Typically, debates present an opportunity for political candidates who are losing their races to make up ground on the frontrunner. President Donald Trump, however, is not your typical come-from-behind candidate.
That’s why in the lead-up to Thursday’s second and final debate between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Trump has preemptively attacked moderator Kristen Welker of NBC almost every day. That’s why his campaign has made such a big fuss over the debate topics and the addition of a mute button aimed at making the debate more watchable than the first one was thanks to Trump’s antics. And that’s why they’ve seemed to be spinning a bad showing before the debate has even happened.
With the national polls showing Biden’s lead over Trump holding steady at 9 percentage points or more (though battleground polling is tighter), Thursday’s debate is the last chance Trump will have to try and make his case before a large, nationwide TV audience. But the campaign itself doesn’t seem to be projecting much confidence it’ll go better for him than his widely panned performance in the first debate, when he incessantly interrupted Biden and went on rants that required full immersion in Hannityworld to understand.
Trump has spent a week bashing Kristen Welker for very flimsy reasons
Kristen Welker is a well respected White House reporter known for asking Trump and other administration officials tough but fair and respectful questions. Nonetheless, Trump has spent much of the past week trying to paint her as a far-left radical who is conspiring with Biden to hurt him.
“She’s extraordinarily unfair,” Trump said of Welker during a rally in Wisconsin on October 17, lumping her with another NBC employee, Savannah Guthrie, who did an effective job grilling him during a town hall event the night before.
Then, on October 19, Trump described Welker as “a radical left Democrat, or whatever she is.” During a rally later that day in Arizona, he falsely accused Welker of deleting her Twitter account, adding that she’s been “screaming questions at me for a long time. She’s no good.” (Welker hasn’t donated to Democrats and isn’t affiliated with any party.)
"Kristen Welker. She's a radical Democrat. She deleted her entire account. But I've known her, she's been screaming questions at me for a long time. She's no good." -- Trump disses the moderator of the upcoming presidential debate pic.twitter.com/RG4gV2r10Z— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 19, 2020
Trump’s attacks on Welker continued through a Fox & Friends interview on Tuesday, when he described her as “far worse than Scully” (Steve Scully of C-SPAN was supposed to moderate the second presidential debate, but it was canceled following Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis).
In comments illustrative of the contempt he holds for any member of the media who dares to not treat him with kid gloves, Trump went on to attack Guthrie and Chris Wallace of Fox News, who moderated the first presidential debate.
"Kristen Welker is far worse than Scully" -- Trump gears up for Thursday's presidential debate by trashing all of the debate moderators, including Chris Wallace and Savannah Guthrie, who hosted an NBC town hall with him last week pic.twitter.com/MmP8hta9lU— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 20, 2020
On Wednesday, Trump, alluding to the fact that Welker’s parents have donated to Democratic candidates, again described her as “a very biased person.”
“But that’s my life,” Trump said. “In the meantime, that’s the White House back there.”
Has there been a bigger whiner in the history of politics than Donald Trump? pic.twitter.com/0uN4x4WmLA— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 22, 2020
Finally, on Thursday, Trump posted video of his ill-fated interview with Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes on Facebook, but took a gratuitous shot at Welker in the process, writing, “Look at the bias, hatred and rudeness on behalf of 60 Minutes and CBS. Tonight’s anchor, Kristen Welker, is far worse!”
Look at the bias, hatred and rudeness on behalf of 60 Minutes and CBS. Tonight’s anchor, Kristen Welker, is far worse! #MAGA
Look at the bias, hatred and rudeness on behalf of 60 Minutes and CBS. Tonight’s anchor, Kristen Welker, is far worse! #MAGAPosted by Donald J. Trump on Thursday, October 22, 2020
In reality, Trump would object to any moderator who isn’t a loyalist. He made this explicit during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show earlier this month, when he said right-wing media personalities like Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Judge Jeanine, Laura Ingraham, or Tucker Carlson should moderate his debates.
That being said, if Trump expected Thursday’s debate to go well, you’d think he’d at least try and play nice with Welker and focus on attacking Biden. Instead, the incessant attacks on Welker — who’s nobody’s idea of “a radical-left Democrat” — suggests he’s making excuses for a poor showing before the debate has even happened.
