Tonight’s debate could be Trump’s last act

The stakes have never been higher for our country and the international community

By Brian Karem


Published June 27, 2024 9:01AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump debates Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. This is the last debate between the two candidates before the November 3 election. (Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump debates Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. This is the last debate between the two candidates before the November 3 election. (Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)

Freedom of choice is what you got
Freedom from choice is what you want 
— Devo

History is set to be made in Atlanta on a CNN soundstage. The president of the United States, Joe Biden, will debate a convicted felon, Donald Trump.

The first question that should be asked of Trump is why he thinks he has any ability to lead a nation after 34 felony convictions. We know what his answer will be. We know what his fans will scream. But the interesting thing to see is what Biden, who until recently has refrained from mentioning this fact, will say. 

As recently as this week, many speculated the debate would not occur. “There ain't going to be no debate,” James Carville told me recently as he shook his head in distaste at the prospect.

Some have said this debate means nothing. Wednesday, ABC posted an article saying, “The country’s increased polarization, changing media landscape and campaign strategies have weakened the impact of a presidential debate.”

Trump certainly believes this debate matters. He has tried to give himself an out by saying he and Biden should have a drug test before they go on stage. This comes after Trump spent the last few months endorsing doctored videos showing Biden rambling incoherently. Trump has also spent months talking about “Sleepy Joe Biden,” lowering the bar so much that all the President has to do is appear cogent on stage and he can claim victory. Thus, Trump was not only giving himself an out saying he wouldn’t debate Biden unless they undergo a drug test, but he also gave himself a convenient excuse should he go on stage and bomb; his claims that Biden got jabbed “in the ass” with some kind of magical pharmacological substance that enabled him to win the debate.

None of that means anything once on stage. Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, two of CNN’s more cogent anchors, will have to moderate a debate between the two presumptive candidates without a studio audience and with the ability to mute the microphones of the candidates if they choose.

It should be interesting. For weeks we’ve heard what the issues will be, the predictions of who will win and how the two will perform. I think we should look beyond that. This debate takes place before either the Democratic or Republican National Convention. That is as unprecedented as the President of the United States debating a convicted felon.

It gives each party an unprecedented off-ramp for both of their candidates. In other words, depending on who wins this debate and how bad their opponent does in this debate, both parties could meet at their conventions and choose another candidate for President. We’d see one or both national conventions as chaotic as any in my lifetime. Gone will be the Democrats doing the macarena with Al and Tipper Gore dancing with the faithful on stage. Gone will be the balloons, cheers and fireworks of Rasta Ronnie Reagan and his wife Nancy on stage in Dallas.

The first convention will be the MAGA party, or what’s left of the Republican party in Milwaukee just a few short weeks from now. Trump, should he go off the rails in Atlanta, then faces a sentencing three days before the convention in his felony case. Both could be fatal to his political dreams.

Polls have already shown there is a growing negative impact among independent voters in key battleground states. Bombing in this debate, combined with Trump’s sentencing, could be a catalyst for change at the RNC. At least, the opportunity will be there. And, whatever else you may say about Republicans, as James Carville once told me, “You have to admire their work ethic. They love to win.”

Yes, they do. The GOP is a party addicted to winning. If, in fact, winning were heroin, there’d be a lot of trainspotting going on in Milwaukee in mid-July. And that’s where it gets dicey for Trump. He does have an inside edge, with Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law as a co-chair. As the AP reported in May, “The RNC has fired dozens of longtime staffers and sought alliances with election deniers, conspiracy theorists and alt-right advocates the party had previously kept at arm’s length. Lara Trump, who is married to Trump’s third child, Eric, has been an outspoken defender of the former president and has not hesitated to blast his foes, promising four years of “scorched earth” political retribution if he wins the election.”

But there are members of the Republican Party already upset with Trump’s stewardship of the party, saying she has concentrated so much on her father-in-law winning the presidential race that down-ballot races have been ignored. The fear the party could lose control of the Senate and House in the fall elections is palpable, though it is often subtly ignored by the party hierarchy in its bid to re-seat a convicted felon as president.

If Trump suddenly appears vulnerable in November, the RNC could resemble a roadhouse bar in Mid-Missouri on a hot Saturday night after the beer taps run dry. The Trump faithful will be battling the non-believers for control of a party headed toward doom.

On the other hand, should Trump come away with a draw, or a win, then it could matter little what sentence is handed down to the convicted felon – the faithful will hold because the majority of what’s left of the GOP will see Trump as a “winner” for the fall.

