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How Biden and Trump are preparing for their first presidential debate


By MJ Lee, Alayna Treene, Kayla Tausche and Kevin Liptak, CNN

(CNN) — One is secluding himself at a mountainside retreat with a tight circle of advisers, poring over briefing binders, honing attack lines and bracing for personal smears. The other is workshopping responses and retorts with vice presidential hopefuls, sharpening policy lines while working to rein in his bombastic rhetoric.

In some ways, aides to President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump describe similar goals heading into next Thursday’s presidential debate: painting their opponent as presiding over disorder and wholly unfit for office.

For two men who have been circling each other rhetorically for the past four years, the debate hosted by CNN in Atlanta amounts to a moment of high consequence. Both candidates are aware of the stakes, officials in both campaigns say, as they huddle with their teams to prepare attacks, form rebuttals and frame the choice of November’s election.

Both teams have spent the past weeks working to fine-tune their message on a wide array of issues, from the economy to foreign affairs to their rival’s fitness for office. And each has found themselves distracted in some way: Trump by the criminal trial that consumed his spring and Biden by a stretch of intensive overseas travel and a painful legal saga for his family.

Yet the similarities mostly end there. How each man is preparing for the debate is ultimately a microcosm of their differences as candidates, and each will enter the CNN studio with divergent objectives.

In prep sessions that have already started, Biden has been focused on ways to hold Trump accountable on the debate stage – mirroring the broader political strategy that his White House and campaign have been deploying for months.

“The president has gotten increasingly punchier in recent remarks about Trump and plans to carry that theme through to the debate,” one Biden campaign official said.

After months of suggesting that the American electorate was tuned out of the 2024 race, the Biden camp sees the debate as a starting block of sorts, and a chance to present its study of candidate contrasts in front of a new and engaged audience.

Trump, meanwhile, is aiming to assure voters he can be a steadier and more effective leader than his successor, despite the legal issues swirling around him and a deeply divisive approach to politics.

Some of his debate prep has focused less on policy, but on rhetoric. Trump has previously struggled with policy debates, instead preferring to meander and generalize – especially without a teleprompter. He’s also been quick to show aggression in past debates, including speaking over his opponents and attacking the moderators, moves that stuck with viewers in the months that followed.

“I’ll probably be negotiating with three people, but that’s OK. I’ve done that before,” Trump told his supporters Tuesday at a rally in Racine, Wisconsin, referring to Biden and CNN’s moderators. “I’ll be debating three people instead of one, instead of one half of a person.”

Debate camp

To get ready, Biden is gathering trusted aides this week and next at Camp David, the mountainside presidential retreat, for several days of intensive discussion and preparation. The secluded complex of rustic lodges in Maryland has, in the past, helped focus Biden and his team ahead of important moments such as State of the Union speeches.

The preparations are expected to progress over a series of days, evolving from informal discussions about topics, questions and potential responses and culminating in more formal 90-minute mock debates. The president will likely be fueled by his favorite drink of orange Gatorade. (CNN debate rules stipulate that each candidate will have a pen, writing pad and a bottle of water at the podium.)

The White House is preserving the possibility that the president and his team could travel to Atlanta directly from Camp David, depending on how much practice remains.

Aides have been compiling binders of questions – with possible answers to each of them – on a wide range of topics for the president to peruse. Four years ago, Biden is said to have offered detailed feedback on every anticipated topic, sometimes rejecting certain suggestions altogether. At other points, he pushed aides to home in deeper on one subject matter or frame a response in a different way.

Biden’s former chief of staff, Ron Klain, is taking the lead to help the president get ready to debate Trump, a Biden campaign official told CNN. Beyond knowing and working for Biden for decades, Klain is the party’s most seasoned debate coach, having worked with Democratic candidates in nearly every presidential race over the past three decades.

Bruce Reed, another longtime aide who currently serves as Biden’s deputy chief of staff, has been charged with sifting through reams of material and hours of prior Trump appearances to inform the practice sessions. Earlier this year, Reed led the process to compile the policy substance and rhetorical flair that became Biden’s hourlong State of the Union address.

Other close senior advisers to the president, including chief of staff Jeff Zients and senior White House advisers Anita Dunn, Mike Donilon and Cedric Richmond are also involved in preparations.

The Biden team has long argued that once voters begin paying attention to the race, they will see the choice as the study in contrasts the president has promoted endlessly, but which has failed to move the needle in polling. With tens of millions of Americans expected to watch the debate – aides point to recent polling that shows most likely voters plan to tune in – that theory will be tested.

