Trump's pre-debate bluster is a bluff

Joe Biden's debate prep, meanwhile, is an advantage

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 24, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump gestures during the Republican Presidential Debate, hosted by CNN, at The Venetian Las Vegas on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump gestures during the Republican Presidential Debate, hosted by CNN, at The Venetian Las Vegas on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

The earliest general election presidential debate ever is coming up this week and it's all anyone can talk about. And there's actually a good reason for that for a change. This debate could be an important moment in an already extremely high-stakes campaign that's ridiculously close and may very well stay that way all the way up until Election Day. Both campaigns are eager to try to shake things up and this week's debate is the first opportunity.

For much of the primary season, polling showed that some people were just not convinced that this re-run was actually going to happen. It seemed impossible to believe that the disgraced ex-president Donald Trump would become the nominee and that Joe Biden would not step aside for a younger successor. But here we are. And frankly, it was where we were always going to be unless something happened to one or both of them. There was clearly no desire among the many Democratic presidential hopefuls waiting in the wings to primary the incumbent and the MAGA usurpers, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, flamed out in the primaries while the establishment alternatives, like Nikki Haley, couldn't get past Trump's rabid base. 

So, we're going to party like it's 2020 all over again (except without the thousands of people succumbing to a deadly virus as the rest of us watched in horror while the president demanded: "Slow the testing down, please."

The New York Times reported that, as usual, Trump doesn't like to prepare with mock debates or reading briefing books so some people are informally showing up to chat about policy with him. I recall that in both 2016 and 2020, the scuttlebutt was that debate coaches like Chris Christie couldn't get him to focus so inevitably Trump and his cronies would end up sitting around shooting the breeze. I'd guess that's probably the case this time as well. 

According to Jonathan Karl's book, "Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show," in the 2020 prep meetings Rudy Giuliani was obsessed with Hunter Biden to the point that one attendee said, "Rudy was being a disruptive force. No matter what we were talking about, all he wanted to do was talk about Hunter." When Christie, playing Biden, retorted ,"You have real nerve talking about relatives taking advantage of political power...Your family traded the influence they have in the White House to make tens of millions of dollars," Trump reportedly got furious and told him, "I'm not going to sit here and put up with this shit ... move on." If he was that sensitive about his family, I'd guess no one is willing to bring up his legal problems during debate prep this time. 

Trump held a rally over the weekend and at one of his pre-planned "spontaneous" restaurant stops he said that he considered that to be debate prep so it sounds like he feels that he's ready to go. He asked the crowd at the rally if he should be "tough and nasty" toward Biden or  “be nice and calm and let him speak?” The crowd predictably indicated the former and Trump agreed. He gave them a little taste of just how nasty he could be, claiming that Biden had gone to a log cabin to study but "he's sleeping now" and then claimed that just before the debate "he'll get a shot in the ass" and come out "all jacked up." 

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That disgusting little prediction was slightly better than his earlier lie that Biden will be "pumped up" on cocaine because they found "hundreds of thousands of dollars worth" of it in the White House. (Just when you think he can't sink any lower he always does.)

President Biden, meanwhile, is up at Camp David preparing for the debate. He's no doubt doing what normal candidates do, studying policy papers, practicing with mock debates and running possible lines of attack. It's clear they're taking this very seriously and for good reason. It's vitally important that the American people see the two candidates one-on-one. 

Biden's campaign has a big plan for the debate. Thousands of watch parties are being organized around the country with surrogates fanning out with the message they hope to convey. NBC reported that they have sent out a memo with the three main topics they hope to emphasize in the debate: reproductive rights, the threat to democracy and the economy. The memo states, “President Biden, who is fighting for the American people, and Donald Trump, who will walk on stage as a convicted felon fighting for himself" echoing their theme about Biden being for the people while Trump is only for Trump. 

The assumption among the pundits and analysts is that the debate is most important for Biden so that he can prove that he's up for the job. Yes, he's been president for three and a half years and has an excellent record of success, which would normally be a clue, but the fact that he looks old seems to override the reality of actual results. After months of the Republicans and the media portraying him as barely alive, at this point Biden's main job is to not fall down or start drooling. (This might explain Trump and his minions' sudden insistence that Biden is a hardcore speed freak.) 

Trump, on the other hand, has to show that he isn't the whining, self-serving, malicious and increasingly incoherent creep we all see at his rallies. It's hard to imagine that he can do that but who knows? Maybe he'll get a "shot in the ass" of some kind of tranquilizer and the debate will end up being between a jacked up Biden and a zoned out Trump. 

Much of this will be determined by the moderators' questions and how they handle the rules of the debate. The candidates' mics will be cut off when they run out of time which will keep Trump from talking and yelling non-stop as he did last time. There's no audience so the MAGA cult can turn it into a Trump rally and they will not be allowed to consult with their staff during the break for reasons which aren't obvious to me.

All of this will be an improvement over the usual spectacle we've come to expect. But none of that will matter if the answers are not followed up and the lies aren't corrected. The debate is on CNN so the two moderators have one of the best fact-checkers in the business, Daniel Dale, who we must hope will be in their ears to correct Trump's litany of lies. That will no doubt make the whole exercise awkward for them but there is no choice. 

This debate is the real kickoff to the most important election any American alive has ever experienced. It's surreal, it's frightening and it's oddly dull, all at once. But barring something unexpected, the advantage goes to Biden. After all, the most important thing is that he isn't Trump, the sorest loser in human history. I'm betting that when people see them both together it won't be hard to remember why he just keeps losing over and over again. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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