In the days before the second and final planned debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the president’s close advisers were trying to get the incumbent to lean on his strengths. But instead of concentrating on any specific policy achievement, that meant largely going after the former vice president’s kid.
After all, by targeting Hunter Biden, making the debate moderator the enemy of the president, and casting other quintessentially Trumpian grievances into the air, the Trump campaign can try to take the focus away from the coronavirus catastrophe that continues to drag his presidency into a deficit.
The Biden campaign is loath to let that happen. Sticking with the approach that has steered their campaign to a polling lead for months, the Democratic challenger is planning to, once again, blame Trump over and over for the nation’s continuous COVID-19 horrors.
“I sure hope Joe Biden has an answer for the crooked foreign corruption financial set-aside deals these emails paint him as receiving. He has some explaining to do,” Jason Miller, a top Trump aide, said on Wednesday morning, responding to a question about how the president is preparing for the Nashville faceoff.
Ever since the Ohio debate, the president’s attorney Rudy Giuliani has provided him with dubious information to add another thread to his longstanding campaign against Biden and his family. Last week, the New York Post began publishing stories about emails and private details that Giuliani had provided, claiming that they were from Hunter’s personal laptop. Giuliani had pushed the story to the Post with the president’s prior knowledge and explicit approval to do so before Nov. 3. In the intervening time, the lawyer, the president, and members of his campaign staff have said that the articles show that the Bidens were compromised or open to blackmail, or that the former vice president was himself corrupt.
Many of Trump’s officials, current and former, however, are acutely aware that a Hunter-based strategy may not be quite the right thing to bring the president over the finish line in 12 days. Still, several aides concede that the president is determined to make Hunter Biden a prominent part of his final argument.
Miles Taylor, a former top official in the Homeland Security Department under Trump who has since endorsed Biden, said the whole plot line “reeks to high hell.”
“First and foremost, the vice president’s got to be forceful in defending his son,” Taylor said in an interview. “He should be forceful in highlighting the lengths to which Trump and his associates will go to dig up dirt on political opponents, including tying this directly back to the president’s impeachment. And then, Joe Biden needs to turn the tables, because even if all of these allegations against Hunter Biden are true, they pale in comparison to the level of corruption we’ve seen this president and his family members engage in when it comes to dealing with foreign governments.”
“That’s where Biden’s got to go, is to say, ‘Who gives a shit about my son? Our sitting commander-in-chief was impeached for trying to collude with a foreign power to undermine me, Joe Biden, and to win this election,’” Taylor said.
Taylor might be hoping for a little too much fire from the man he’s now backing. A source familiar with the Biden campaign’s thinking said that Biden is certainly anticipating Trump to make his son a topic of discussion again. But he isn’t likely to revolutionize his style just because he’s on stage with Trump. Instead, he intends to drill further into the areas where he has centered the majority of his campaign’s time and money, on things like the economy and health care, the knowledgeable source indicated. And as 221,550 Americans have died from COVID-19, based on the most current data available, the former vice president sees the debate as yet another critical chance to remind viewers that Trump is to blame for the death toll and damage unique to this moment, even if he tries to bring up his son, the source said.
“I think he can expect another full-on assault,” said Jay Carney, who served as President Barack Obama’s press secretary in the White House. “He has to verbally roll his eyes on behalf of the American people and say, ‘Look, we’ve heard all this before. We’ve been through the non-stop character accusation and attacks and false accusations, that’s not what this is about. This is about you, it’s about the future of the country.’”
Carney, who worked as Biden’s communication director during both of Obama’s terms in office, knows something about the Democrat’s messaging style. His tone should not change even if Trump decides to go for the jugular again, he said.
“Notwithstanding all the evidence that the attacks on the vice president’s son have been ineffective, it’s still likely that we’ll see more of them,” Carney projected. “The president doesn’t have a lot of other options.”
Dr. Jill Biden, Biden’s wife and the former second lady, said much of the same on Wednesday afternoon, calling them “distractions” in an appearance on ABC’s The View. Speaking to a predominantly female audience of daytime viewers, she said, “I don’t like to see my son attacked and certainly I don't like to see my husband attacked. But for me, or to me, these are distractions. The American people don’t want to hear these smears against my family, the American people are struggling right now.”
