How Biden and Trump insiders say their candidates are preparing for the debate

Donald Trump and Joe Biden will stand face to face for the first time since 2020  (AFP via Getty)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden will stand face to face for the first time since 2020 (AFP via Getty)

With barely two days to go until Joe Biden and Donald Trump stand face to face for the first time since 2020, the president’s closest aides and confidants say they are leaving nothing to chance.

Since last week, Biden has been hunkered down with a close coterie of his most trusted advisers — first at his beach house in Rehoboth, Delaware, and for the last five days at Camp David, the US Navy-run, rustic and remote presidential retreat in Thurmont, Maryland.

It’s there, in the arborous setting where Biden convened the leaders of Japan and South Korea for a historic summit last year, that the president’s brain trust has been dutifully preparing him for a debate with Trump.

Thursday night’s TV debate is “impossible yet unavoidable,” one White House insider said in a brief conversation with The Independent. Since decamping to Thurmont several days ago, Biden has been going through a period of intensive policy discussions and rhetorical workshopping with a cast drawn from his current campaign staff, his White House aides, and his longtime circle of Democratic greybeards, including his current and former White House chiefs of staff, Jeffrey Zients and Ron Klain.

Also making the trip to Camp David? His 2020 campaign boss, Jen O’Malley Dillon; his current campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez; former Democratic congressman Cedric Richmond; senior advisers Bruce Reed, Mike Donilon and Anita Dunn; and Biden’s White House and campaign communications directors, Ben LaBolt and Michael Tyler.

A Biden campaign official told The Independent that the president’s focus there will be on “prepping to hold Trump accountable for his extreme record and the dangerous things he’s been saying on the trail.” Specifically, that means hammering his rival on “ripping away reproductive rights, promoting political violence and undermining our democratic institutions, and doing the bidding of his billionaire donors to fund tax giveaways to the ultra-wealthy and corporations by hurting seniors and the middle class.”

The official contrasted Biden’s efforts this year with his 2020 campaign, when he was able to spend months on prep due to the relatively light schedule he undertook while working from his Delaware home during the pandemic. These days, the official said, Biden’s “day job” of public attendances connected to being president has taken up most of his time.

But the official also pointed out that Biden has been “increasingly punchy” in comments he’s made about Trump. He plans to come out swinging while still “projecting himself as the wise and steady leader in contrast to Trump’s chaos and division.”

If contrast with Trump is what Biden is looking to show, then Trump is certainly doing his part.

The first convicted felon to seek the presidency after losing a re-election contest, Trump has largely eschewed structured debate preparation in favor of freewheeling policy discussions with a retinue of sycophants and right-wing fellow travelers, including several vice-presidential hopefuls such as Ohio senator JD Vance and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum.

His longtime senior adviser, Jason Miller, said in a statement that Trump simply does not require formal preparation because he “takes on numerous tough interviews every single week and delivers lengthy rally speeches while standing, demonstrating elite stamina.”

“He does not need to be programmed by staff or shot up with chemicals like Joe Biden does,” Miller added.

The accusation that Biden will be drugged during the debate is a familiar theme for Trump, whose allies began circulating similar claims after the president delivered a bombastic and raucous State of the Union address in March.

There’s no evidence that Biden has needed chemical enhancements of any kind, though accusations of Adderall dependence have dogged Trump for years in liberal circles. Still, the claims have persisted because Trump’s most fervent supporters have become invested in the idea that Biden is a walking vegetable who isn’t supposed to be able to defeat their leader in an honest debate.

That’s why one Trump ally, disgraced former White House doctor turned Texas congressman Ronny Jackson, actually went so far as to demand that Biden undergo a drug screening before this week’s debate.

One longtime Republican operative who spoke to The Independent on condition of anonymity called the tactic “sad and tired” and suggested it was born out of desperation because Trump refuses to stop attacking Biden as senile.

“It’s never been a good idea to constantly lower the bar for your opponent, but that’s what [Trump] does because it makes him feel better about himself,” they said.

But, expectations having been lowered, the Biden team is confident that the president will turn in a solid performance and banish the first-debate curse that has befuddled incumbent presidents for decades.

One former campaign official who remains close to Bidenworld said the president is hoping that the debate, which will be the earliest that two general election candidates have met during the election cycle in decades, will jump-start his relatively moribund re-election bid. He will then head into what his campaign is billing as a frenetic period of activity over the next few weeks.

“There’s a lot of folks who haven’t tuned into this race and aren’t really paying attention. There’s also a lot of folks who maybe haven’t really internalized the decision that it’s Joe Biden or Donald Trump [who’s] going to be president next January,” they said.

“And it is critically important that they kind of see that that is the choice in this election. And that’s what the president and his team really want to do — they really want to illustrate how that is the binary choice coming up in November.”

The former official, who has done preparatory work with the president “many times,” said Biden’s process is “multifaceted in how he prepares for things.” They stressed that his most difficult — but important — task will be distilling relatively dense talking points into 30-second soundbites.

They also suggested that Biden will have a more difficult task than Trump because of the need for him to both discuss the progress of his last three and a half years in office and lay out what he wants to do in his next four years.

“And he wants to contrast that with what Donald Trump would do. That’s also a not small amount of ground to cover in 60 seconds, and then you fold in the fact that Trump will lie about the president’s record or say false things that aren’t immediately fact-checked,” they said, “and it becomes quite a challenge for the president to decide what he’s going to do with a relatively short amount of time.”