Democrats who have made a recreational pastime out of fact-checking President Donald Trump are urging their own nominee to take a night off.
Ahead of Tuesday night’s first general election debate, Democratic party officials, campaign veterans, and allies of former Vice President Joe Biden are cautioning against performing the arduous task of debunking Trump’s possible outbursts on the fly. Those who have watched his misleading briefings and meandering mega-rallies certainly expect the president to pass out lies like party favors on stage, but they believe that whiling away time trying to correct the record is just not worth it.
“If you spent your time calling out every Donald Trump lie that would be the entire debate,” said David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, suggesting that Biden needs to avoid getting “trapped in a Donald Trump-style crazy show” live in Cleveland.
It’s an approach that has served the former vice president well in the past. During the primary, where Biden mostly campaigned as if he were already in a one-on-one matchup against Trump, he largely shrugged off the president’s attempts to derail him with various claims that spanned from factually inaccurate to overtly conspiratorial. Now, facing the White House incumbent for the first time, he intends to replicate that tactic.
“They are aligned with us,” said a person familiar with Biden’s debate strategy when asked about Democrats’ pleas for him to avoid jumping on every Trump assertion for two hours. “We don’t view his role at all as being a fact-checker. We think that that is the portfolio of the press.”
Indeed, as the overwhelming majority of party members have placed their full confidence in Biden, 77, to take on Trump, 74, there’s a unifying thought among Democrats that calling his rival a dishonest broker again and again would simply distract from their collective goal for the night: amplifying his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Biden’s superpower right now is not to fact-check Trump,” a former adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign concurred. “His superpower is to stand there and be the contrast.”
Over in Trumpworld, the president’s lieutenants, former and current, primarily agreed that Biden would be wasting his time trying to pick apart Trump’s deluge of statements. “How would they get Biden to remember facts after 180 years in the Senate?” joked Barry Bennett, a Republican lobbyist who served as a senior Trump adviser during his 2016 run. “He should [instead] focus on not making mistakes and proving the narrative that he has slipped correct.”
Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, who Trump has called “nasty & obnoxious,” has hinted that he won’t fact-check the event. And Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., the Commission on Presidential Debates’ co-chairman, told CNN on Sunday that he is not required to.
The Biden campaign views the debate as an extended opportunity to tie almost every national news event—from the new vacancy on the Supreme Court and the ramifications it could have on the Affordable Care Act, to the stalled economy hurting millions of Americans—back to the president’s bungling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The source familiar with the campaign’s preparations went as far as to project that “there is no debate outcome that can fundamentally change the race,” confidently pointing to the “incredibly stable” nature of national polling averages against Trump “the whole time.”
While some of that projection can be attributed to hubris from the side of the frontrunner, a poll released on Monday afternoon gives some weight to that thought, at least in theory. A Monmouth University survey notes that while approximately three-quarters of registered voters polled said they intend to view the debate, “just 3 percent say that they are very likely to hear something that will impact their eventual vote choice.” It’s also borne out in recent history—and it cuts both ways. Biden, for instance, was widely panned as a rusty debater throughout most of the Democratic primary and ended up seamlessly securing the nomination, while Clinton was considered to have won all the general election debates and ultimately lost to Trump.
“Everything is so serious right now,” said Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist who assisted in debate prep for John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign. “If you have a family member who got laid off, you know someone who died, you’re stuck at home with your kids, is your mind really going to be swayed by a debate gaffe?”
The Biden campaign has been fairly opaque about the nature of their prep work. At several points last week, they called a “lid” on the nominee’s schedule, which meant that he would not make any public stops on the campaign trail for a period of time. On Wednesday, Biden eventually said to reporters gathered outside that more practice was on the horizon. “I’ve started to prepare but I haven’t gotten into it really heavily. I will tomorrow,” he said.
In early September, there was talk among some Republicans that Biden would try to escape debating Trump altogether, a claim that he and campaign officials never supported, but one that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) briefly mentioned in an apparent effort to help. Trump’s campaign tried to use her words against him for several days, but didn’t have much luck.
“Trump has lowered expectations for Biden. All that ‘Sleepy Joe’ crap,” said Bob Shrum, who worked on the Gore-Lieberman and Kerry-Edwards presidential campaigns as a top adviser. “The Bush campaign in 2004 kept talking up what a terrific debater Kerry was. That’s actually smart,” he said. “But Trump can’t help himself. He doesn’t have a strategy, he runs on instinct and id.”
With Tuesday night fast approaching, that is exactly what Trump appears to be relying on for the most part: instinct and sticking to what he believes worked for him in the past, particularly in his face-off against Clinton. According to three sources who have discussed the first debate with Trump in recent weeks, the president has said that one of his main goals is to publicly humiliate Biden, including on a personal level.
Trump, two of the sources said, has used private huddles in the White House and on Air Force One to workshop potential attack lines against President Barack Obama’s former vice president, such as ones going after his son Hunter Biden, his mental acuity, and his perceived lack of personal and political “toughness.”
In the past week, the president at one juncture privately discussed explaining at length while on-stage, “why I call him ‘Sleepy Joe,’” one of the knowledgeable sources recalled, suggesting that giving some back-to-back examples of Biden’s alleged mental decline and softness on crime, China, and other issues would help rattle the Democratic opponent on live national television.
On Sunday, at a press event at White House, the president brought two longtime confidants and Trump 2016 advisers—Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and a onetime primary rival, and Rudy Giuliani, the Trump lawyer who’d served as New York City’s mayor—to the briefing room and said that the pair were helping him with debate prep, adding that “either one of them is about five times smarter than ‘Sleepy Joe.”
Those close to the president describe Trump’s approach to debate preparations as less structured and far less cautiously methodical than what you’d expect out of any other modern major party nominee. However, the Trump campaign is hoping to spin that as a positive attribute, as opposed to it being a product of short attention span or laziness.
“President Trump prepares for debates every day by being president and building an excellent record to run on for re-election,” Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, said in a statement to The Daily Beast on Monday evening. Murtaugh also once again attempted to set expectations, acknowledging that the man who Trump routinely bashes as doddering and suffering from mental deterioration and old age can also be quick on his feet.
“Joe Biden is a master debater who knows what he’s doing,” he added.