advisers, including Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Steve Bannon, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, with multiple aides posing questions to Trump.
The process was a “total s—show,” Christie later wrote in his book, “Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics.” And Trump World largely viewed his first debate against Clinton as a losing performance.
Now the Trump campaign and top advisers want to avoid the same misstep this fall when the president first faces off against former Vice President Joe Biden on Sept. 29.
The Trump team has been studying Biden’s idiosyncrasies in debates and other venues and preparing tactics for Trump, according to interviews with a dozen campaign aides, White House officials and outside advisers. Some have noticed the way he says, “C’mon, man,” whenever he feels frustrated, and they’re trying to identify words or phrases that trigger him to “reboot,” as one person familiar with the planning described it. Essentially, Trump aides are looking for ways to trip up Biden in an effort to spur an incoherent or unsatisfactory response — bolstering a key Trump argument against Biden built around his age.
Biden “did a very effective job at debating the wunderkind that was Paul Ryan in 2012, so I take his knowledge and skills seriously,” said one outside adviser to the Trump campaign. “That said, I do think he’s lost a step in the years since then.”
Other aides say they have been watching Biden’s past debate performances for other clues, such as when he is uncomfortable with a question.
“Biden has certain tells when he is not telling the truth, and those are things I have picked up in my review of his debates over the years,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the campaign and one of the key advisers for Trump on the debates. “Biden has been debating for a half-century. He is very good. Part of the reason he is very good is that he gives the same answers over and over again to questions for the last 30 years. But he does have certain tells that he uses when he is not confident in his answer or trying to change the subject or make viewers forget what the actual question is.”
Very quietly, top Trump aides and advisers began to discuss debate prep in early August at the president’s golf resort in Bedminster, N.J. The prep work is expected to ramp up considerably now that the Republican National Convention has concluded.
Polls show the presidential race tightening, particularly in battleground states like North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin. The debate offers an opportunity for Trump to show off the power of incumbency, speak about his second-term agenda or simply draw a leadership or policy contrast with Biden.
But Biden is a much different politician from Clinton, and preparing to debate him involves its own set of challenges, especially since Trump must prepare and serve as president at the same time. Biden also does not carry the same political baggage or raw hatred from conservatives that the Clintons did, and he speaks in a more folksy and conversational manner compared with other politicians.
Christie, Miller and Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien are leading the debate prep. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has been present for discussions and strategy sessions, but he isn’t deeply engaged; Christie has done this with Trump before and the president trusts his feedback and direction more than others, including his chief of staff. Jared Kushner also can attend any sessions he wants and involve himself as much as he wishes.
“The president is good at learning things through observation, so he’s been watching staff run through questions with Chris Christie and then he’ll develop his own style from there,” said a Republican close to Trump.