June 28, 2024 6 min read

Staring down a potentially race-defining debate and an opponent that has spent far more time preparing, Donald Trump’s team is now trying to steer the former president’s focus to kitchen table issues instead of the grievances that have occupied his mind for the past four years.

Advisers and allies of Trump have privately encouraged him to focus intensely on the economy, crime and inflation during Thursday’s debate, citing poll numbers that reflect he has the upper hand on these issues, sources familiar with the conversations tell CNN.

“These are the issues that are people are hurting from and that need to be addressed,” Trump senior adviser Jason Miller said during a call Tuesday with reporters, citing recent record inflation, crime committed by undocumented migrants and President Joe Biden’s handling of the US-Mexico border.

Some of these allies have also urged Trump to paint the international landscape under Biden as chaotic and focus on both the two-year war in Ukraine and the fighting between Israel and Hamas as examples.

“This isn’t theoretical anymore,” Trump ally Rep. Mike Waltz told “CNN News Central,” when asked what he hopes to hear from the former president during the debate. “This is what life was like under the Trump administration—economically with inflation, with the border with security, in terms of crime and the world … Just look at the Middle East … You’re going to see the contrast and the contrast is going to be clear.”


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Sources close to the former president say that while Trump is aware of the gravity of Thursday’s debate and the importance of hammering a message, they acknowledged his propensity to veer into lengthy, off topic rants that leaves the possibility they may have fallout to manage come Friday morning.

Trump’s advisers, who have gone back to examine the former president’s 2020 debates with Biden, are also cognizant that his aggressive approach in that cycle’s first matchup may have misfired with viewers. In that debate, Trump repeatedly attacked Biden and consistently spoke over him, as well as antagonized the moderators. His poll numbers fell shortly after the event.

Trump himself acknowledged as much in an interview with the Washington Examiner published on Monday.

“I was very aggressive in the first one,” Trump said. “The second one, I was different, and I got great marks on the second one. It was a little unfair because, in the second one, a lot of votes had already been cast. So I’m probably going to look at the scene at the time. It’s like a fight. It depends on what the situation is.”

Trump allies have also sought to control the narrative around the debate by stoking speculation around various storylines, in what some people close to the former president have described as efforts to distract from and get ahead of less savory discussions involving Trump.

That includes conversations regarding whether Trump may preempt his self-imposed timeline for announcing his running mate in the leadup to or at the Republican National Convention next month, and instead announce his vice presidential pick as early as this week.

Several of Trump’s senior advisers have told CNN that there are no formal plans for the former president to make such an announcement this week; Trump campaign manager Chris LaCivita dismissed one such report speculating as much. However, they have repeatedly reserved the right for Trump to potentially change his mind and announce his decision at the debate or at his rally in Virginia the next day.

The expectations game

Thursday’s debate is the earliest in a presidential race in modern American history.

Trump’s numerous policy sessions and conversations with advisers have also touched on how to answer specific questions, including on abortion and protecting American democracy — particularly the events of January 6, 2021 – but also how to pivot back to the core issues perceived to be his strengths against Biden.

Leading up to debate week, Trump has downplayed the importance of preparation. While Biden has hunkered down at Camp David with advisers, Trump hit the campaign trail Saturday and attended multiple fundraisers – and relished comparing approaches. At his rally in Philadelphia last weekend, Trump quipped that Biden had “gone to a log cabin to study, prepare, no, he didn’t do, he’s sleeping now.”

But with the Thursday showdown coming into focus, the urgency to ready Trump has taken on a new tone. While his team seldom uses the word “prep” when discussing its debate strategy, the former president himself argued that the lead up to the debate was tedious.

“It’s very hard to prepare,” Trump told the Washington Examiner. “You’ve got to know this stuff from years of doing it. And I know all the leaders, and I know what I know. It’s largely based on common sense. Common sense is not to allow people to come into our country by the millions if you have no idea where they’re from. … I don’t know, I think debating is an attitude more than anything else.”

Trump’s allies hope he focuses less on attitude and more on messaging Thursday. Many close to Trump originally complained about the lack of an audience during the debate, arguing that it would likely be difficult for Trump to build momentum given that he usually feeds off the energy from a crowd. However, in recent days, some have argued that riffing off the crowd isn’t necessarily helpful, noting that the absence of supporters might make it easier for Trump to stay focused on his message and not dive into what he views as crowd-pleasing rhetoric.

“The moment Biden said to him ‘shut up man’ [during the 2020 debate], I knew we’d lose the election,” a Trump ally told CNN, and added that the rules dictating that microphones will be muted this debate might help avoid another similar confrontation.


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Trump, though, lamented that he won’t have a crowd to take cues from. The rules for the debate agreed to by both campaigns did not allow for a studio audience.

“You have no audience to read. To me, the audience is easier because it’s telling you what is going on, indirectly, with applause or not applause. This room is a sterile, dead room, which is I guess what they want,” Trump told the Examiner.

Trumps advisers and allies went into debate week trying to temper expectations, painting Biden as a formidable opponent — and attacking the media coverage of the debate, the format his team agreed to and CNN’s moderators. The messaging is familiar — the system is rigged, Trump, along with his advisers and allies, says, an argument he has deployed in the courtroom, on the campaign trail, and in the aftermath of the 2020 election — and sets the table for an escape should the former president not deliver on the debate stage.

Much of the shift in messaging came after the team learned Biden was planning to spend a full week at Camp David as part of his debate boot camp — a realization that one Trump adviser described as a turning point in their plans to try and raise the bar for how Biden may perform.

Trump’s top surrogates, including two of his leading vice presidential contenders, Ohio Sen. JD Vance and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, spanned the airwaves this week to do just that.

“When he needs to, he can step up,” Burgum, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, pushing back on what he called “a real effort on the Biden team to try to lower expectations.”

Miller told reporters Tuesday: “We know that when it comes to the big events, when it comes to debates, when it comes to the State of the Union, things of that nature, that they’re going to have Joe Biden completely super-soldiered up. He is going to be ready to go. He has a certain muscle memory that kicks in for having done this for 50 years.”

Even the former president, who often mocks Biden during his rallies as incompetent, shifted his posture last week.

“I assume he’s going to be somebody that will be a worthy debater,” Trump told the “The All-In” podcast. “I don’t want to underestimate him.”

However, that didn’t extend to his rally in Philadelphia last weekend, when Trump implied Biden would need help getting “jacked up” for the debate.

There is no evidence that Biden has or plans to take performance-enhancing drugs, and the Biden campaign has sharply criticized such accusations.

Source: CNN - Allies urge Trump to focus on inflation, immigration and crime as team tempers debate expectations

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