Trump Allies Urge Him Not To Be a ‘Raging Asshole’ at Debate

Ahead of Thursday night’s planned presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, each candidate’s campaign brass is viewing the televised event as a potential inflection point in a race that’s remained stubbornly stable and uncomfortably close in the polls for months.

Each campaign, according to senior sources in both camps, has calculated in recent weeks that their opponent can be easily baited into “self-destructing” on live TV, potentially damaging their appeal to swing and independent voters. (Trump, with his volatile temperament, and Biden, with his age.)

One reason the idea of “self-destruction” at a debate looms so large among the upper ranks of Trumpworld is because many of them believe it happened to Trump in late 2020. And they’re determined to help him keep it from happening again, with his potential second administration (and his freedom from possibly an actual prison sentence) on the line. Various Republicans close to the former president have been counseling him for weeks with a message that boils down to a more diplomatic version of the following: Please be less of yourself at the June debate, for the love of God.

One Republican who has recently advised Trump on the 2024 debate prep paraphrased their advice to the ex-president as: “Don’t be a raging asshole while you’re onstage with Biden,” and “Don’t take the bait” from the sitting president.

Of course, whether or not Trump moderates somewhat on Thursday night is anybody’s guess. When he was in the White House, he so regularly gamed media outlets into lauding his temporarily subdued “tone” or fleeting “presidential” behavior here and there, that he would literally laugh about it with aides. Regardless of how Trump behaves onstage, it does not change the fact that much of the run-up to the event has been defined by Trump and much of the GOP elite publicly demanding that Biden be drug tested ahead of the debate.

Indeed, when reached for comment on Wednesday, the Trump campaign reiterated its taunt and innuendo that Biden would be doping ahead of the Atlanta debate. “President Trump takes on numerous tough interviews every single week and delivers lengthy rally speeches while standing, demonstrating elite stamina. He does not need to be programmed by staff or shot up with chemicals like Joe Biden does,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump, said in a written statement.

At top of mind for Trump’s camp heading into Thursday’s debate — outside of pushing the idea that Biden needs to be doped up to put two sentences together — is the last time the two debated, ahead of the 2020 election.

According to four people with knowledge of Trump’s debate preparations, his close advisers, aides, and even members of his family still have — as one of the sources jokes — “PTSD” from his Cleveland debate with Biden in September 2020. At the time, it was also not publicly known that the then-president also had Covid-19 while standing unmasked near Biden, while the pandemic was still out of control.

Trump’s borderline feral, interruption-riddled, and shouty (even for Trump) debate performance was so off-putting that various members of his inner circle could barely contain their displeasure. To this day, some of them still blame that debate for costing Trump the election that he still lies about being “stolen” from him.

The mantra inside of Team Trump this time around is to not endure a redux of that moment from the last presidential election. This month, Trump has been holding a series of closed-door “policy discussions” with a rotating gallery of advisers and confidants to help prep for the upcoming faceoff with Biden. Attendees have included Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and former Trump administration figures such as Tom Homan and Stephen Miller.

“You can be strong and fight, but most people won’t like to see you beating up too hard on grandpa,” says a source close to Trump.

For all the advice on this that he’s been getting for weeks, Trump seems at least somewhat self-aware about this thorny issue. In some private conversations this month, Trump has indeed conceded that he knows Biden is going to try to bait him into acting “crazy” during their first 2024 debate, two sources familiar with the matter tell Rolling Stone, and has said several of his advisers are saying “I should be nicer” onstage in Atlanta.

In recent days, the former president appears to have publicly alluded to this school of (restrained) thought. “Should I be tough, and nasty, and just say, ‘You’re the worst president in history’ [at the debate]?” Trump polled rally-goers at an event in Pennsylvania this past weekend. “Or should I be nice, and calm, and let him speak?”

Predictably, the rally attendees largely cheered on the “nasty” option.

If Trump takes their collective advice to the hilt, it could easily prove to be a nightmare for his campaign brass, his supporters on Capitol Hill, and others in the Republican elite.

“Trump can dominate on his record and dominate on his vision for the country, but during this debate, he needs to be careful to be assertive but not aggressive with Biden,” says Dan Eberhart, chief executive at Canary and a longtime GOP and Trump donor. Eberhart was among the party’s megadonors who backed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the 2024 primary, but has since come home to the former president.

“If he’s too aggressive, it’ll turn off female voters,” Eberhart adds. “He needs to beat Biden in the debate but not necessarily pulverize him … I’ve spent some time — along with other Republicans and donors — with Trump over the past few months, and I can say the guy has a lot of energy compared to Biden. Love him or hate him, Trump has the energy to do the job.”

Time will tell whether he’ll heed his advisers’ advice on how to channel it on Thursday.

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