By Lowering the Debate Bar for Biden, Has Trump Set a Trap for Himself?

President Trump has worked overtime to persuade followers that Joe Biden is addled and incoherent. That could backfire if Mr. Biden doesn’t fit the caricature.



By Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman

WASHINGTON — President Trump has framed the first general election debate as a test for his opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Yet he has simultaneously set the bar so low for so long that many of his supporters — having watched unflattering, often manipulated clips of Mr. Biden in Trump campaign advertisements or on Fox News — are now expecting the president to mop the floor with an incoherent opponent in something resembling a W.W.E. match.

Democrats — and even some Republicans — believe that is not likely to happen.

The misleading notion that Mr. Biden is too addled for the presidency has been driven by Mr. Trump since 2018, when he first started referring to the former vice president as Sleepy Joe. Since then, in speeches, in interviews and at his rallies, Mr. Trump has been crafting a narrative depicting the former vice president as having a diminished physical and mental stature, in the hope of making voters believe that Mr. Biden is unfit for office.

It is a message that Mr. Trump’s campaign has spent millions of dollars amplifying, often in misleading, spliced-together clips contrasting an energetic Mr. Biden from the past with a supposedly barely functioning one now. And the campaign has posed the question to voters: “Did something happen to Joe Biden?”

“It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, but voters deserve to be able to assess Joe Biden’s capabilities by seeing him and listening to him in his own words, especially as compared to just a few years ago,” Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign communications director, tweeted.

Most recently, the president floated the baseless conjecture that Mr. Biden was on performance-enhancing drugs. Trump allies have taken the talking point even further. Representative Joe Murphy of North Carolina claimed outright last month that Mr. Biden suffered from dementia.

All of that means that if Mr. Biden does not appear weak, the tactic will have backfired.

Brett O’Donnell, a Republican strategist who has coached candidates ahead of debates, said the Trump campaign might have given Mr. Biden an unintentional gift.

“In trying to message that Biden may be unfit for office, the campaign also may have lowered expectations on his debate performance,” Mr. O’Donnell said.

Studying Mr. Biden’s various debate performances, the president’s advisers began warning Mr. Trump months ago that the former vice president had successfully handled a lengthy, one-on-one debate with Senator Bernie Sanders in March toward the end of their primary fight. Outside advisers warned Mr. Trump that he needed to change the way he was playing the expectations game with Mr. Biden.

So Mr. Trump has tried modifying his approach in his public comments, grudgingly acknowledging that Mr. Biden fared well in the two-man debate.

Still, Mr. Trump has not been able to stop pointing out where Mr. Biden struggled in more crowded primary debates. And the stage-setting has been years in the making.

“There’s talk about Joe Biden, Sleepy Joe, getting into the race,” Mr. Trump said at the Gridiron Dinner in 2018. “Just trust me, I would kick his ass.”

In March 2018, after Mr. Biden said he would beat up Mr. Trump if the two were still in high school (a comment he later apologized for), Mr. Trump tweeted that the former vice president was “weak, both mentally and physically” and claimed, “He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way.”

Mr. Trump began to focus more on the mental deficiencies during the Democratic primary last year. “I’d rather run against, I think, Biden than anybody,” Mr. Trump said. “I think he’s the weakest mentally.”

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