The Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates

The upcoming debates offer President TrumpDonald John TrumpBubba Wallace to be driver of Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin NASCAR team Graham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Southwest Airlines, unions call for six-month extension of government aid MORE his best chance to shift momentum in an election campaign he appears to be losing — but some signs don’t augur well.

Past incumbent presidents have struggled, especially in their first debate, yet Team Trump has insisted the president does not need specific preparations for his clashes with Democratic opponent Joe BidenJoe BidenJoe Biden looks to expand election battleground into Trump country Trump puts Supreme Court fight at center of Ohio rally Special counsel investigating DeVos for potential Hatch Act violation: report MORE.

“He is preparing for debates by running the country as president,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said on a recent call with reporters. “I don’t know that any actual debate prep has occurred to this point, and I don’t know of what plans are to begin that.”

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That kind of attitude has spelled trouble for previous commanders in chief.

Then-President Obama unnerved his supporters with a noticeably weak showing against GOP challenger Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGraham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Gardner signals support for taking up Supreme Court nominee this year Grassley, Ernst pledge to 'evaluate' Trump's Supreme Court nominee MORE in their first 2012 debate, while former Presidents George W. Bush and Reagan also struggled in their first encounters against John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates Divided country, divided church TV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month MORE and Walter Mondale, respectively.

The most common explanation is that sitting presidents, grown accustomed to agreement from those around them, can find themselves out of practice at rebutting direct attacks.

Looking back at the first 2012 debate, Obama strategist David AxelrodDavid AxelrodThe Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates GOP hunts for leverage in revived COVID-19 talks Pelosi says there shouldn't be any debates between Biden and Trump MORE told CNN: “We kind of counseled [Obama] not to engage too much. He took that to the extreme. ... Honestly, we didn’t do a good job of preparing the president for that.”

There are other signs that spell potential trouble for Trump.

His performance in an ABC News special, moderated by George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosMurkowski: Supreme Court nominee should not be taken up before election Cruz says Senate Republicans likely have votes to confirm Trump Supreme Court nominee Pelosi: House will use 'every arrow in our quiver' to stop Trump Supreme Court nominee MORE, on Tuesday evening was halting. The appearance came in the wake of two other recent interviews where Trump performed poorly, with Jonathan Swan of Axios and Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceTrump campaign plays up Biden's skills ahead of Cleveland debate: 'He's actually quite good' GOP brushes back charges of hypocrisy in Supreme Court fight Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE of Fox News.

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Wallace will be the moderator of the first presidential debate, set for Cleveland on Sept. 29. The first debate tends to attract the biggest audience of the three presidential clashes.

Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and the editor and co-author of a book on Trump’s debate performances, said there were particular challenges for sitting presidents.

“Incumbent presidents are surrounded by sycophantic aides who don’t challenge them, and we have certainly seen that in the Trump presidency,” he said. “No one in the administration can say, ‘You didn’t do very well in the ABC town hall last night.’ ”

But Ann Compton, who as a reporter took part in two presidential debates over a 40-year career, said she thought the disadvantages for an incumbent might be overstated.

“I think it has more to do with where the candidate is in the election cycle and how he or she is doing in the polls,” Compton said. “It’s more a question of what does the candidate have at stake at that point, rather than an incumbent president who might have been sheltered.”

Compton cited the 1988 clash where she was on a panel of reporters questioning the GOP nominee, sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.

Dukakis was perceived to lose that debate in its opening moments, when he gave a dry and technocratic answer to a provocative question from CNN’s Bernard Shaw about whether he would continue to oppose the death penalty even if his wife were raped and murdered.

GOP nerves about Trump’s potential debate performance will not have been helped by Tuesday evening’s appearance on ABC, which included a number of moments that seemed unhelpful for the president.

He suggested that the coronavirus would disappear once people developed “herd mentality.” He presumably meant “herd immunity,” but failed to rebut Stephanopoulos’s point that such a scenario would involve many more deaths than the United States has already suffered.

He was also pressured by the ABC anchor on his promise to replace ObamaCare and on his pledge to preserve health insurance for those with preexisting conditions. 

Trump has repeatedly promised to unveil a new health care plan — a tweet from The Washington Post noted he has done so 16 times over the past three years — but no such plan has emerged.

Trump told Stephanopoulos “I have it already” but provided no details.

The Trump administration is seeking to strike down the entirety of the Affordable Care Act in the courts. Victory for the administration would remove the 2010 law’s protections for those with preexisting conditions.

It wasn’t only Stephanopoulos who put Trump under pressure, however.

The president sometimes appeared defensive in response to questions from the public. Asked by one man, who said he had voted for Trump in 2016, about his behavior in office, Trump said that sometimes he didn’t “have time to be totally, as you would say, ‘presidential.’ ”

It remains to be seen whether Trump can appear any more empathetic in the second of the three presidential debates, set for Miami on Oct. 15, which is to be in a town-hall format.

His opponent, meanwhile, will have debated as recently as March, whereas Trump was last on a debate stage in October 2016.

Still, Compton argued that opinions are so polarized about Trump that it could be hard for the debates to shift views much, one way or another.

“In a divided county, the president is doing exactly what his most fervent believers want him to do” in clashes with interviewers or political opponents, she said. “And for those who are on the fence, it cements the idea that his kind of leadership is not what they consider best for the United States.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.