At a stop in North Carolina, Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate, told reporters that Biden is not likely to use personal insults against members of Trump’s family, despite his opponent’s plans. “Listen, Joe Biden knows that what America needs to hear is, they need to hear a conversation about how we’re going to put food on America’s tables when people are standing in food lines,” Harris said in Asheville. “He knows that people want to hear about how we’re going to help working families get through the end of the month and pay the rent. That’s what people care about,” she said, before adding, “one of the things I love about Joe Biden—he doesn’t take on or talk about other peoples’ kids.”
For all of Trump’s talk about Biden’s family, it won’t be all Hunter, Hunter, Hunter. In recent days, the president has casually brainstormed with people close to him some other potential attacks and one-liners for Thursday’s event at 9 p.m. ET, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation. Along with the usual canned responses in which Trump defends his administration’s record on coronavirus and other policy matters, he has also solicited ideas from some confidants about how to go after Kristen Welker, the political correspondent and NBC moderator for the evening, the sources said, and about how to paint her as akin to—in the president’s words—a “Democrat operative,” one of the sources familiar with Trump’s thinking described. The president has privately asked if he should do this live from the debate stage, or save it for Twitter and other public venues.
Many of Trump’s senior aides and allies, in contrast, are keeping their fingers firmly crossed this week, hoping that the president doesn’t pull off a repeat of the first debate, which some Trump officials and Republican operatives privately knocked as an unmitigated shout-y disaster for the president, and one that made Hunter and Joe Biden seem more sympathetic than they thought the two should have.
“I think on the Trump side, it was too hot,” former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had helped Trump with debate prep, said on ABC at the time. “Listen, you come in and decide you want to be aggressive and that was the right thing, to be aggressive. But that was too hot.”
Even Giuliani, who had also participated in the same Trump pre-debate session, insisted in an interview with The Daily Beast last week that he’d advised the president to take it easy, at least somewhat, on the Hunter rhetoric, counseling Trump to mostly stay away from publicly weighing in on the “sexual” or “crack [cocaine]” material that Giuliani has been pushing. The former New York City mayor conceded, however, that Trump may not be able to help himself and “probably [will] talk about the drug addiction,” referring to the Biden son’s publicly documented substance-abuse past.
The Tennessee debate is the last scheduled time Trump and Biden will be in the same room together before Election Day. Last week, the two nominees missed one of their few sanctioned chances to meet in front of cameras after the president said he would not entertain the idea of an alternate virtual spar session while recovering from COVID-19. Instead, they participated in two very different competing town halls, which Biden came out ahead in TV ratings.
While some in the president’s ear thought the last debate wasn’t great, Biden also didn’t offer one central slug to Trump, but rather reiterated what sounded at times like a calm reciting of a press release. He did, however, manage to pull some flare from his vocabulary by telling the president to “shut up” while he attempted to portray him as a kooky liberal.
This go round, while both campaigns are planning for a redo of at least some of the themes from the last debate, there are new protocols to help steer the conversation in a more traditional—if not entirely civilized—direction that takes basic decorum into account.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, which has endured its own criticism from some who have called for a tighter control of the process, said that the candidates’ mics will be temporarily turned off when they’re not speaking. “The only candidate whose microphone will be open during these two-minute periods is the candidate who has the floor under the rules,” the committee announced in a statement this week.
After the inaugural debate, senior Biden aides held a briefing call to spin reporters about how he presented as a prepared leader, while Trump in their view was the total opposite. The real flashpoint, they said, came when the president acknowledged the far-right militia group Proud Boys. This time, the campaign is ready for any number of outbursts from Trump, and allies say Biden needs to demonstrate again that he is a fundamentally different human being.
“He should absolutely show contrasts about who they are as people, who they are as candidates and who they are on policy, which he has done and should continue to do,” said Scott Mulhauser, a Democratic operative who was Biden’s deputy chief of staff in 2012. “While continuing the empathy and humanity that has made him so likable and defined so much of his career.”
—With additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich