(CNN)President Donald Trump’s failure yet again to unequivocally condemn White supremacy Wednesday — to clear up a chilling moment from his debate clash with Democratic nominee Joe Biden — shows how he may find it impossible to reboot for their next crucial contest.
Asked about not repudiating the Proud Boys, a far-right group, during the debate, Trump said: “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. I mean, you’ll have to give me a definition, because I really don’t know who they are.”
“I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work,” the President told reporters, before pivoting again by saying “the problem is on the left.”
Trump has never had a reset button, so if his hopes of preserving his presidency depend on a turnaround in approach and temperament after a bellicose first confrontation with Biden, then he’s in deep trouble.
His comments on the Proud Boys display how his instinct when cornered is to fight back harder, intensify personal attacks and aim the punches farther below the belt. Such an approach worked well in 2016, when he was an outsider who appreciated the potential for a populist, insurgent campaign when no one else did.
It is far from clear that an antagonistic approach is a good fit for 2020, when Trump is an incumbent President and the country is locked in multiple crises. Those aggressive reflexes are one reason why the President’s handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people has been so poor. And they mean that any advice from Trump’s aides to torque back his demeanor ahead of the next debate in Miami on October 15 will either fall on deaf ears or be ignored in the heat of battle.
The next encounter also brings the added risk of a President not used to being challenged exploding at a member of the public in a town hall format on live TV.
Despite publicly showering him with praise on Wednesday, some Trump aides secretly are deeply dismayed over the showdown with Biden. One ally described the debate, in which Trump boiled with fury, constantly heckled Biden and spouted lies and conspiracy theories, as a “disaster.”
Other people in the President’s orbit who spoke to CNN’s White House team described Trump as obnoxious and unprepared. One source familiar with the President’s thinking told CNN’s Dana Bash that Trump thought he had done well in the debate and was surprised that his team thought he was too aggressive. It may take several days of cable news coverage for the reality to sink in, the source said.
Republican senators, suffering through one of hundreds of awkward on-the-spot moments of the Trump presidency, were particularly discomforted by questions about the President’s “stand back and stand by” order to the Proud Boys. Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-South Dakota, suggested it was a statement the Trump team needed to “clear up.”
Even Donald Trump Jr. allowed on CBS News that his father’s comment at the debate could have been a “misspeak.” But the Proud Boys were in no doubt about where Trump stands, turning his comment into a new online logo.
The overwhelming consensus that Trump bombed in his first debate means the stakes for the second one are now even more astronomical than they were on Tuesday night. He will need a game-changer moment, with only three weeks left in the campaign. But he might have already missed his best chance.
Typically, the first debate garners the biggest TV audience. Further, by mid-October, millions more voters will have cast early ballots, and if current trends hold, a building new wave of Covid-19 infections will be having a demonstrably more serious impact on American life. Such a scenario will underscore the President’s failure on Tuesday night to offer any authentic plans to conquer the pandemic and may deepen his vulnerability on health care, which offered Biden a clear opening.
Debates are not always an accurate measure of who wins presidential elections. Democratic nominees John Kerry and Hillary Clinton were generally judged to have won their debates but they lost the elections. Trump’s destructive behavior likely appealed to those voters who prize him as a slayer of Washington elites and scourge of political correctness.
But if the misgivings inside his camp are on the button, the President probably did little in Cleveland to chip away at Biden’s advantage in most swing state polls. He might have even weakened his own position, as many voters saw in real time on their televisions the full extent of the boorish behavior that is familiar to Trump Cabinet members, foreign leaders and journalists who cover him.
If the President went into the evening needing to win back suburban voters and non-college-educated female voters, his tantrums and extreme rhetoric on race and refusals to guarantee ceding power, even if he loses the election, seem to have been guaranteed to secure exactly the opposite outcome.
Worse, from Trump’s point of view, his fury several times drowned out slips or uncertainty by Biden on the debate stage — including the former vice president’s inability to give a straight answer when asked whether he favored liberal demands for Supreme Court packing following Trump’s trio of picks to the nation’s top bench.
Compared with recent Democratic nominees, Biden wasn’t particularly impressive at the debate — albeit that he was trying to operate with constant haranguing from the man across the stage. But he didn’t have to be.
The President’s behavior meant that the sound bites from the debate being played on TV on Wednesday mostly referenced the President’s rage rather than Biden’s wobbly answers. Given that every day in the campaign is now crucial for a President who is behind, that was a small disaster in itself.
Biden was able to give the impression that he was the candidate with momentum heading out of the first clash, playing into what he saw as public distaste with the President’s performance.
“I kind of thought at one point, maybe I should’ve said this, but the President of the United States conducting himself the way he did — I think it was just a national embarrassment,” Biden told CNN’s Arlette Saenz on Wednesday.
It’s going to be hard for the President’s political advisers to convince him that he has a problem. From the start of his presidency, Trump has existed in a bubble of praise from conservative news anchors and traded in the conspiracy theories that they amplify on shows he ravenously watches.
That helps to explain why the President came out with his normal rally punch lines in front of a far more diverse audience in the debate, mocking the use of masks, claiming he had saved millions of lives with his botched pandemic management and flinging unproven allegations about Biden’s son Hunter.
“I thought the debate last night was great. We got tremendous reviews on it,” the President told reporters on Wednesday. This may be typical Trump bravado. But it doesn’t suggest the kind of humility and the capacity for self-criticism that allowed Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama to bounce back from disastrous first debates in their own reelection races.
Trump has occasionally had teleprompter-driven moments in which he has behaved in a more statesmanlike manner. But such efforts have largely been confined to set-piece events like the State of the Union address. It is when the President gets off the teleprompter and his confrontational impulses are unrestrained — as in the debate situation on Tuesday — that he torches scripts and plans drawn up by aides.
The crucial point is that Trump doesn’t care. His actions show how he has long used the presidency as a channel for his personal grievances and to express how he feels, at any moment.
One possible opening for the Trump campaign is to use next week’s vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris to steady the campaign — much as then-Vice President Biden did in 2012, when Obama messed up his first debate against Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Pence, a smooth debater, is likely to make a far more conventional case for Trump’s second term than the President himself managed. Pence will detail what the administration sees as its main achievements: a conservative Supreme Court majority, multiple judges installed on lower benches, trade deals with Mexico and Canada, a reordering of US foreign policy and an economy that was prospering until the pandemic hit earlier this year.
The vice president will probably avoid unseemly personal attacks on Harris but will attempt to forensically exploit her liberal voting record to portray their ticket as the “Trojan horse” for the left that Trump believes it to be. The California Democrat is unlikely to be aiming her jabs at Pence and is expected to bring the inquisitorial skills that made her a renowned prosecutor to bear against the President himself.
But Trump being Trump, there is no guarantee he will listen to what worked for Pence. And if the vice president gets a torrent of media praise for his performance he is more likely to be jealous than appreciative. It was only when Pence was winning good reviews for his chairing of coronavirus task force news conferences that Trump decided to take the stage, muddled the administration message and came across as out-of-touch and inept.
If that’s the case, the President will go into his second debate with Biden under even more pressure than he faced in the first. He will need a Hail Mary moment to turn around the campaign with Election Day fast approaching. As Tuesday night shows, that’s not a scenario in which he seems to prosper.