WASHINGTON — Some of President Donald Trump’s allies said after his chaotic first debate that he had squandered one of his last opportunities to change the dynamics of a race in which he has long trailed by diverting from the strategy his team had laid out, coming off as mean and angry rather than confident and in command.
Advisers say Trump missed repeated chances to deal blows to Democratic nominee Joe Biden in areas they had prepped for, such as China and past comments Biden had made about race, while failing to lay out his own case for what a second term would look like. The mood around the campaign and the White House on Wednesday morning was described as “worried,” “quiet” and “in shock,” people familiar with the situation said.
While there is a consensus among those close to the campaign that the night probably didn’t lose Trump any votes among his base, the president needed to do more than hold his ground: He has trailed Biden in nearly every major national poll for the past year, including those in battleground states. Millions of ballots have already been sent out; by the time Trump gets on the debate stage again, early in-person voting will already have begun in North Carolina and Iowa, where he faces tough contests.
“Trump lost one of the remaining opportunities he had to reshape the election and not walk into Election Day as the underdog,” said a former White House official, who added a hopeful note: “But he walked into Election Day last time an underdog and won, so maybe he doesn’t need to reshape the election.”
Going into the debates, advisers had been looking for Trump to use one of the biggest audiences he will get this election cycle to shift the narrative of the election from a referendum on his presidency to a choice. At best, they were hoping for Biden to make a disqualifying gaffe, but at a minimum they hoped that Biden would be pressed on his record and that Trump would be ready to lay out a contrast.
But Trump failed to deliver many of his planned remarks — and when he did, they were often delivered out of context and with no explanation, two people familiar with debate preparations said.
When he attacked Biden for backing the 1994 crime bill, he was then supposed to point to Alice Johnson in the audience and demand that Biden apologize to Johnson, 65, a grandmother who spent more than two decades in prison on a nonviolent drug charge before Trump commuted her sentence and then pardoned her. Instead, Trump pivoted to his polling numbers among African American voters.
During the Supreme Court section of the debate, the president was supposed to go after Biden as “the godfather of turning Supreme Court confirmation hearings into sideshows,” dating to Biden’s work on the Senate confirmation hearings for Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991, when he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Instead, Trump steered the conversation toward health care.
Trump was hurt by his lack of traditional preparation, which he spurned despite weeks of encouragement by aides, people familiar with the situation said.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Trump prepare for the debate and described Biden’s performance as “very shaky,” conceded to ABC News after the faceoff Tuesday night that Trump may have come across as “too hot.”
“So I don’t think anyone should feel assured by either one of their performances last night, and they’ve got work to do when both of them get back on the stage on October 15,” he said in another interview with ABC News on Wednesday.
Trump publicly offered a different view of his performance, declaring himself the clear winner Wednesday.
“We won the debate by almost every poll I saw, if you look at the various polls. I looked at six of them. We won every one of them,” Trump told reporters. It was unclear which surveys he was referring to; his campaign has cited Twitter polls that gave him an edge. Other, more traditional surveys taken in the hours after the debate showed an advantage for Biden.
The debate deteriorated within minutes into a name-calling shouting match mostly devoid of substantive talk about issues and policies. Those close to the campaign said they worry that Trump came off as too aggressive, particularly with his attacks on Biden’s son Hunter’s drug use.
With his interruptions, Trump was trying to “correct the record,” said a source close to the campaign — who said that the approach had been planned but that it came off poorly. “The intention was right, but the delivery could have been better,” the person said.
Other people familiar with the internal discussions said Trump hurt himself by not letting Biden talk more so he might trip up, commit a gaffe or lose his train of thought. For the next debate, they said, they are hoping Trump will step back.
“Let [Biden] talk, and let him melt on his own,” one of the people said.
Trump created a controversy of his own when he failed to denounce a white supremacist group, telling the group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by.” He tried to clear up controversy surrounding the comments Wednesday before he left the White House for a campaign rally: “I don’t know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they need to stand down and let law enforcement do their work,” he said.
At the same time, Trump failed to lay out why voters should choose him, unlike in 2016, when he had a clear message about what he planned to do in office — “drain the swamp,” “build the wall,” “repeal Obamacare,” “bring back jobs.” With 34 days to go until the election, Trump has yet to articulate what a second term would entail, aside from bringing back an economy that he says is already on the rebound.
Those close to the campaign said it will take a day or two for the full effect of Tuesday’s faceoff to shake out, but one person noted that donations in the hours after the debate haven’t been as robust as expected.
“That was a colossal waste of time for the two candidates,” said another person familiar with the situation, adding that the hope is that the debate didn’t result in any voters’ being moved.
While Biden didn’t have a disqualifying gaffe, as many on the Trump team had hoped, those close to the campaign believe he didn’t have a winning performance, either, and that may have been Trump’s main accomplishment Tuesday night.
“Trump did what he set out to do,” Republican donor Dan Eberhart said. “He knocked Biden off his game. The reaction to the debate has been almost universally against Trump — again, it’s a rejection of his style. But Biden came off the worse of the two.”
Another positive effect of the night for Trump, said the former White House official, could be to deter people outside Trump’s core base of supporters from voting, which pollster Frank Luntz said he saw in a focus group with undecided voters in key states.
“They felt like the candidates behaved as though they didn’t deserve to be president,” Luntz told CNBC on Wednesday. “I would have said that we’re going to have the biggest turnout ever. What happened last night actually encouraged people not to vote.”