Trump plays limited role in first Democratic debate

Trump plays limited role in first Democratic debate
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election 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 KlobucharNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Election 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting 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'RourkeDeval Patrick enters 2020 race O'Rourke says he 'absolutely' plans to stay in politics Krystal Ball: Buttigieg is 'the boomer candidate' MORE (D-Texas) reiterated that he supports launching impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeO'Rourke ends presidential bid Sunrise Movement organizer: Sanders, Warren boast strongest climate change plans Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate 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 WarrenNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Bloomberg, Patrick take different approaches after late entries into primary race Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne 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 BidenBudget official says he didn't know why military aid was delayed: report Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide READ: Foreign service officer Jennifer Williams' closed-door testimony from the House impeachment inquiry MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSinger Neil Young says that America's presidents haven't done enough address climate change New poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Harris gets key union endorsement amid polling plateau MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne 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."