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Biden and Trump both see opportunity in June debate, but they’re preparing in different ways

By Edward-Isaac Dovere and Kristen Holmes, CNN

(CNN) — Two presidents have never debated before. And neither of these two presidents has debated anyone in almost four years — not since the last time they faced each other.

Both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are confident they can take the other down in next month’s CNN debate, people who’ve spoken to them said, and each camp is convinced the other’s diminishment from four years ago will be overwhelming to voters throughout 90 minutes of live TV.

Both believe the debate could move the needle for that thin slice of undecided voters who don’t like either candidate and are primed to oppose whoever comes across worse.

But Biden and Trump are gearing up in very different ways.

Between the president’s two multi-day trips scheduled for Europe to commemorate D-Day and for the annual G-7 summit and a fundraising swing to California, Biden aides have plans for extensive prep sessions that will likely include a sequestered stretch, possibly at Camp David. Trump’s advisers, however, insist there have been no formal conversations about preparation for next month’s debate, particularly with the candidate himself. Trump, who is facing the end of his hush money criminal trial in New York next week and waiting for a verdict, has several events and a California fundraising swing of his own planned.

Biden aides believe the president’s task on stage will be straightforward: both needling and taunting Trump, and repeatedly calling on his opponent to answer and explain comments he’s made and positions he has taken.

They argue they’re set up to keep capitalizing on how they cornered the former president into agreeing to a debate on their terms, format and timeline, and much of what Biden will do is try to leverage that into confronting Trump.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, the chair of the Biden reelection campaign, said that “ultimately it doesn’t matter how Trump responds.”

“We make no bones about the fact that the more people see the choice, the better it is for us, the more people feel and hear him, see the crazy stuff he says,” she said, adding, “These [debates] are two moments that the president can stand next to Donald Trump and show the strength of his leadership and show there’s just one choice here who can actually deliver for people.”

No level of preparation or rehearsed lines can cover for those positions, Biden aides said, and even if they don’t get the wild-swinging responses they’re fantasizing about, “the problem for [Trump] is there is no substantive answer to these questions that the American people are going to agree with,” Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler said.

Trump aides, meanwhile, said formal practice sessions are unlikely, with Trump’s run-up to the debate likely to look very different from the standard. Though they acknowledge plans may change — and that any change would have to come from Trump himself — they said, as of now, there will not be someone playing Biden, they will not hit the former president with tough questions, and they will not have him practice engaging with moderators. More likely, they said, will be a series of meetings and conversations with close advisers.

Trump’s less structured preparation more suits his freewheeling style, they said, while they’re also being careful to avoid setting the bar too low for Biden even as the former president frequently attacks his Democratic rival’s fitness for office.

Biden’s performance at his State of the Union address — which went over largely well and led to many public reconsiderations of whether he was too diminished to run for a second term — is very much on the minds of some Trump aides. They expect that Biden’s team will get him into similar shape ahead of the debate.

“The American people are unhappy with his administration, and he will have to answer for three years of bad policies,” one Trump adviser told CNN.

A key date on the calendar

Biden’s campaign is using the June 27 debate as an organizing directive, with two main dates on the calendar in the lead up.

First up will be June 12, the day in 2016 when 49 people were killed in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando by a man with the kind of automatic rifle Biden has been pushing to ban. Then will be June 24, the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that struck down Roe v. Wade.

That next phase will begin with a new ad releasing Friday, narrated by Robert De Niro, hitting some of what the Biden campaign believes are their strongest points.

“We knew Trump was out of control when he was president,” De Niro says over a shot of Trump behind the Resolute Desk. “Then he lost the 2020 election and snapped.”

The ad describes him as “desperately” trying to cling to power while showing images of the January 6, 2021, insurrection. The phrases “dictator” and “terminate the Constitution” flash on screen, followed by a clip of Trump saying, “If I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a bloodbath.”

To Biden aides, talking about Trump having “snapped” is continuing to set the terms of the face off, even before they get to the debate stage. Trolling Trump, they said, doesn’t just increase the likelihood that it will set off the former president; it’s what they need to rev up the disenchanted in their own base who are struggling to get excited for Biden but can never get enough of hating Trump.

But multiple prominent Democrats said they worry Biden can’t come off as robust next to Trump. They live a daily nightmare imagining some kind of trip up, literal or verbal, that becomes the one Biden can’t come back from, and they think the debate stage seems like the obvious place where this could happen.

Back in 2020, as Biden and his close advisers were trying to figure out what he would be facing in the presidential debates, top aide Anita Dunn reached out for some insight to Anthony Scaramucci, the finance executive who famously spent 11 days as Trump’s communications director before being fired and then turning hard against his former boss.

These days, Biden and his team feel like they have Trump pegged to the point that they’re laying out much of what they want to talk about, and how, in a memo they will circulate to reporters on Friday, over a month ahead of when the lights go on in Atlanta.

Trump aides, however, said they’re not worried, and neither is Trump, people who have spoken to him said. They believe formats and calendars can’t change issues like immigration and the economy that they think are dominating the race and certainly can’t change how Biden comes off on camera.

Biden and Trump have both struggled in debate prep before

Biden savors going after Republicans much more than he ever liked going after fellow Democrats during many stumbling primary debate performances in 2019 and 2020. But “sprawling” is a word often associated with Biden prep.

People who have been in previous debate preps sessions with him said they can be exhausting and, for long stretches, not productive. He prefers sitting around a table covered in policy binders, trying to explain himself in long answers in ways that he feels like he hasn’t gotten to do and asking whoever he can make eye contact with, “How would you do it?”

Much of the work goes into focusing him, these people who have been in prep with him said, pulling him back to the key point or narrative that aides have identified.

Biden does not like mock debates, according to people who were involved with those sessions. Staffers built podiums for him to use in prep in 2020 and he would stand at his occasionally, but he likes the feeling of preserving some fresh energy for the night itself.

Last time around, though, aides kept making him face his Trump stand-in — Bob Bauer, the lawyer for his campaign who has since represented Biden in several matters, including being in the deposition for the classified documents investigation that produced the special counsel report in February. Over and over, Bauer would go at Biden with vicious attacks about his son Hunter and his family, trying to numb Biden to even worse comments than they expected Trump might dare to make.

This worked well enough, Biden 2020 campaign aides argued, that it set Biden up for one of his more lauded moments four years ago, when he responded to Trump’s attacks on his son with a firm but emotional statement about families like his that have struggled with addiction.

Ron Klain, Democrats’ most experienced presidential debate coach and former Biden chief of staff, is expected to be involved again this time, but multiple people in the Biden circle also point to longtime adviser and current deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed as being key this time. With Dunn, O’Malley Dillon and fellow aides Steve Ricchetti and Mike Donilon, the rest of Biden’s core political team that prepped him four years ago remains largely in place. The only main ones likely to be missing are adviser Antony Blinken, who is now secretary of state, and former communications director and deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield, who has left the White House and is now a CNN contributor, while former policy director Jake Sullivan is now the national security adviser.

As for Trump, several people who participated in his debate preparations in 2016 and 2020 say it was often hard to keep him focused. Practice sessions would often devolve.

His team this time around is substantially different. Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, the two top aides on this year’s campaign, were not involved in his 2020 prep.

Catching Covid-19 during debate prep and being hospitalized was the beginning of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s turn against the former president, and he has made abundantly clear during his 2024 GOP primary run and since that he does not want to be anywhere near Trump this time. Rudy Giuliani, who was also frequently at the White House in those days, has largely been sidelined and is busy with his own indictments.

CNN’s Steve Contorno contributed to this report.

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