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How Biden and Trump Have Prepared for Their Debate Rematch

President Joe Biden has been holed up at Camp David preparing for a week. The former President Donald Trump has been on the trail. Sound familiar?

Donald Trump And Joe Biden Participate In First Presidential Debate
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton makes no effort to hide her disdain for the American electorate, especially since her loss to Donald Trump in 2016. Fearing that the upcoming election in November could be a repeat of 2016, she has taken to the pages of the New York Times to explain to the uninitiated what she’s looking out for in Thursday night’s debate—and what any truly savvy voter should be looking for as well.

In a piece that is part self-promotion, part struggle-session, and part Biden surrogacy, Clinton creates a tripartite rubric: First, “pay attention to how the candidates talk about people, not just policies”; second, “try to see through the bluster and focus on the fundamentals at stake”; and third, “when you see these two men side by side, think about the real choice in this election,” which she says is between “chaos and competence.”

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In other words, Hillary Clinton wants you to ignore almost everything that happens during the debate. Never mind that Biden’s tenure when it comes to the economy, the border, and foreign wars. Disregard any Biden gaffes. Put aside all questions on whether or not Biden is senile. Pull the lever for Biden because democracy is at stake for real this time.

But Biden isn’t preparing as if Americans will take Clinton’s advice. Since June 20, Biden has been holed up at Camp David prepping for tonight’s debate. Camp David’s movie theater and an airplane hangar have been transformed into a full debate training ground, stage lights and all.

For the past week, Biden has been surrounded by more than a dozen current and former aides, immersing himself in politics’ own sweet science. Ron Klain, Biden’s former White House chief of staff and long-time staple of the president’s corner, is heading up the debate prep. Jeffrey Zients, Biden’s current chief of staff, as well as several communications strategy aides like Anita Dunn and communications director Ben LaBolt, are attending Biden’s training sessions.

Aside from Klain, however, Mike Donilon, the Biden campaign’s chief strategist and a senior advisor to the president, is playing the largest role. Donilon is the mastermind behind the campaign’s main theme: American democracy is at stake if Trump wins in November. It’s anything but original, but it has secured Donilon the catbird seat in Biden’s reelection operation.

Other names helping the former president prepare for Thursday night include National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti, Biden’s former Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese, and White House deputies Annie Tomasini and Bruce Reed. Campaign aides, such as Jen O’Malley Dillon, Cedric Richmond, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Quentin Fulks, Michael Tyler, and Rob Flaherty, have also descended on Camp David.

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As was the case in 2020, Biden’s sparring partner playing the role of Trump is his personal attorney Bob Bauer. Bauer is reportedly bringing his A game.

“This is not a Saturday Night Live impression,” Bauer told POLITICO. “You don’t want to detract from the serious business of prepping the candidate… You have to immerse yourself in a huge amount of material so that you don’t wind up offering an argument that they might conceivably make, but they never did.” And Bauer might be the one responsible for Biden deciding to shirk the standard presidential debates hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates. In his book, The Unraveling: Reflections on Politics without Ethics and Democracy in Crisis, Bauer criticizes the commission as antiquated and irrelevant.

Debate prep is a rather secretive process, and Biden’s camp has arguably given the press more pre-debate access than any presidential campaign in recent memory. Yet, only the most expected lines of attack against Trump—on Trump’s felony conviction in New York, on January 6 and election fraud, and on abortion, for example—and defense—the Biden economy, Biden’s immigration policies, his age and mental capacity—have made the light of day. Meanwhile, Biden is, unsurprisingly, expected to aggressively defend his tenure. Outside groups are encouraging the president to lean in on Biden’s immigration policies, especially the recently unveiled pathway to residency for married illegal immigrants, and the Biden economy. The Trump campaign surely hopes Biden listens to these outside group’s advice.

How the debate prep (and the press’s access to it) bodes for Biden is anyone's guess. In 2020, Biden was mocked for being feeble in body and mind. “Biden’s basement campaign” became a common GOP refrain. To such low expectations, Biden emerged from the basement and managed to make it through the first 2020 debate without any major episode. Thanks to the naysaying the Biden campaign was able to chalk the debate up as a W.

In their continued attacks on Biden’s faculties, the Trump campaign and the GOP have backed themselves into the same corner—which they appear to have realized. They have attempted at the last minute to raise expectations for Biden’s performance in the lead-up. 

It’s a difficult spot for the Trump campaign: how to raise expectations for Biden without, first, granting the incumbent undeserved strength, and, second, without suggesting they were wrong for attacking Biden’s ability to do the job. But the Trump campaign has come up with a clever, and on-brand, escape. Trump, they now argue, is entering a three-on-one cage match. On paper, Trump is debating Biden, but he’ll also be debating CNN’s moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. When Karoline Leavitt suggested as much during a CNN interview, CNN cut her microphone and ended the interview, which only seemed to prove the Trump campaign’s point (and could be a sign of things to come Thursday night with the mic-muting feature).

CNN might not be alone in helping Trump raise expectations for Biden. The access the Biden team has given the press during the week-long debate preparations at Camp David is designed to show a president set not only on keeping his job but capable of finishing his term. In doing so, the Biden team is squandering the one thing that allowed them to declare victory in the first debate of 2020: low expectations.

Trump has taken a different approach to preparing for Thursday night’s debate with Biden.

Unlike Biden, Trump has not been holed up at Mar-a-Lago for a week taking part in mock debates. Instead, the president has been on the trail, honing his message in front of rally crowds even though there will be no audience at the CNN debate.

“Well, this is really the best strategy right here,” Trump told Fox News before a Philadelphia rally last weekend. “We have all these people out here, and they are screaming questions. I look forward to the debate.”

Trump mocked Biden for holing up in Camp David: Biden has gone “to a log cabin to ‘study,’” Trump told the crowd. Later, Trump said Biden would get “jacked up” with medication before hitting the debate stage.

Beyond the campaign, Trump has held meetings to prepare for Thursday night’s debate—but don’t call it “debate prep.” The Trump campaign says observers should call it a “policy refresher.” Between campaign events, Trump is meeting with aides and allies to discuss current events and compare his policy record and achievements to Biden’s. The approximately hour-long meetings include trusted members of Trump’s inner circle: the communications adviser Jason Miller, the co-campaign manager Susie Wiles, and the policy advisers Stephen Miller, Vince Haley, and Ross Worthington.

Each meeting has had a rotating cast of Trump allies. From the Senate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been brought in to discuss foreign policy, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) has met with Trump about populist economic and domestic policies, and Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-MO) has been called in to discuss government weaponization. Other longtime Trump advisors have attended the meetings as well, such as Trump’s U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, the former Acting Director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Tom Homan, and Kellyanne Conway.

Trump is expected to go after Biden on the border, inflation, America’s involvement in foreign wars, and, surprisingly, Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Furthermore, in forcing Biden to vigorously defend his tenure as president, Trump can appear as the “common sense” candidate on issues like immigration, the economy, and abortion without having to sacrifice his long-help positions. Trump has tilted the political landscape, especially on the right, and has a chance to deploy it to his favor Thursday night.

“It won’t be like last time,” Trump reportedly promised in one of the policy-refresher meetings. “It’s not 2020.”