The Biden camp plans to lean heavily on prior Trump comments that – while widely covered by the political media – may not have registered on the radars of the average voter, according to sources involved in the discussions.

Klain, according to a confidante, has quipped that preparing to debate Trump should be straightforward because “he only ever says eight things,” referring to the former president’s tendency to hash out familiar grievances on social media.

While the list of those Trumpisms – and rebukes – is still being tailored, there’s one that is sure to come up, according to one source involved: Trump’s December 2023 suggestion that he would not rule like a dictator “other than Day One.”

‘Policy sessions’

Trump, meanwhile, has deployed the help of some of his top contenders for vice president, as well as senators, policy experts and outside allies, to help brief him ahead of next week’s debate. In recent weeks, Trump has participated in roughly a dozen of these private meetings, dubbed as informal “policy discussions” by his campaign, sources familiar with the sessions told CNN.

The subjects of the meetings have ranged from sharpening his messaging on the economy, the border and crime, to his views on abortion, the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine and how to best frame his May 30 conviction on 34 counts of business fraud, the sources said.

Earlier this month, Trump huddled with Ohio Sen. JD Vance and members of the former president’s staff at Mar-a-Lago for one such briefing, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the meeting. The informal session focused on messaging around the economy, including how to best hammer Biden on inflation – an issue Trump’s campaign argues is the top concern for voters this fall.

Trump engaged in a similar policy discussion with Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Eric Schmitt of Missouri at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC, last week, following his meeting with House and Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, CNN previously reported.

Among the topics discussed were democracy and how to respond to the inevitable questions regarding the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, including Trump’s response to the riot incited by his supporters that day. Trump’s co-campaign managers, Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, also attended the meeting and offered advice on how to most effectively address the issue.

Other meetings have taken place with senior advisers Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller, as well as his former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.

Mock debates

None of Trump’s sessions so far have included mock debates or role-playing, sources said, something the Trump campaign currently has no plans for the former president to engage in – a departure from 2020 when Trump faced off behind closed doors with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie standing in for Biden.

On the Biden side, casting for a Trump stand-in this year remains open, with an expectation that Biden’s personal lawyer, Bob Bauer – who stood in for Trump four years ago – could easily reprise his role.

“We set aside special sessions during which I was expected to be at my Trump-worst – as personally insulting and unhinged as Trump can be,” Bauer recalled in his book released this week, describing his practice of “lying and blustering and bullying my way through the mock sessions.”

In fact, trying to prepare for a wide range of unpredictable scenarios that Biden might be confronted with when standing a handful of yards away from Trump was one of the most important goals of the mock debates in the fall of 2020, according to those who were in the room. Those scenarios included everything from long-winded answers to the possibility of Trump hurling personal insults.

In the last cycle, Biden aides were particularly sensitive to Trump attacking members of Biden’s family on the debate stage.

“Part of the aim of the prep process was to really acclimate Biden to the idea that Trump was potentially going to say really horrible things about his own family, his kids, so that Biden would be prepared and would not feel caught off guard by Trump’s style,” former White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said.

Biden’s son, Hunter, was recently convicted on three felony gun charges – a development that the president and his aides are certain to be bracing for as a potential attack line.

Expectations game

Trump’s advisers, who are wary of using the words “debate prep” when it comes to the former president, have consistently downplayed the notion that he requires the type of preparation that other candidates – and specifically, Biden – need for such a high-stakes debate. Instead, they have pointed to Trump’s rallies and media interviews as examples of how Trump is gearing up to take Biden on, including taking questions from friendly audience members at recent events.

“President Trump takes on numerous tough interviews every single week and delivers lengthy rally speeches while standing, demonstrating elite stamina,” senior Trump adviser Jason Miller, who is running point on Trump’s efforts in advance of the debate, said in a statement.

Ahead of the Atlanta debate, Trump plans to hold a campaign rally in Philadelphia, a city Biden has already visited several times this year as he works to replicate his 2020 victory in Pennsylvania.

The former president’s allies and advisers point out that Trump has not only appeared on several presidential debate stages over the past decade, but he has also debated Biden before – a key reason, they say, for the less conventional approach to the preparations.

But while the Trump campaign’s version of debate prep is unlike the traditional planning most past candidates – and even Trump himself – have engaged in, people close to the former president told CNN his team acknowledges there is still work to do before he takes the stage in Atlanta.

“There’s no question the debate will show Trump is the stronger candidate and the better choice, especially when you see the stark contrast with Biden, physically, mentally and so on. But that doesn’t mean Trump shouldn’t, or isn’t preparing,” said a person close to Trump, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

“He isn’t going into this without doing his homework,” the person added.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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