How Trump and Biden are preparing for their first debate

For President Trump, debate prep looks far different than it did in 2016, when he hosted hours-long debate sessions featuring a cadre of campaign advisers led by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Leading up to his first debate with Joe Biden Tuesday, he has dispensed with traditional formal rehearsals and scripted practices. Now, Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller and counselor to the president Hope Hicks feed the president flash cards and videos in between stops on Air Force one to prepare for Tuesday night

Mr. Trump has frequently cited his study of the Democratic presidential nominee. “I don’t want to watch, but I have an obligation, you know. I am competing with somebody. You don’t want to compete with somebody and say, I’m not gonna watch my competition,” Mr. Trump told supporters at an airport hangar rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, last week. 

And while some are concerned about the president’s lack of preparation, his advisers stress that he’s an “atypical candidate,” and they say his near-daily press availabilities and often “hostile” interactions with reporters are readying him. 

“The president prepares by being president,” Tim Murtaugh told CBS News. “And by regularly facing hostile news media. That’s pretty good practice by any measure.” The president spokesperson added that while President Trump’s ABC News Town Hall last month advertised questions by “uncommitted” voters, the president was pressed. “He faced a rigorous and challenging questioning, I think, to put it mildly. It was a good debate practice workout.” 

“I think it was great,” Mr. Trump told supporters gathered in Minnesota, September 18. “I think it worked out great,” he remarked. “You know what I call it it? ‘Debate prep.’ I call it ‘free debate prep.'” 

On Sunday, Mr. Trump said that a “combination” of Christie and Giuliani play Biden in debate prep. But, Mr. Trump added, taking questions from reporters can be debate prep. 

“I think this whole thing though is debate prep,” Mr. Trump said at a White House news conference on Sunday. “You know, what I do is debate prep. Every day, I’m taking questions from you people over time.”

For Biden debate prep has been taking place both in-person at his Delaware home and virtually, in huddles with long-time advisers and top campaign officials, according to a campaign source familiar with the strategy.  

The Democrats are reviewing the president’s almost daily tweets about Biden, his record and his family as examples of the type of attacks they think the president will focus on. 

“The people know the president is a liar,” Biden said in a MSNBC interview on Saturday. “He doesn’t know how to debate the facts, because he’s not that smart.” 

“He doesn’t know that many facts. He doesn’t know much about foreign policy. He doesn’t know much about domestic policy. He doesn’t know much about the details,” Biden added.  

For their part, the campaign believes Tuesday’s debate topics — specifically, COVID-19, race and violence in cities, and election integrity — allow Biden to highlight what he sees as the president’s most serious missteps. He’s expected to retool criticisms of the Trump administration he has been using for the past few months.  

Biden is also expected to defend the Affordable Care Act and connect its fate, in part, to the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, since Democrats see the nominee as potentially hostile to the Obama-era healthcare plan. 

Top advisers are also trying to caution the former vice president from venturing “in the weeds” of complex policy as he was inclined to do on the campaign trail and in previous primary debates, the campaign source said. 

This stay-on-message focus may already be on display as Biden on Sunday in Delaware delivered remarks on the Supreme Court and was asked by a reporter about whether he was inclined to expand the high court.  

“What I’m not going to do is play the Trump game, which is a good game he plays — take the eye off the issue before us. If I were to say yes or no to that, that becomes a big issue. That’s the headline here,” Biden said, “I am focused on one thing right now, and I mean it: I’m focused on making sure the American people understand that they’re being cut out of this process…in order to take away the ACA and your healthcare in the midst of a pandemic. That’s the focus.”  

For months Trump campaign surrogates and advisers have downplayed Biden’s abilities for months – even running ads alleging his mental decline and coining the phrase “slow Joe.” Now, they’re trying to raise expectations of Biden heading into Tuesday. 

“People have to remember that Biden has been a Washington politician for 47 years and spent decades in the Senate where all they do is debate,” Murtaugh said. “In Democratic primaries, he engaged in 11 debates and managed to defeat two dozen challengers. So, Joe Biden is a guy who knows his way around the debate stage.” 

Asked about the campaign’s frequent assessment that Joe Biden underperforms in speaking situations, Murtaugh added, “I think there’s no question that anybody who watches knows that sometimes Joe Biden is befuddled, but he is also able to turn it on when the time calls for it. And that’s what we anticipate he will do on debate night.” 

“Maybe he’s gonna be great at the debate. You know he’s been doing it for 47 years,” President Trump told supporters Thursday in Jacksonville, Florida, echoing his campaign. “Somebody said, ‘Oh, he won’t do well at the debate.’ I said, ‘I think you’re wrong. He’ll do fine. He’s gonna do fine.” 

Both campaigns are also already accusing their opponent of lying, even before the debate has begun.   

“In terms of what he is doing for debate prep, he is preparing for the debate. And he’s looking forward to being on stage with Donald Trump next week to lay out his vision for the country and to hold Donald Trump accountable for the ways in which he has failed this country,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said on a Thursday press call, in response to a question about debate prep and strategy. “In terms of how the moderator chooses to referee the debate, obviously you know our hope is that he will hold Donald Trump accountable for things that he says that are simply lies and mistruths. But that will be up to the moderator, and we’ll see what he chooses to do.”  

Trump campaign aides also told CBS News they have studied Biden’s habits and tendencies, reviewing previous debate tapes to build up an “arsenal” for the president to use when he takes the stage Tuesday night. 

“Yes, we are gearing up to call out all of Biden’s lies and misinformation,” a senior campaign aide tells CBS News. “We have a ton of content ready to go.” 

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