It is hard to remember an interview in which a sitting President was more unsparingly exposed or seemed so unequal to the magnitude of a crisis that is threatening the American people and is nowhere near ending.
When Trump was fact-checked in real time, Trump’s flame-throwing interview technique fizzled. When Swan frustrated his scattershot attempts to jump to another subject, Trump wilted. Under pressure, he provided the kind of offhand remark that could define a political race if properly used by an opponent.
“We’re lower than the world,” Trump said in an incomprehensible response when pressed on why the US has a death toll that averaged 1,000 a day in recent weeks and is expected to go ever higher. When he made the unfounded claim that there are “those” who say there can be too much coronavirus testing, Trump bizarrely claimed “books” and “manuals” said so.
The interview was unrecognizable from the friendly, unchallenging conversations he enjoys with Fox News opinion hosts and other conservative media figures, who play into the President’s craving for adulation that is also often provided by subordinates like Vice President Mike Pence.
There is a long tradition of presidents, complacent and unprepared, walking into a debate clash with a challenger. Presidents are not used to people getting in their cage. They’ve spent four years flying around the world in Air Force One and seeing people stand when they walk into a room.
Two of those three presidents roused themselves and went on to win reelection weeks later. But they got the kind of wake-up call that Trump received in his Axios interview. The question now is whether a President who prizes gut calls and abhors preparation and details will hear a similar message.
Trump is so unpredictable and adept at bending the medium of television to his will that he could well put on a strong performance at the debates that convinces wavering supporters to return to his fold. Or he could so disorientate Biden — who has spent months out of the spotlight during the pandemic — that the Trump campaign’s claims about his capacity find some traction. The President might be able to draw Biden into the kind of catastrophic error or flustered responses that harm his campaign and make him seem unfit for the presidency.
Trump’s aides often talk about how good he is at counterpunching.
But a presidency-saving performance will require focus, practice, a willingness to examine his own liabilities and the kind of empathy for Americans stuck in a seemingly endless national nightmare that Trump demonstrably failed to show in his Axios interview.
Trump’s campaign sees his debate strength as decisive
The debates this year figure to be especially crucial since the pandemic and consequential social distancing have eviscerated the normal campaign calendar. The conventions, from which sitting presidents could expect to get a polling “bounce,” will be more muted online affairs.
So if the President is still trailing in the polls at the end of September, the first debate will represent a rare chance to line up Biden on live television for a devastating attack.
The apparent theory of the Trump campaign is that Biden is so confused, waffling and deprived of his faculties at the age of 77 that he will be overwhelmed and be exposed as unfit for the Oval Office.
It’s true that Biden, on the crowded Democratic primary debate stage, didn’t come across as the cocky wisecracking debate champion that he was at times in the 2008 campaign and again in 2012 when he helped steady Obama’s campaign.
Yet the gravity of the times, and the emotional turmoil that Biden has endured since then with the death of his beloved son Beau, have clearly shaped his character — and may actually suit a time of national tragedy when voters might be looking for consolation.
“There’s an active push to get Joe Biden to not debate my father because, honestly, no one can look at Joe Biden and say this guy’s all there, right,” Trump’s son Don Jr. told Iowa radio host Jeff Angelo.
Trump Jr.’s claims that Biden is trying to dodge the debates and that he’s being helped by the media is false. But it reflects an attempt by the Trump campaign to goad their opponent into more direct clashes with the President. In the 2016 campaign, Trump torched his debate rivals by bullying them, breaking all the rules and launching searing personal attacks, putting his foes off balance and thwarting the efforts of moderators to rein him in. His style hinted at the rule-breaking and insurgent campaign he would run as the Republican nominee and his presidency. It’s no surprise that Trump’s campaign believes it can pull a similar number on Biden.
Already, Trump’s performance in recent weeks and the facts of the pandemic — which is spreading ever wider in the country, while America’s foreign friends did a better job of getting it under control — have gutted his campaign narrative of a “transition to greatness.”
And there is a growing sense that Trump’s talent at manufacturing alternative realities — that helped him ride out the Russia scandal and impeachment — is falling short during the pandemic, given the grim situation in the country.
His encounter with Swan was not the first time in recent weeks in which Trump has almost seemed to be mocked by an interviewer — an invidious position for a President whose power relies on the elevated symbolism of his office.
“Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace appeared to ridicule the President’s claims of acing a cognitive test when he told the President the questions were hardly tough and included identifying an elephant.
And Trump’s son’s mockery of the challenger could also backfire, so lowering expectations for Biden that a merely competent performance could by itself neuter the claim that he is far less fit for office, than the stumbling President on display in recent weeks.