What Republicans Are Hoping Trump Doesn't Do During His Debate With Joe Biden


Donald Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill want him to play nice in his first 2024 debate with President Joe Biden on Thursday.

They’re urging the former president ― who frequently veers off script and goes on wild tangents during campaign appearances ― to stick to policy and contrast his plans for another term in the White House with Biden’s tenure as president and his handling of the economy. 

And they want him to steer clear of talk about supposedly stolen elections, something he often brings up to supporters on the campaign trail.

“He should focus on looking forward,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said. “He should look on what our policy needs are, he should have a look at what it’s going to do to bring down the price of groceries, what he’s going to do to bring down the price of gasoline, price of energy. He should leave the past behind.”

“I would talk more about the future and how I’ll clean up Joe Biden’s mess,” added Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).

Trump has been focused on other things before the debate kickoff, however. Over the weekend, he suggested, without evidence, that Biden is using medical supplements to get “jacked up” for their face-off. And on Monday, the former president again challenged Biden to take a drug test, adding that he, too, would “immediately” agree to take one if Biden accepts. 

Trump, 78, and his allies have for months attacked the 81-year-old Biden as too old and unfit for the presidency. Polls have shown that Biden’s age and Trump’s felony conviction are issues for voters in the coming election, and both certainly might come up during Thursday’s debate.

Asked if Trump should bring up Biden’s age on the CNN debate stage, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a top Trump ally, said, “You don’t have to. I think everybody’s already decided Biden can’t do the job.”

“All [Trump] has to do is talk about what he did. If he talks about what he did, he should have a great debate,” Scott said.

The first 2024 general election debate between presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, shown here on Oct. 22, 2020, at their debate in Nashville, will take place Thursday in Atlanta, hosted by CNN. The first 2024 general election debate between presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, shown here on Oct. 22, 2020, at their debate in Nashville, will take place Thursday in Atlanta, hosted by CNN.

The first 2024 general election debate between presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, shown here on Oct. 22, 2020, at their debate in Nashville, will take place Thursday in Atlanta, hosted by CNN. Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also urged Trump to focus on drawing a contrast with Biden on major issues, including the economy and foreign policy. 

“It’s not just age, it’s performance,” Graham said. “To me, it’s a wrong track, right track debate. If you think we’re on the wrong track, explain why and how you get back on the right track.”

The first 2020 debate between Biden and Trump was marked by near-constant interruptions, most often by Trump. At one point, Biden expressed frustration and told Trump, “Will you shut up, man?” At Thursday’s debate, which is being hosted by CNN, microphones will be muted except when a candidate is recognized to speak.

Biden has been preparing for the debate this past week with top aides at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, including mock sessions and practice counterpunches on potential Trump weaknesses, such as immigration and abortion access, according to The New York Times.

The GOP’s strategy of trying to make Biden look feeble and incompetent backfired in March when the president delivered an energetic and forceful State of the Union (SOTU) speech before Congress that earned him bipartisan plaudits. Democrats believe Trump is walking into a similar trap this time around.

“I think the danger Republicans get into with him, at least before SOTU, is they talk him down, ’Oh, he can’t do it,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said of Biden. “Then he does fine, but he not only looks fine he looks better than fine because they talk him down. If anything, they should lower expectations for how Trump will do.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), meanwhile, said Biden shouldn’t shy away from concerns about his age.

“We have two presidential contenders who are both of advanced age,” Murphy said. “That’s just a reality of this election, so I think [Biden] is at this best when he doesn’t hide from his age and makes people understand there’s actually wisdom that comes with having a few years on this earth.”

Trump isn’t doing mock debate sessions but rather is holding policy discussions with allies and experts, including members of Congress. Last week, he appeared to be trying to build up expectations of Biden’s performance, calling the president a “worthy debater.”

“I don’t want to underestimate him,” Trump said in an appearance on “The All-In” podcast last week.

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