The Memo: Trump between rock and hard place on debates

President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE is running out of chances to turn around a reelection campaign he appears to be losing.

The latest problem for the president is the question-mark that now hangs over the remaining debates with Democratic rival Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE.

After a day of back-and-forth between Trump's and Biden's campaigns, the picture remained unclear on Thursday evening.


Trump declined to participate in a second debate, scheduled for Miami on Oct. 15, after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced on Thursday morning that it would be virtual rather than in-person. 

The Biden campaign then suggested that the town hall format of the Miami debate should instead be used on Oct. 22, when a third and final debate had been scheduled in Nashville, Tenn.

Then it was back to Team Trump, which appeared to accept that proposal so long as yet another debate was added on Oct. 29, just five days before Election Day. The Biden team refused. The impasse has not yet been broken.

The difficulty for Trump, as the author of “The Art of the Deal” surely knows, is that he has no real leverage.

Biden has a large lead in surveys — he was up almost 10 points over Trump in the RealClearPolitics national polling index on Thursday evening — giving the Democrat no particular incentive to do extra debates. It is Trump who needs the game-changer that the televised clashes could provide. 

Trump, of course, defied polls and predictions to win the presidency in the first place in 2016. But his position now is worse than it was then, in part because of the scale of the deficit he faces, and also because Biden has led by meaningful margins for the duration of the campaign.


Asked how deep a hole Trump was in, former Republican National Committee communications director Doug Heye replied, “It looks pretty deep. We all know it was deep this time four years ago, when the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape came out, but this time it appears deeper, in key states and in more states.”

Heye pointed out that Trump faces other problems, too. Regular campaigning is constrained by the coronavirus outbreak, depriving Trump of the ability to do as many large rallies as he did in 2016, even if he were healthy. Biden, meanwhile, does not suffer from the high negative ratings that afflicted 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden prepares to confront Putin Ending the same-sex marriage wars Trump asks Biden to give Putin his 'warmest regards' MORE.

The Trump campaign for the moment appears to be banking on a siege mentality. The president and his aides have ramped up efforts to portray themselves as victims of bias and political chicanery.

The commission overseeing the debates is “trying to protect Biden. Everybody is,” Trump said in a Thursday morning interview with Maria BartiromoMaria Sara BartiromoThe US can solve the border crisis by decoupling from China Democrats control the language of politics and culture — but for how long? Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' MORE of Fox Business Network.

The president made the remarks soon after the commission had announced the idea of a virtual debate, only for Trump to say that he would not “waste my time” with such an event.

Trump is presumed to favor in-person debates because they make it easier to take the aggressive approach that is his trademark. Virtual debates make interruptions more difficult, and would also enable a moderator to mute Trump entirely.

A statement from Trump campaign manager Bill StepienBill StepienTrump adds veteran organizer to help run political operations: report Trump likely to form new super PAC Trump ready to make McConnell's life miserable MORE — who, like the president, was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 — sang a similar tune.

“The American people should not be deprived of the chance to see the two candidates for president debate face to face two more times just because the Commission on Presidential Debates wants to protect Joe Biden,” Stepien said.

But, as with so much else during this campaign, Trump and his allies have made versions of this argument many times before — usually when claiming the news media are biased against the president.

Trump’s MAGA base buys the idea, but there is precious little sign that the messaging works to boost the president’s level of support to an election-winning level. In the dozen most recent national polls collated by RealClearPolitics, Trump has only once exceeded 45 percent support.

The president’s performance in the first debate with Biden, on Sept. 29 in Cleveland, was widely criticized for lack of substance and rudeness. 

Vice President Pence appeared to do better in his sole clash with Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisLara Trump calls on Americans at border to 'arm up and get guns and be ready' The press has its own border problem Meghan McCain: Harris 'sounded like a moron' discussing immigration MORE (D-Calif.), in Salt Lake City on Wednesday evening, but there was no major moment likely to change the trajectory of the race. 


The president is trying to improvise his way forward, with new measures such as a “virtual rally” with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, set for Friday.

Limbaugh has a huge listenership but it seems unlikely, given the vehemence of the host’s opinions, that many of them are undecided voters.

The clock keeps ticking down for Trump, and his situation looks bleaker by the day.

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