Trumpworld has been complaining about everything
The second presidential debate was widely expected to focus on foreign policy before it was canceled following Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis. With there now being only two debates instead of three, the topics announced for Welker’s debate ended up being much broader and include fighting the coronavirus, American families, race in America, climate change, national security, and leadership. Foreign policy may come up within those parameters, but it won’t necessarily be a focus.
With hundreds of people still dying each day from a pandemic that continues to upend American life, it’s certainly understandable that Welker would choose to focus on topics that are close to home. But the Trump campaign took the opportunity to throw another fit.
In a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) that he posted on Twitter, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien referred to the commission as the “Biden Debate Commission” and blasted the topic choices, but also gave away the game Trump wants to play.
“If a major party candidate for President of the United States is compromised by the Communist Party of China, this is something Americans deserve to hear about, but it is not surprising the Biden [sic] would want to avoid it,” he wrote, alluding to baseless conspiracy theories that Joe Biden and his son Hunter leveraged Joe’s government position into massive payouts in China.
As Stepien’s letter suggests, Trump wants to talk about “foreign policy” because it would give him an opportunity to rail against China — the country he’s blaming for the coronavirus — and Hunter Biden. Discussing the devastating impact the pandemic has had on American life and racial tensions he’s spent years inflaming is a much tougher task.
Stepien also blasted the commission for canceling the second debate because Trump “was medically cleared as having tested negative for the virus.” What he didn’t mention, however, is that Trump left the hospital a mere 72 hours before the debate was supposed to happen, and aroused suspicions he may have exposed Biden to the coronavirus during the first debate and refusing to say when he last tested negative before standing onstage with Biden.
While Trump and his campaign incessantly work the refs, Biden has quietly gone with the flow. That tactical difference can perhaps be explained in part by the fact that Biden is leading, but it also appears as though Trump is creating excuses for himself ahead of time.
Team Trump’s whining isn’t just limited to the topics. They’ve also been complaining about CPD’s announcement that a mute button will limit the candidates’ ability to interrupt each other during the two-minute statements they’ll be making at the beginning of each topic. During a Fox & Friends interview on Thursday, Donald Trump Jr. went as far as to suggest that the Trump campaign will try to intimidate debate officials.
“They’re gonna have someone in the room, and we’re gonna call nonsense when we see nonsense,” he said.
On Fox & Friends, Donald Trump Jr says the Trump campaign is "going to have someone in the room, and we're going to call nonsense when we see nonsense" with regard to the debate's mute button, and falsely smears Kristen Welker as "a big Obama administration person." pic.twitter.com/tZNexmn67M— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 22, 2020
The backdrop is Trump’s disastrous performance at the September 29 debate, which seemed to hurt him in the polls in the days following. The debate also may have continued to damage him to an “unusual extent” during the campaign’s final stretch, as David Lauter wrote for the Los Angeles Times last week.
“The encounter in Cleveland, dominated by Trump’s repeated interruptions and his cryptic statement that seemingly welcomed the support of a right-wing extremist group, appears to be the exception to the usual rule that the impact of debates fades quickly,” Lauter wrote, adding later: “Since the debate, roughly half the voters polled said they do not believe Trump is mentally fit.”
Beyond his interruptions and refusal to disavow far-right groups or conspiracy theories, Trump spent part of that debate mocking Biden for how regularly he wears a mask — only to be hospitalized with the coronavirus 72 hours later.
Biden looks like he can barely believe it as Trump insists that masks aren't necessarily good for slowing the spread of coronavirus pic.twitter.com/okZf2pVsw0— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 30, 2020
In a way, the use of a mute button at the final debate could actually help Trump a bit, as in theory it’ll prevent him from constantly interrupting Biden and coming across as a jerk. But at this late date, it’s unrealistic to expect that the president might suddenly change his tone or moderate his message when it comes to topics like the coronavirus or race relations.
Trailing in the polls and with a thin résumé of positive accomplishments to tout, Trump will likely devote Thursday evening to trying to disqualify Biden. And if that doesn’t work, he and his campaign will do what they always do: complain about being treated unfairly.