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It is curious, indeed, to explore the reasons why the party formerly calling itself the “Law and Order” party has embraced a convicted felon, grifter and adjudicated rapist in civil court. Far more serious — and not-so-serious — minds than mine have prolifically pontificated on that question. Perhaps it is as Time Magazine described Ronald Reagan’s popularity in its July 7, 1986 edition when it asked, “Why is this man so popular?” The article noted that Reagan may be “the dumbest and the smartest President that the U.S. has ever had,” who made a career out of being underestimated. It also noted that his career as an actor wasn’t taken seriously, which had “profound implications, some of them potentially sinister.”

Trump has embraced the “sinister” portion of that resume. Like Reagan, Trump is able to distance himself from his failures. He preaches the sanctity of family but is divorced. His relationship with his own children has been distant and troublesome. He himself said all he ever did was write the checks for their upbringing. His former fixer Michael Cohen told me that all of his children said they “never wanted to end up like their father.”

Trump, like Reagan, also aligns himself with evangelicals for political advantage but rarely goes to church. And, as with Reagan, Trump’s tactics show a window into the uglier side of the American dream where religious hatreds, fanaticism and intolerance thrive. Trump, taking a cue from Reagan, has honed that to an edge. Reagan was once looked at as “the illusion of a long summer celebration of the past,” and Trump by extension is another foray into that fiction. 

As for Biden, the stakes are just as high going into this debate. He doesn’t have the fanatical following Trump enjoys, and he could prosper or falter from both a Trump victory or defeat in the debate. 

Some pundits say the best-case scenario for both candidates, but especially for Biden, is for the debate to be a wash — no winner or loser. Should Trump fail, and the Republicans choose another candidate at a convention that turns into a political wildfire, then that could spread to the DNC.

If Trump is out, Democrats have another month to consider Biden’s fate — even if he does well in the debates. Biden has certainly buried himself in preparation as if it were the seventh game of the World Series, the Super Bowl and the World Cup combined.

He’s spent that time at Camp David, we’re told, with several thick binders of information, a debate prep team and, in this heat, an appropriate amount of chilled lemonade, iced tea and whatever libations the president desires.

While Trump can go off on wild tangents, and probably will, during the debate as he tries to bait Biden into a gaffe, Biden will be concentrating on making succinct and substantive points to counter wild accusations while also making pointed observations about his convicted felon nemesis. Above all, he will have to avoid the inappropriate gaffes that he is widely known for, beginning in 1987 during the Democratic debates. He also wants to avoid the “crypt keeper” stare that Jon Stewart made fun of recently in a moment in the East Room when Biden couldn’t resist turning around and smiling at the mention of Trump’s felony conviction. 

One young Democratic stalwart compared the debate to Dr. Xavier preparing for a debate with Magneto. I abhor comic book references, and can’t see either man in either role. But if it helps you to understand, well, OK.

Biden has several advantages over Trump. First, he’s not a convicted felon. He’s actually accomplished something as president. He’s less apt to ramble on about shark bites and electrocutions at sea. He has stood fast for women’s rights and he values the Constitution.

But Trump will rant about oil prices, the war in the Middle East and Ukraine, inflation and “roving bands of criminal immigrants.” Though factually Trump is debating in quicksand, Biden must effectively refute the nonsense and appear cogent and in control of the facts as he does so.

The advantage there, of course, is with Trump who appeals to issues emotionally, not factually. That’s part of his continuing grift. His ability to do so is his most sinister and effective strategy.

Finally, if both candidates turn in disastrous performances, we could also be looking at a chaotic situation at one or both conventions if either party chooses a different candidate — after the consumption of copious amounts of pizza, alcohol and cigarettes (not to mention the rending of hair, gnashing of teeth and blood-curdling screams of despair and doom). 

In the late 19th century, Henry Adams offered a cutting analysis of American leadership. “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant,” he wrote, “was alone evidence to disprove Darwin.”

Look at the debate through those eyes and tell me where you think today’s probable candidates sit in the pantheon of American leadership. And remember the old adage misattributed to several politicians as you consider whether or not you should pay attention to this debate and vote this fall: If you aren’t sitting at the table, chances are you’re on the menu.

Sit at the table.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Cnn Debate Commentary Donald Trump Elections 2024 Jake Tapper Joe Biden