Trump plays limited role in first Democratic debate

Trump plays limited role in first Democratic debate
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Kaine: GOP senators should 'at least' treat Trump trial with seriousness of traffic court Louise Linton, wife of Mnuchin, deletes Instagram post in support of Greta Thunberg MORE on Wednesday served as a muted presence on the fringes of the first Democratic presidential debate.

The president watched the debate from Air Force One while flying to the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Japan, firing off a few tweets mocking the participants and chastising the host network. But he refrained from singling out specific candidates and went almost entirely unmentioned himself during the broadcast.

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Trump said in a Fox Business Network interview Wednesday morning that he intended to watch the debate out of obligation. But in a tweet roughly 90 minutes before candidates took the stage, the president signaled he would leave live-tweeting the event to his surrogates. 

“Sorry, I’m on Air Force One, off to save the Free World!” Trump tweeted, tagging several campaign accounts for supporters to follow.

The president largely stuck to his word, offering most of his commentary during a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska, shortly after the debate started.

“I think they’re all going to do poorly,” Trump said of the Democratic candidates after stepping off the plane.

He quipped to troops stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson that he chose to spend time with them over watching the debate. But the president made clear via Twitter that he had time for both.

"BORING!" Trump tweeted a short time after reboarding Air Force One, where televisions were tuned in to the debate.

He later took a swipe at NBC and MSNBC over what he deemed a "horrible technical breakdown" after the networks were forced to take an extended commercial break because of difficulties with microphones.

"Truly unprofessional and only worthy of a FAKE NEWS Organization, which they are!" Trump tweeted.

For as infrequently as the president chimed in on the debate, the candidates onstage seemed just as uninterested in making Trump a central talking point. The president was sparsely mentioned by name, though his policies were at the center of discussions on immigration, Iran and the economy.

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial Moore defends Sanders's reputation: 'We don't want the fake, and the phony and the fraudulent' MORE (D-Minn.) criticized the president for overseeing policies that have fostered economic inequality and hit Trump over his inability to lower drug prices.

Former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeVeronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address Biden calls for revoking key online legal protection Trump mocks Booker over suspended presidential campaign MORE (D-Texas) reiterated that he supports launching impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeBloomberg, Steyer focus on climate change in effort to stand out Our government and public institutions must protect us against the unvaccinated Key moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far MORE (D) labeled Trump the biggest threat to the United States and chided the president for his unfounded claims that wind turbines cause cancer.

"He says wind turbines cause cancer. We know they cause jobs," Inslee said.

Trump's campaign surrogates offered pushback against the candidates' claims at nearly every turn of the night.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) had also prepared tweet-length critical biographies of each candidate to share when they delivered their opening statements.

Campaign staffers generally painted the candidates in broad strokes, describing their policies on abortion, immigration and health care as radical and unrealistic.

"This debate was the best argument for President Trump’s re-election and should really be counted as an in-kind contribution to the President’s campaign," campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. "The Democrats proposed a radical government takeover of American society that would demolish the American dream so many are gaining access to under the growing Trump economy."

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial MORE (D-Mass.) garnered the most direct criticism from Trump surrogates on social media, but they mostly focused their commentary on pushing statistics about the economy under Trump and fact-checking the president's agenda.

Wednesday night may have served as a primer, with multiple frontrunners in the polls taking the stage on Thursday night.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters George Conway: Witness missing from impeachment trial is Trump MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Des Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris on 2020 endorsement: 'I am not thinking about it right now' Panel: Is Kamala Harris a hypocrite for mulling a Joe Biden endorsement? The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Candidates weighing using private jets to get to Iowa Biden nabs endorsement from Iowa Democrat in swing district MORE will be among the 10 candidates in Thursday's debate.

Trump will be in Osaka for the G-20 and will be meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel when Thursday's debate commences, reducing the chances that the president will weigh in live. 

Biden in particular has been on Trump's mind since he declared his candidacy earlier this year, with the president frequently chiming in about his mental sharpness, his ability to remain at the top of the field and his record.

An hour before Wednesday's debate, Trump needled Biden in a tweet over his support of the 1994 crime bill and touted his own passage of criminal justice reform.

The president's fixation on Biden could indicate some concern about the possible 2020 match-up with the former vice president. But Trump has expressed confidence publicly that Biden may have already peaked.

"I think he can only go down," Trump said of Biden in an exclusive interview with The Hill on Monday. "I don't think he's going up."