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Trump Tries to Set Expectations, and Floats Excuses, for His Debate With Biden
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By The New York Times
Published 1 month ago on
June 19, 2024

Former President Donald Trump, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, during a campaign rally at the Racine Festival Park in Racine, Wis., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

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A few minutes into his speech at a campaign rally on Tuesday, Donald Trump asked a question of the few thousand who’d turned up to hear him speak. “Is anybody going to watch the debate?”

Body in Wisconsin, Mind in Atlanta

Trump was in Racine, Wisconsin, but it was clear his mind was in Atlanta, the site of his matchup against President Joe Biden next week. He repeatedly mused about the potential scenarios, lowering expectations that he would dominate Biden and then, as if he couldn’t help himself, raising them again.

The expectations game is a particular challenge for the Trump campaign. Trump, 78, has spent months casting the 81-year-old Biden as a husk of a man who can barely walk or formulate complete sentences. Republicans have pumped out a stream of videos of Biden walking stiffly — some deceptively edited — that are meant to be proof of Biden’s decline.

Trump’s supporters in Racine showed they have been marinating in this content. “Biden can’t stand up!” one woman yelled during Trump’s speech. She stood near another woman who wore a T-shirt with a picture of Biden that read, “Impeach me. I won’t remember.”

But Trump was also preparing for his caricature of Biden to be punctured next week. He openly wrestled with the obvious question: What if Biden clears the very low bar that Trump has now set for him?

He had answers: If that should happen, it’s only because Biden will be “pumped up,” he told his followers, suggesting that the president would hoover up a pile of cocaine beforehand, since the narcotic was recently found in the White House by the Secret Service, though investigators never did figure out how it got there and it was not linked to the president or anyone in his family. (Still, it was an acutely cutting notion, coming a week after the Delaware trial that publicly aired the first family’s struggle with Hunter Biden’s addiction.)

Trump Suspicious of Debate

Trump also told his followers to be suspicious of the whole debate enterprise, although his campaign negotiated the terms of his participation. They should keep in mind, he said, that he’ll be up against multiple adversaries at once — not just Biden but both of CNN’s moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, who, Trump added, were constitutionally incapable of treating him fairly. “I’ll be debating three people instead of one half of a person,” he said.

While it’s clear Biden has physically slowed and his gait stiffened in recent years, his doctor in February called him “fit for duty.” Trump has not disclosed a detail summary of his health. Neither man has released a comprehensive assessment of his mental fitness.

Lately, Trump has been experiencing his own adventures in aging for all to see. Last week, he bragged about passing a cognitive test when he was president but mixed up the name of the doctor who’d administered it. He has confused Nancy Pelosi with Nikki Haley, and Biden with Barack Obama.

And so Democrats have their own set of video clips they’ve been consuming, too — seeing evidence of aging in Trump’s curious tangents about sharks and boats with electric batteries, or in the way he bollixes up words, as he did at the rally Tuesday, when he barked at the Biden campaign for saying that “the videos of crooked Joe shuffling are clean fakes.” He asked the crowd, “Do you know what a clean fake is?” The term Trump was reaching for is actually “cheap fake” — real footage that has been edited deceptively, omitting context by zooming in or cropping out.

Trump Supporters Chime In

In Racine, some of Trump’s supporters took a more nuanced view of the videos of Biden, the age factor and how it all played into expectations for the debate.

“Oh, absolutely, we see them on every channel, and all over the internet of course,” Marjean Stern, 79, a retiree from Kenosha, Wisconsin, said of the videos of Biden. But, given her own age, she confessed to feeling a little queasy at the way her candidate has reveled in Biden’s seemingly senior moments.

“We’re elderly, so we don’t like that,” she said. “I don’t want to make fun of him. I are him.”

Will Moes, 23, who just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and will be voting for the first time in a presidential election, said he accepted that videos of Biden might be edited to make him look addled. “But a lot of the context you see them in, when you watch the full videos, it’s hard to fake that,” he said.

Moes saw Trump’s verbal mistakes as the foreseeable gaffes of a garrulous candidate, not as signs of aging. And as he looked ahead at the debate next week, he echoed Trump’s skepticism that the two candidates would be judged fairly.

As long as Biden “stands up there and doesn’t pass out and doesn’t stop talking for two minutes, the liberal media is going to paint him as a winner, no matter what happens, which is the scary part,” he said.

Trump spoke for a little more than an hour on Tuesday in the early summer heat, Lake Michigan glistening behind him as he recounted how he’d won the state in 2016 before losing it in 2020. “Look at that beautiful lake,” he said, digressing. “What’s better, this, or sitting on the Pacific or Atlantic, which has sharks?” he asked. “You don’t have sharks. That’s a big advantage. I’ll take the one without the sharks.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Shawn McCreesh/Doug Mills
c.2024 The New York Times Company
Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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