Analysis: Why Trump is suddenly talking up Biden after months of slamming his cognitive capacity | CNN Politics (2024)

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After months lampooning President Joe Biden as a cognitively impaired “brain-dead zombie” who can’t finish a sentence or navigate off a stage, former President Donald Trump and his campaign are changing their tune days ahead of the critical debate of the election.

The commander in chief has suddenly morphed into a “worthy debater,” someone of considerable ability and a veteran political performer who is not to be underestimated, according to Trump and his lieutenants.

Biden:President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. AFP/Getty Images Related article How Biden and Trump are preparing for their first presidential debate

The game of pre-debate expectation-setting is often absurd – one aide to former President George W. Bush once claimed that John Kerry, his Democratic opponent in 2004, was a better debater than Roman rhetorician Cicero. But the Trump team’s shift is remarkable given their relentless assault on Biden’s faculties. And it hints at their possible concerns that they’ve set an unnecessarily low bar for the president’s performance ahead of Thursday’s clash hosted by CNN in Atlanta.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a possible Trump vice presidential pick, tried to reset the balance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “The guy’s run for office more than a dozen times. He’s run for president four times. He’s been campaigning since President Nixon was in office,” he said. “This guy has got the ability.”

Trump is also hedging against a stronger-than-expected Biden showing by suggesting his opponent will be “jacked up” on drugs to ensure a strong performance.

The Biden campaign, meanwhile, is intensifying its new attempt to portray Trump as an “unhinged” criminal who is morally reprobate, out to benefit his rich friends and unfit for a return to the Oval Office. The president’s campaign, which is marking the second anniversary of Roe v. Wade’s reversal this week and making abortion a key election issue, promised in a memo Sunday that the head-to-head would finally show voters the contrast Biden believes will disqualify Trump.

“Thursday’s debate will be one of the first moments of this presidential campaign where a larger slice of the American electorate will have the opportunity to witness the stark choice between Joe Biden, who is fighting for the American people, and Donald Trump, who is fighting for himself as a convicted felon with an unhinged campaign of revenge and retribution,” campaign communications director Michael Tyler wrote.

A moment that could define the campaign – and America’s future

The outlandish claims and pregame spin reflect the vital importance of the debate, with the rematch between Biden and Trump neck-and-neck just over four months from Election Day. The showdown comes amid bitterness between the rivals, especially in the wake of Trump falsely claiming that he won the 2020 election. The shadow of Trump’s criminal conviction – and his sentencing in New York next month – is adding an extra level of tension at a time when the ex-president is threatening to use a second term to exact revenge against his enemies and as Biden warns Trump will destroy democracy.

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at the Road to Majority conference in Washington, Saturday, June 22, 2024. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Related article Trump floats ‘migrant league of fighters’ in latest dehumanizing rhetoric against migrants

Trump’s use of his weekend events as warm-ups contrasts with Biden’s measured approach. The president is sequestered at Camp David in Maryland with a large team of aides and debate experts preparing for a meeting with Trump that could define his reelection bid.

Millions of voters on Thursday will have a chance to assess the energy, endurance and mental sharpness of an 81-year-old president who has visibly aged and slowed in office as polls show most Americans think he’s too old to serve another term. Fewer voters worry about the cognitive health of Trump, who is only three years younger at 78. But the ex-president’s brash behavior, attacks on the judicial system and facts, and admiration for foreign dictators, which delight his supporters, often alienate swing-state suburban voters who are likely to decide the next president.

But the debate cuts deeper than personalities. Voters hurting from years of high prices and craving the return to the full pre-pandemic normality that Biden promised four years ago will be waiting to hear how the candidates can ease the economic pressure bearing down on their families. Biden’s campaign is signaling he will present himself as a force of stability addressing the needs of families that contrasts with Trump’s “dark vision” and the GOP’s threats to abortion rights. The ex-president is, meanwhile, lambasting Biden as blind to a southern border crisis and what he claims are cities scarred by crime, while trying to conjure nostalgia for the Trump economy before the Covid-19 crash.

