Decision 2024

Biden debate prep strategy: Be prepared for two different Trumps

Biden’s advisers have been meticulously studying and combing through all of Trump’s recent comments to see what is most likely to trigger him.

President Joe Biden is preparing to face a few different Donald Trumps on Thursday's debate stage: the more bombastic and “unhinged” one known for his grievance-filled, stem-winding rallies, and a fairly disciplined version who largely refrains from tirades and sticks to policy.

If Trump is more sedate than incensed, the goal for Biden will be to elicit what his aides see as “the true Trump,” according to three people familiar with the president’s debate prep. 

Biden’s advisers have been meticulously studying and combing through all of Trump’s recent comments, these people said, in an effort to best identify what might get under his skin and what may “trigger” him the most if he does demonstrate some self-control. 

As president, Trump at times showed some self-restraint, a prospect that has made some outsider observers speculate about whether debate rules like the muting of microphones could ultimately stop him from saying anything too outrageous.

“If I were advising Biden, I’d try to make fun of Trump,” former Vice President Dan Quayle, a Republican, told NBC News in an interview. “Try to ridicule him. That will get him mad.”

Trump seemed to acknowledge the dynamic during a rally in Philadelphia this weekend, asking the crowd: “Should I be tough and nasty and just say, ‘You’re the worst president in history’? Or should I be nice and calm and let him speak?”  

The entire debate may hinge on one candidate’s ability to throw the other off his game, a fourth person familiar with Biden’s prep said. The goal is to get “rally Trump” on full display, one of the sources said.

One way Biden may attempt to do that is to point out that Trump lost the 2020 election and then argue that Trump “snapped” afterward and incited an insurrection on Jan. 6, these people said. If there’s a sense that Trump feels he is being called a “loser,” that may anger him enough to lash out. That potential is being incorporated into Biden's preparations, the sources said. 

But the Biden campaign believes that whichever Trump version shows up is largely irrelevant.  

“It really doesn’t matter how Donald Trump shows up. If he comes in unhinged, like he is most of the time, or he sits there and is quiet, people are going to know that he’s a twice-impeached convicted felon who has been found to have defamed somebody, sexually abused somebody and gone bankrupt six times,” campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."  

Attacking Trump for his actions after the 2020 election could help Biden with independent voters, said the sources familiar with Biden’s preparation, who suspect that Americans who may be on the fence between the two candidates would be turned off by the idea that Trump continues to falsely claim that he won. 

The Biden team believes there is a “fine line to walk” because it still wants viewers to come away with the impression that Biden is the “adult in the room,” a Biden campaign official said. The official also stressed that Biden doesn't need to “goad” Trump into saying certain things because the contrast between their two visions will be completely clear without doing that, the official said. 

Even if Trump doesn’t delve into some of the “more extreme rhetoric” at Thursday’s debate, Biden campaign officials are betting that the difference between the two candidates on issues like reproductive rights, democracy, social security and Medicare will be so stark that it won’t matter, this official said. 

“On Thursday, the American people will see two distinct visions for the future on stage in Atlanta: President Biden’s vision, where freedoms are protected and all Americans have a fair shot, and Donald Trump’s dark ‘vision,’ where he will serve as a dictator on day one, give tax cuts to the ultra-wealthy on the backs of the middle class, and rip away women’s rights,” Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler wrote in a strategy memo Sunday. 

While all of this is part of what Biden and his close advisers are discussing this week at Camp David, Maryland, there is also a lot of time and energy being spent on how to approach the larger policy substance of the debate and not just the style in which Biden may deliver certain answers. 

“People want to hear what each candidate will do for their families, their rights, not just a game of politics and mudslinging,” a former Biden aide said. 

One way Biden may do that is to focus on the argument that Trump cares only about himself and his legal challenges, while Biden believes his first term in office has been dedicated to helping lower costs for Americans and expanding certain freedoms and rights that the president will argue may be in peril if Trump wins back the White House. 

Biden has been trying to hone a positive economic message that breaks through, even though many voters say they still don’t feel the effects of his policies in their day-to-day life when it comes to the cost of basic groceries and gas.

He also plans to bring up abortion access and specifically Trump taking credit for the fall of Roe v. Wade, after he appointed three conservative Supreme Court justices to the bench during his time in office. 

If Trump says something false, Biden is prepared to point that out, but there’s also an awareness that the president shouldn’t spend the entire debate fact-checking his opponent over describing his own vision for a second term.  

The Biden team is hoping the moderators will step in and do that when needed but they are preparing the president to call out specific lies if Trump raises them, the sources familiar with Biden’s prep said.  

In terms of policy, Biden aides have been poring over thick binders, organized by topic, on “what we’ve done, what we want to do,” according to a White House official briefed on the prep. 

The process, which started intensely several days ago, is “going well” so far, the official said, and is expected to continue until Thursday, when the president will depart Camp David for Atlanta.

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