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Trump Campaign Feels Cheated From Its Foreign Policy Debate

The president’s campaign issued a complaint Monday over the last debate's topics. The closing exchange traditionally focused near exclusively on foreign policy.

TULSA, Oklahoma. - June 20, 2020: President Donald J. Trump holds his first campaign rally since March 2020. (By Albert Halim/Shutterstock)

The Trump campaign is formally protesting the topics for the second and final debate between the president and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

“The topics announced by moderator Kristen Welker (Fighting COVID-19, American Families, Race in America, Climate Change, National Security, and Leadership) are serious and worthy of discussion,” campaign manager Bill Stepien said in a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates Monday (which he called the “BDC,” Biden Debate Commission). 

“But only a few of them touch on foreign policy,” Stepien wrote. “We understand Joe Biden is desperate to avoid conversation about his foreign policy record. … We recall that Joe Biden’s former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, maintains that Biden has been ‘wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past forty years.’” Gates, a Republican, offered the scathing assessment in his 2014 memoir, “Duty,” but has not specifically waded into the 2020 election, where Biden has transformed from weak front-runner for the Democratic nomination to potentially mortal threat to Trump’s administration. 

The third debate is traditionally focused on foreign policy— which is the core of Stepien’s complaint. Others noted the apparent, complete absence of another topic: the economy, especially striking during a year of financial whirlwind, and amidst Congress’ continued failure to agree on a new round of stimulus. It is now unlikely a formal package is passed before Election Day.

The commission shuffled the deck on the last debate after the previous debate, slated for last week, was scratched because of President Trump’s positive COVID-19 result and squabbling between the campaigns on the ground rules for an interaction in light of the diagnosis. The campaigns assented to separate town halls with each candidate in lieu of debating.

“Biden has supported endless wars,” Stepien wrote, signaling a closing focus for Trump’s team in a trying final stretch. “Biden also has advanced the interests of China for 47 years as a Washington politician.”

Conversely, Stepien indicated that Trump hoped to tout a hawkish record on Iran, and encircle Biden on the Obama administration’s record there. Biden has given “aid and comfort to our adversaries,” Stepien contended. Iran “was delivered pallets loaded with mountains of cash,” he said, in a traditional Republican rendering of a controversial maneuver required by the Obama administration’s Iran deal. 

The Biden campaign had not responded to the complaint by press time. 

Foreign policy debates can often play into incumbents’ hands, highlighting the contrast between would-be president and the sitting commander-in-chief. Well-timed zingers are seen as particularly humiliating to the challenger who wanders far afield.

“A few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest, geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia,” Barack Obama told Mitt Romney in 2012. “The 1980’s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” The quip gained new life in light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the still-continuing controversy around the 2016 election, but at the time the jab was considered quite effective. 

This latest brouhaha comes as Biden has opened a formidable lead in national and state polling — though Republican operatives point to recent voter registrations, where they apparently lead, with guarded optimism. And Stepien’s complaint comes as skepticism toward the debate commission — exacerbated by the coordination controversy of C-SPAN anchor Steve Scully with Trumpworld apostate Anthony Scaramucci — becomes increasingly mainstream on the right.

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Reporter at TAC covering national security, the Biden White House and the future of the Republicans. He has reported for The National Interest, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, Washington Examiner, UnHerd, the Spectator, among others. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow, and has been a fellow at Defense Priorities and the Claremont Institute. He is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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