Trump’s change of tone

Trump appeared in Washington, DC, at a conference of Christian conservatives on Saturday before heading to Philadelphia, seeking to seize back a state Biden won in 2020 and without which either man may struggle to get to 270 electoral votes.

He mocked Biden for going to a “log cabin to study, prepare” and claimed the president was sleeping at Camp David “because they want to get him good and strong, so a little before debate time he gets a shot in the a**.” Trump added:“I say he’ll come out all jacked up, right?” The presumptive GOP nominee’s suggestions of chemical intervention mirrored his response to Biden’s barnstorming State of the Union address earlier this year when a fired-up president make a mockery of conservative media expectations that he’d stumble during the speech and instead countered their narrative of mental decline.

Trump tempered earlier assessments of Biden’s likely performance in an interview with the “All-In Podcast” released Thursday. “He beat Paul Ryan,” Trump said, referring to the vice presidential debate in 2012 when Biden dispatched Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate. “I’m not underestimating him,” Trump said. “I assume he’s going to be somebody that will be a worthy debater.”

North Dakota Governor Douglas James Burgum addresses the media outside of Manhattan Criminal Court on behalf of former President Donald Trump on May 14, 2024 in New York City. Former U.S. President Donald Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first of his criminal cases to go to trial. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images Related article Burgum seeks to raise Biden debate expectations ahead of showdown with Trump

Burgum also sought to manage expectations on “State of the Union” in a way that appeared to undercut the Trump campaign’s long-held position that Biden is no longer fit to serve as president. “When he needs to, he can step up,” he told Kaitlan Collins. “This guy has got the ability – and we’ve seen it, we’ve seen him in debate four years ago. We’ve seen him in the State of the Union this year – that when he needs to, he can step up.”

Burgum’s assessment is inconsistent with the ex-president’s portrayal of his rival in even some of his most recent appearances. In the key battleground state of Wisconsin last week, for instance, Trump said of Biden: “He can’t find his way off a stage ever.” After conservative media highlighted deceptively edited video of Biden at the G7 summit in Italy this month, Trump spokesperson Karoline Leavitt accused the president of “wandering around like a brain-dead zombie” and of putting “cognitive decline on full display.”

CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod said on “State of the Union” that the Trump campaign’s reversal had been “fun to watch.” He noted Trump spent the last five years “describing Biden as utterly incompetent, to the point where, if Biden arrives and leaves under his own power, that would be a triumph. … I think they have recognized in the last couple of weeks, ‘Whoa, this guy is going to exceed those expectations and we’d better start creating a rationale for him having a decent night.’”

‘A magnifying glass on the choice’

The former president has insisted he won’t be participating in mock debates, though he has held what were described as policy forums with Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another potential vice presidential contender. There is growing speculation about Trump’s approach after his hyper-aggressive and angry performance in the first debate against Biden in 2020 backfired. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem had some advice for the ex-president on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “I don’t think he has to get personal in this debate at all because he’s going to have so many good things to talk about, in contrast with Joe Biden’s policies,” she said.

Unlike Trump, who spent the weekend creating headlines, Biden hunkered down at the presidential retreat in Catoctin Mountain Park north of Washington. At his side were former White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who has been prepping Democrats for presidential debates for a generation, and other long-term loyalists including Mike Donilon, Bruce Reed, Anita Dunn and Steve Ricchetti. Former Obama White House counsel and Biden’s personal attorney, Bob Bauer, who sources said was likely to reprise his role playing Trump in debate prep, was also on hand.

In its memo, the Biden campaign said that Team Biden-Harris is putting a “magnifying glass on the choice this week as Democrats in Atlanta and across the country organize around this moment.”

The comparison on show even before the debate epitomizes the rivals’ opposite approaches to the presidency. Trump is public, abrasive, profane and as ever flouting the expectations of traditional statesmanship. Biden is conventional, cautious and seeking to restore the norms that Trump once trashed.

Analysis: Why Trump is suddenly talking up Biden after months of slamming his cognitive capacity | CNN Politics (2024)
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