Byron York | Trump Talks Debate Ahead of Rematch


Former President Donald Trump knows he overdid it in his first debate with Joe Biden back in September 2020. 

In a recent conversation at Mar-a-Lago, I asked Trump, “A lot of people thought in the first debate with Biden, that you were somewhat overamped, that you just went after him too much — “

“That I interrupted him,” said Trump. “Yeah, I think — “

“Do you agree with that?”

“Mmm huh,” Trump answered. Then, after a short pause, he defended the interruptions before conceding that yes, there were too many: “He lies so much,” Trump said. “He’s going on — everything he says is a lie. So I would call him, because calling him out two minutes later is very tough because, you know, it’s a lie, it’s a lie, everything is a lie. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Now another debate with Biden, this Thursday in Atlanta, is coming. But even when Trump talks about being forceful in the upcoming debate, he is not talking about being that forceful. With the experience of 2020 in mind, how does he handle this one? 

“I was very aggressive in the first one,” Trump continued. “The second one, I was different, and I got great marks on the second one. It was a little unfair because in the second one, a lot of votes had already been cast. So I’m probably going to look at the scene at the time. It’s like a fight. It depends on that the situation is.”

I noted that this debate will be conducted in a TV studio with no audience — an entirely different setup from previous debates. “This room is a sterile, dead room, which is I guess what they want.”

A lot of Republicans were baffled in May after Trump quickly agreed when Biden challenged him to two debates, the first with CNN, and the second with ABC News. Some in the GOP were skeptical, suspecting the debates would be structured and conducted in a way to disadvantage Trump. When asked about how the deal came about, and how it came about so quickly, Trump said it was the result of what he believes was failed gamesmanship on the part of the Biden campaign.

“What they did — I’m pretty sure — is that they approached me with a debate that I couldn’t take,” Trump said. “So they thought they would present it, I would say no, and they would say we can’t debate because Trump said no. So I said yes before they even gave me the terms. So [Biden] got roped into it.”

Democrats would interpret things differently. After all, Biden took the lead in the debate maneuver, and Trump had to react. But there also appears to be little doubt that Biden, who trailed Trump in national and key state polls, felt a need to shake up the race, and sooner rather than later. Thus, the Thursday debate will be the earliest general election faceoff ever. 

Four years ago, some Republicans convinced themselves that Biden, then 77 years old, was senile and would barely know where he was during the debate. It turned out it was the Republicans who had misjudged things. Biden wasn’t a good debater, but he had gotten through 11 debates in the 2020 Democratic primary season. He made it through the general election debates, starting with the chaotic September showdown with Trump, and ultimately won the election. Now, after four years of Biden’s obvious physical and mental decline — he is noticeably slower and weaker than in 2020 — some Republicans are again thinking Biden won’t be up to it.

For a while, Trump seemed to agree, suggesting Biden would barely be able to take the stage. That had the effect of setting expectations for Biden so low that if the president simply showed up and didn’t drool, he would be a winner. Now, Trump is taking a different approach. “So maybe he’ll be fine,” Trump said. “Look, he’s going to be jacked up on something, like he was for the State of the Union. He was jacked up. That’s why I called for the drug test.”

There won’t be any drug test. But calling for one is another way for Trump to highlight Biden’s obvious infirmity — and an explanation if Biden has a good night.

Finally, it is just a fact that both the president and the former president could be rusty. Neither has debated in four years. Biden has been in the bubble of the White House, and Trump sailed through a Republican nomination process that he dominated so completely, he did not need to take part in any debates. 

“I don’t fear debates,” Trump said. “I did the right thing with the Republicans because I was leading by 75 points. I mean, how do you go and debate guys when you’re leading by 75 points?” 

Indeed, Trump’s no-debate decision in the GOP primaries turned out to be a winner. Now, though, things are different. It’s a general election debate between the presumptive nominees of both parties. How could one not do it? “With a Republican and Democrat, almost no matter what the [standing in the polls] may be, I feel like you have an obligation,” Trump said.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner. 

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