U.S Election

Trump and Biden cram final prep and ready attack lines ahead of next week's debate

Author: Editors Desk, By Hallie Jackson, Jake Traylor, Olympia Sonnier, Monica Alba, Ali Vitali and Adam Edelman Source: NBC News
June 20, 2024 at 22:16
Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.Justin Sullivan, Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.Justin Sullivan, Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

As the June 27 event nears, the Biden team's approach is "like cramming for a final," while the Trump campaign says it's focused on informal policy sessions.

WASHINGTON — With the first presidential debate just one week out, President Joe Biden and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump have begun cramming for the clash next Thursday night in Atlanta.

Biden plans to work from the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, for several days — and possibly up to one full week — for intensive prep, senior campaign and administration officials told NBC News, while Trump will remain engaged in somewhat more informal preparations.

While Trump and his team have long downplayed that he does any formal prep at all for debates, he’s not exactly winging it. 

Trump has been holding informal policy sessions on topics that are likely to come up during the debate — including on the economy and inflation — with Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, a senior adviser said, and on immigration with former White House aide Stephen Miller and Tom Homan, the former acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He also held discussions with Sens. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., when he was in Washington last week, the source said, and on national security issues with Ric Grenell, his former acting director of national intelligence. 

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a onetime GOP presidential contender-turned-Trump ally, acknowledged that he has been in contact with Trump’s team about debate prep.

"But you know, there’s never been a better, there’s never been a better politician, a better debater, a better communicator," Burgum said at an event Thursday in North Dakota.

The Trump campaign has long insisted that his various media interviews and hourslong rallies serve as preparation for debates — though many recent interviews have been with friendly conservative media outlets.

Senior Trump adviser Brian Hughes said Trump plans to push Biden about his handling of immigration and the economy — issues the Trump team has maintained are notable weaknesses for Biden.

With “the damage [Biden] has done through inflation, open borders and weak foreign policy,” Hughes said, “Biden needs rehearsals with handlers to find some way to explain this mess he’s made of our nation.”

Trump will hold a rally Saturday in Philadelphia and attend a fundraiser with Vance on Thursday night in Cleveland. And while several court hearings related to the federal case in South Florida regarding Trump’s handling of classified documents are scheduled for the next several days, Trump isn’t expected to attend them. 

Meanwhile, Biden is scheduled to travel to Camp David on Thursday night and remain until at least Monday, much of which will be dedicated to debate prep, according to senior campaign and administration officials.

Top campaign staff members and White House advisers will join him at the mountainside compound for the prep sessions, the officials said, which will become more “intensive” as June 27, the night of the debate, approaches. There will most likely be full-length “mocks” in the final stretch, the officials said. Former White House chief of staff Ron Klain is “leading” the prep, a Biden campaign official said.  

Other members of the rotating cast include campaign aides Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, co-chair Cedric Richmond and senior adviser Mike Donilon. Biden will also be joined by White House officials, including chief of staff Jeff Zients and senior advisers Bruce Reed, Anita Dunn and Steve Ricchetti. Those aides may not all be at Camp David for the duration of Biden’s stay, but they are all expected to be heavily involved throughout the process. 

Campaign officials said Biden is “prepping to hold Trump accountable for his extreme record and the dangerous things he’s been saying on the trail.” Those topics include Trump’s “ripping” away reproductive rights, “promoting political violence and undermining our democratic institutions” and “doing the bidding of his billionaire donors” by funding tax breaks for the ultrawealthy that also hurt senior citizens and middle-class people

A former Biden aide familiar with the campaign’s thinking said the debate preparations were “like cramming for a final,” adding that Biden to talk things through, looks at briefing materials and writes on cards how he might want to say specific things.This former aide said the biggest challenges for Biden would be distilling information into bite-size answers and navigating the potential trap of defending his record while also needing to look forward. Another challenge, this person said, is how he will deal with fact-checking Trump.

The goal for Biden aides during prep sessions, this person said, was wanting him to show two contrasting visions for the country — especially for people who haven’t tuned into the race until debate night.

This person also said Biden is likely to be prepared to respond to attacks by Trump with muscular retorts, including possible references to his being a convicted felon.

The former aide added that another challenge for Biden will be if Trump remains disciplined for the entire 90-minute event. Trump’s staying mostly on message, this person said, could make everything the Biden team has been saying about him seem like exaggeration or pure politics.

Campaign officials said Biden will have “less time” for debate prep than he did in 2020, given his “day job.” That, they said, is why the prep has been confined largely to just the coming days. Biden spent much of the first half of June in Europe, with trips to France and Italy. 

Biden has gotten “increasingly punchier” in recent remarks about Trump, officials said, and he plans to “carry that theme through to the debate,” they said, “while still projecting himself as the wise and steady leader in contrast to Trump’s chaos and division.” 

Biden is expected to remain at Camp David through the weekend, but it’s possible he could stay longer. The White House left open the possibility that he could do a quick day trip or two while there, if necessary. It’s also possible Biden may go straight to Atlanta from Camp David if aides decide he needs to keep prepping there until the day of the debate. 

As far as the debate itself, CNN, which is hosting the June 27 faceoff, announced Thursday that Trump will get the final word, after a coin flip determined podium placement and the order of closing statements.

The Biden campaign, which won the coin toss, chose to select the right podium position.

Biden aides have planned to set up a robust rapid response operation on the night of the debate, according to two sources familiar with the discussions. It will be a joint White House and campaign effort, and top surrogates will also be on the ground in Atlanta, these people said. 

On Trump’s end, allies and several vice presidential hopefuls will join him in Atlanta on Thursday, according to an invitation to a campaign watch party event obtained by NBC News. 

Among those listed as attending are Burgum, Rubio, Vance and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, as well as Reps. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., Byron Donalds, R-Fla., and Wesley Hunt, R-Texas. 

The invitation also teases “potential post-debate remarks” from Trump himself.

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