CNN's first televised presidential debate of 2024 was not a good look for America

A month after Joe Biden challenged Donald Trump to a debate, the former president won it by keeping his mouth shut

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 28, 2024 8:57AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Remember cocky Joe Biden? The one who goaded Donald Trump into debating him last month in a video posted to social media, crowing that former president Donald Trump lost two debates to him in 2020?

“Now he's acting like he wants to debate me again!” an energetic and fully awake version of the President of the United States said. “Well, make my day, pal. I'll even do it twice.”

“Let's pick the dates, Donald,” Biden said in closing, throwing in, “I hear you're free on Wednesdays,” as a rimshot reference to the hush-money trial filling his dance card at that time.

More than a month later — the morning after the first of those debates hosted and produced CNN — it’s worth recalling that Biden asked for this.

If you’re going to pick a fight, you should know your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and prepare accordingly. Reports from Biden’s campaign hinted he was prepping to confront Trump on policy, his track record, and his propensity to lie —Trump’s weak spots.

Based on Biden's performance, his coaches insufficiently considered the former president and current felon’s understanding of optics. Trump is notoriously vain, always aware of the camera, and understands that what the audience sees is more convincing than the substance of what he says.

That meant that the presidential debate held Thursday at CNN's Techwood campus studio was effectively over the moment the two candidates walked on stage.

While Biden’s campaign shared reports of his vigorous debate preparation at Camp David, once the cameras were live Trump demonstrated he better understood the assignment. The 81-year-old Biden was tasked to prove he's still mentally sharp and capable of fulfilling the presidency's obligations for another four years.

The 78-year-old Trump simply had to refrain from looking like the same lumbering lunatic who stalked Hillary Clinton around a town hall stage in 2016 and shouted down Biden at every turn in 2020.

That Trump would not be deterred by dead mics, knowing his followers would lip-read what insults he’s spewed and post them to Truth Social on his behalf. Social media would determine who won this debate regardless, and if it had gone as planned both camps would have declared victory.

This time Biden’s supporters can’t say that.

Trump entered after Biden, slightly hunched and looking sour, but striding confidently to his podium. Rather, that’s how he looked after Biden shuffled forth from the wings smiling weakly and waving at . . .  nobody, I guess, since CNN stipulated there would be no audience.

In addition to forgoing live spectators, likely having learned from its 2023 Trump town hall debacle, producers turned off each candidate’s microphones by default when moderators Dana Bash or Jake Tapper did not designate them to speak.

Once the cameras were live Trump demonstrated he better understood the assignment.

This move was widely viewed as an effort to curb Trump’s tactic of shouting down his opponents which, in previous debates, materialized in pointless spectacles like the first Biden-Trump face-off four years ago, which Tapper characterized as “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.”

This time the disaster was entirely contained within Biden’s performance in Thursday’s 90-minute showdown and, we’re guessing, the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters.

From the moment the president opened his mouth, he sounded hoarse and phlegmy. He struggled to speak at an audible volume, tripped over his words, and froze up, blinking rapidly as his thought process derailed during an early answer. This Biden came to the debate highly scripted and inflexible, so when a page or two dropped from memory we were left with him landing meekly on gaffes like, “We finally beat Medicare.”

Trump, as expected, lied with vigorous enthusiasm, which Tapper and Bash let pass unfettered since CNN opted against fact-checking Trump in real-time. Both campaigns agreed to this format; Tapper and Bash, accordingly, were the equivalent of wallpaper. The network's decision has been criticized as journalistically irresponsible, but it's worth remembering that in the past, trying to filter Trump's geyser of bull in real-time hung up debate moderators to the point of serving no one. 

Few expected this match to be of any service either, since most voters have already decided they’re voting for Trump or, let’s be real, against him. What may have surprised people was Trump’s uncharacteristic discipline during Biden's time on the mic, and Biden’s lack of same in his resting face while he was silent.

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Trump didn’t talk out of turn, at first. In the main he held his composure as Biden weakly attacked his record and neglected to forcefully refute his fearmongering as he replayed his greatest hits catalog of lies about late-term abortions, migrant invasions, our failing nation, and whether he knocked boots with Stormy Daniels or insulted veterans. He kept his eyes level with the camera and more or less glowered straight ahead, which might be interpreted as commanding.

