Trump plays limited role in first Democratic debate

Trump plays limited role in first Democratic debate
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' 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 KlobucharDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage Protect American patients and innovation from a harmful MedTech Tax increase 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'RourkeThe Hill's Campaign Report: Second debate lineups set up high-profile clash Biden, Harris set for second Democratic debate showdown 2020 Democrats react to 'send her back' chants at Trump rally MORE (D-Texas) reiterated that he supports launching impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's Campaign Report: Second debate lineups set up high-profile clash Biden, Harris set for second Democratic debate showdown 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 WarrenJulián Castro is behind in the polls, but he's finding a niche Gabbard arrives in Puerto Rico to 'show support' amid street protests Democratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall 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 BidenBiden compares Trump to George Wallace Sanders unveils plan to guarantee the 'right to a secure retirement' CNN Democratic debate drawing finishes third in cable news ratings race MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGabbard arrives in Puerto Rico to 'show support' amid street protests Democratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall Sanders unveils plan to guarantee the 'right to a secure retirement' MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWhat to expect when Mueller testifies: Not much Biden compares Trump to George Wallace CNN Democratic debate drawing finishes third in cable news ratings race MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage The Hill's Campaign Report: Second debate lineups set up high-profile clash 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."