An ‘angry’ Trump enters final debate as advisers hope for some chill

The President mostly shrugged it off, declaring his supporters thrilled by the spectacle but acknowledging he could dial it back during the next face-off.

What was supposed to be a second debate was scrapped. On Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee, Trump heads into his final encounter with former Vice President Joe Biden describing himself as “angry,” pitching scattershot attacks and demonstrating little of the restraint some of his advisers are hoping for during what is viewed as his last shot at altering Americans’ views ahead of the election.
Running behind Biden in national polls, but still within striking range in several key battlegrounds, Trump is under pressure to demonstrate to voters that his erratic behavior and bullying streak matter less than his accomplishments as President and what he says would be a train-wreck scenario if Biden wins.

His actions in the first debate and over the subsequent three weeks have done little to obscure those traits. After declining to condemn White supremacy and the far-right Proud Boys during the debate itself, it took Trump two days to say explicitly that he did not approve. He has refused to offer similar condemnation of the online QAnon conspiracy, insisting only that its supporters overlap with his own.

His attacks on Biden’s family during the first debate — and in particular his aspersions about Hunter Biden’s battle with drug addiction — were poorly received. But Trump has only accelerated his claims about the Biden family in the days since, an issue Biden’s advisers say they expect to arise again on Thursday.

Ready to fight

He hasn’t modified his caustic attacks on his Democratic rivals, the news media or government health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Heading into Thursday, Trump was seemingly fixated on a “60 Minutes” interview with CBS that he abruptly cut short earlier in the week, promising to reveal its contents ahead of a planned Sunday airing.

And he has adjusted little of his schedule or messaging to account for a new surge in coronavirus cases, even though his political woes are tied innately to his bungled handling of the pandemic. Much of the questioning in the “60 Minutes” interview that angered the President centered on the crisis; Trump has insisted Americans are tired of hearing about the virus and are ready to move on, even though almost every state is seeing rising case counts.

Trump described himself as “running angry” on Monday, and he has sounded particularly aggrieved as he barnstorms electoral battlegrounds this week. Furious that more attention hasn’t been paid to unfounded claims about his rival’s family, Trump has pressured his attorney general to investigate. He has denied his campaign is experiencing financial woes, even though a recent filing showed he has less than half of Biden’s cash and he continues to headline fundraisers less than two weeks before the election.

How Trump’s frustration at the state of the race — which he insists he still has a good shot of winning — manifests itself in Thursday’s debate isn’t yet clear. After announcing they would adjust the debate format after last month’s disastrous experience, the one modification the Commission on Presidential Debates unveiled was muting each candidates microphone during his rival’s 2-minute opening answer at the start of each topic.

Trump and his campaign have decried the change. Whether they actually prevent Trump from interrupting isn’t certain; the President hardly needs a microphone to speak over Biden.

“I think the mute is very unfair,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday as he departed the White House for a campaign rally in North Carolina, going on to complain about the moderator and to question why the debate wasn’t focused on foreign affairs.

“But that’s my life,” he said, shrugging. “In the meantime, that’s the White House standing behind me.”

Debate prep

Trump trashes Fauci and makes baseless coronavirus claims in campaign call

Though Trump said he “does prep” for the debate, he isn’t planning extensive mock debate sessions ahead of his second encounter with Biden, who by comparison has spent the entire week behind closed doors in Delaware preparing.

Still, Trump is receiving advice to lower the temperature, people familiar with the matter said. He has gone over debate strategy with advisers during meetings over the course of the week.

Advisers have told Trump that Thursday’s debate could be his final chance to reverse negative impressions about his behavior among women and seniors, and he’s been encouraged to appear less angry and even deploy some self-deprecating humor, which some of his advisers believe is when he is at his most likable, one person familiar with the matter said.

Trump has appeared somewhat receptive to the advice in meetings, and has said he may try to interrupt less. But he has maintained he won’t hold back if he believes he’s being maligned or unfairly treated by the moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC News.

That has left some aides without a good idea of what Thursday’s debate will really look like; heading into the first debate, few expected Trump to come off as angry as he did. There are also fears Trump will go too hard against Welker, which could only further erode his standing with women. Trump has a well-documented history of using demeaning language toward Black female reporters, including Welker, though he also congratulated her on a recent promotion.

Instead of mock debates, Trump is spending the days leading up to the event on the road campaigning and participating in interviews. He has said that schedule provides him adequate debate experience instead of the formal practice debates.

“What am I doing to prepare? I’m doing this,” he told reporters in Arizona on Monday as he flew between campaign stops. “You go around; we do interviews with you. This is like — I call this ‘debate prep.’ This is actually tougher than a debate, if you want to know the truth.”

Trump’s debate practice sessions ahead of his first encounter with Biden could hardly be described as a success. He exhibited none of the tactics his advisers worked to prepare him with, some of them said afterward. His angry tone and constant interruptions fell far afield of how his team suggested he comport himself. A week later, more than half of the participants in the prep sessions (including Trump) had contracted coronavirus.

This time, no lengthy mock debate sessions have been convened as Trump maintains a travel-intensive campaign schedule and conducts interviews from the White House. While advisers have discussed the debate with the President as he is traveling and in meetings at the White House, and posed potential questions with suggestions for answers, he is not expected to bring together the same team that prepared him for the first debate in the White House Map Room.

After questions arose following the first debate about when Trump was tested for coronavirus, he said this week he would be willing to be tested and release his results ahead of Thursday’s session.

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