In contrast, during his muted interludes Biden couldn't keep his mouth closed. His eyes were frequently downcast or looking in a direction other than toward Trump. Midway through the debate, his camp told news outlets that he had a cold. (I guess nobody told them pharmacists still keep the speedy decongestants under the counter; you just have to ask and show some I.D. Trump already sowed the lie that Biden is on stimulants of some kind, so why not indulge for a legitimate purpose?)

Even with that being the case, the grins and jokes that made 2020 Biden look like the affable humane alternative to an unhinged dictator were entirely absent. That may have hurt the president's image as much as his freeze-ups and tip-of-the-tongue struggles.

This is not to be mistaken as an assessment that Trump seemed more “presidential” or less incoherent than social media edits and late-night talk show clips have made him seem lately. He's still a loose cannon who rambles about shark attacks and electrocution. Sure enough, as soon as he perceived Biden as being on the ropes, Trump became emboldened and wilder in his responses, albeit within the confines CNN set for him.

But Trump’s smartest tactic was his simplest: He finished his sentences. Yes — the bar really was that low. Those sentences were often the stuff of a paranoiac fugue but without slurring or made-up nouns. There were odd moments when he bragged “we had great H2O” and meme-able barks about “them” taking “Black jobs,” but this is what he says on days ending with the letter Y.

It is a dark day when I find myself agreeing with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, but here we are.

He still failed to answer most of the questions Tapper and Bash put to him, to a degree that they kept returning to their original queries about, say, the opioid crisis after the former president careened into a tirade about Biden allowing a migrant invasion at the southern border. After he warmed up, Biden became more aggressive, calling Trump a liar and in his final word, called him a “whiner” for refusing to accept the 2020 election’s results.

Again, and this cannot be stressed enough, none of what either man said mattered. It’s what their image conveys with the sound off. If you watch this derangement on mute, you might have thought Trump had pulled his “Apprentice” disguise out of mothballs while Biden impersonated decrepit King Viserys from Season 1 of “House of the Dragon.”

“From the minute he spoke at the opening of the debate, he sounded awful. He started with speedy talk. He looked terrible. Maybe the worst part of all of this is [that] he was staring out like an empty vessel, or vacant. This is after a full week of prep: mumbling, bumbling, stumbling, dazed, confused, struggling, brain fart twice during the debate. It was a disaster.”

It is a dark day when I find myself agreeing with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, but here we are. Comity achieved, if briefly.

Vanity Fair contributor and CNN’s former chief media correspondent Brian Stelter summed the situation up more succinctly: “Biden is better on the facts,” he posted on X, “but Trump is much better at the fight.”

“You want to know what Donald Trump showed up?” former DNC chairperson Donna Brazile told ABC’s David Muir. “The one that I get to see every weekend at a rally. Because I've watched Donald Trump. I've listened to Donald Trump. He didn't have to make it up because these are the things he’s been saying. And it's been good enough for … maybe 50% of the American people.”

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That was one of the kinder debate assessments. Not even MSNBC could cook up an optimistic take; the collective expressions on the post-debate panel’s faces could have been free advertising for Metamucil.

In mid-May it was easy for Biden to feel blustery, what with his TikTok account humming and the presumptive Republican nominee tangled up in a hush-money trial through which he reportedly dozed.

If that hadn’t puffed Biden's confidence enough, Trump being found guilty by a Manhattan jury on 34 state felony charges must have been quite a boost. Cut to a month later, and Biden's decision to fight rambling with shambling in this debate rerun reaffirms that our two-party gerontocracy has left us with poor choices that come down to who looks more alive.

Not long after the debate ended, cable news cameras caught Biden with his wife Jill at a watch party promising to fight for his cheering supporters. He punctuated his words with pointed jabs of his forefinger and smiled brightly. Then he and Jill danced for the crowd. Where was that guy two hours ago? wondered MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. “That Joe Biden would have killed in the debate.”

He showed up too late to make a difference, as Maddow and her colleagues discussed afterward. “Of course, as we’ve been saying, the only question that matters is how did it affect, if at all, voters who tuned in and are –” and here, Maddow paused to heave an exhausted sigh that speaks for a nation, before resuming “ — still trying to make a decision.”

They'll have a new chance to evaluate at the . . . sigh . . . second debate to be produced by ABC News in September.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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