Who Prepped the President?

As many others have noted, a president is prone to underperform in his first reelection debate. In recent memory, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama had lackluster first reelection debates, though both bounced back and earned a second term.

Can President Trump?

While many theories abound, a key reason for a president’s less-than-stellar first debate performance is usually his preparation team’s poor overall strategy—often overemphasis on technical policy and failure to anticipate the opponent’s moves. (Refer to the quadrennial stories of who on the prep team is playing the opponent, as if pretending to be someone else is a career plus. Oh, wait, we’re talking about the swamp . . .) 

Unfortunately, all of these typical prep team failures were apparent in President Trump’s first debate performance. 

As the president himself recently noted, the presidency is a momentous and consuming job, which leaves the incumbent little time to prepare for a debate. This is offset, however, by the reality the president is daily (and nightly) dealing with the salient issues which will be front and center in the debate. In this, and in the president’s unique ability as the incumbent to help shape these issues going into the debate, it is hard for the job itself not to serve as a president’s debate prep. 

To bog a president down in technical details is cumbersome and counterproductive, because it risks the president appealing only to a handful of policy wonks, and muting or losing his overarching inspirational message for the American people.

Similarly, a prep team overly concerned about what the opponent may or may not do is equally counterproductive. To use a golf analogy: the player must play his game and the course, not the other golfers. If he does otherwise, the distracted golfer tries to do too much; gets off his game; and loses. True, a general understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and strategies of one’s opponent is helpful; but it is not the dispositive factor in the incumbent delivering a winning debate performance.

At this juncture, then, it is necessary to define in a presidential (or any political) debate what constitutes “winning.” It seems elementary, but it bears repeating: “winning” occurs when the candidate gains more votes than he had going into the debate. In this goal, to put it politely, the president did not maximize his opportunity. Why?

While first and foremost the candidate must always bear the consequences—good or ill—of a debate performance (his is, after all, the name on the ballot); nonetheless, President Trump was ill-served by his debate prep team.

It appeared the prep team was more concerned about technical policy matters and Biden’s reaction to them than they were with the fundamental question not of why Biden should not be president, but why Trump should be reelected president

First, by planning to use technical policy questions to make former Vice President Joe Biden look frail, senile, or weak, the president’s prep team’s strategy was one that depended not upon President Trump but upon Vice President Biden. This was done despite the prep team’s knowing moderator Chris Wallace was likely biased and could bail out Biden should the latter stumble (which in fact occurred).

What happened is the prep team turned President Trump into the challenger. This unfortunate outcome was made all the easier by the fact the president’s only experience in one-on-one political debates was in 2016, when he was the underdog against an assumed victor, Hillary Clinton. This could and should have been avoided. 

What frustrated the president’s base, especially female supporters (and independents) was his interruptions. But much of this was forced by the strategy of having to take down Biden, as if he were the incumbent. 

Once moderator Wallace revealed his helping hand, President Trump, while being called every name in the book, was forced to try and pin Biden down on issues—this as the president was also being called a “liar” and “racist” and told to “shut up” with impunity by Biden. Hence, the testy president’s frequent interruptions.

But what frustrated the viewers even more, especially the president’s base, was his failure to adequately articulate his accomplishments and vision for America. Again, this was the direct result of his prep team’s failed strategy.

Given his relative lack of political experience, what the president needed from his prep team was an understanding of the psychological aspects of running as an incumbent; and what “winning” really meant—in sum, not scoring debating points but gaining votes.

It is very difficult to stand on a stage as an incumbent and be civil with an opponent who is attacking you and your decisions. (Trust me on this one.) It is very difficult to ignore a biased moderator(s). And it is very easy to forget how, unlike being the challenger against an incumbent or a candidate running for an open seat, it is you who are the target to be taken down. And all of this makes it far too easy to forget why you’re there; what you must do; and win votes.

Had the president been properly prepped, would he have followed their advice? Would he have focused more on his accomplishments; drawn the proper contrasts where needed; and championed his vision for 21st century American greatness?

He deserved the chance to do so; and Americans deserved the chance to see him do it.


About Thaddeus G. McCotter

The Hon. Thaddeus McCotter is the former chairman of the Republican House Policy Committee, current itinerant guitarist, American Greatness contributor, and Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show."

Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

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12 responses to “Who Prepped the President?”

  1. You raise a good point, that Trump was not prepared to tell his own story, he acted like a challenger, or at least played too much defense.
    However dollars to donuts nobody “prepped” Trump, he prepped himself.
    At most, he got someone to pretend to be Biden and Trump practiced interrupting for a while.
    But really, did the questions, or the format, allow Trump to tell his story?
    No they did not.
    And when the opponent is a ranting lunatic, are you going to have a quality debate?
    No you will not.

    • I don’t know how our Donald gets out of bed every day… .then to have Chrissy and company gang bang him out of the gate…

      I really get tired of reading how Trump blew it, under performed, and generally “lost it”.

      I challenge anyone on this board to put up with what this man and his family have faced ever since our African President introduced African style governance to our FBI, CIA, DOJ, and NSA

      You elect an African… you get Uganda. Do we all FINALLY get it?

  2. The “go to” position Democrats take every election is “racism” and “white supremacy”, yet Trump was unprepared to address them. Two major points:

    1. Charlottesville riot vs. “free stuff riots”:
    a. 1 death vs. 30 deaths (plus deaths and shootings during non-riots [ex. LA officers shot in their vehicle])
    b. property damage: near none in Charlottesville (other than statues damaged by Left) vs. nearly $2 billion
    c. 1 day vs. 100+ days and counting
    d. 1 city vs 2,000 cities and 60 nations

    2. white supremacists vs. BLM & Antifa
    white supremacists (nearly extinct), yet the focus of the establishment vs. BLM & Antifa (Burn, Loot, Murder), yet glorified by the establishment

    Trump would have had a slam dunk with this, but he blew it. He knew that Chris Wallace would side with Biden, so he should have asked Wallace “how many pieces of silver did the Biden camp pay you”.

  3. Excellent article.
    Leading up to the first debate I was reading comments that Mr. Trump had lots of experience dealing with the always hostile press, that he had taken H. Clinton apart in the debates four years ago, etc. While true, a press conference is hardly the same as a debate, and Trump v Clinton was not Trump v Biden. It became evident very quickly that Trump was speaking to Wallace/Biden rather than the American people because the debate tactics were engineered to put him on the defensive. And he (and his preppers) fell for it. Mr. Trump has built what is probably the most astounding record of achievements for America in his first term; a record that Biden could not hope to accomplish in his “180 years in the Senate.” If I were Mr. Trump I would give his preppers a swift kick in the arse.

  4. OH phooey. Everybody is a Monday Morning quarterback – absent the round the clock assault on this President since before the election.

    Even our resident AG is a company man [read swamp] … trying oh, so hard to make sure the bad boys at the FBI don’t ever ever do anything like that again!

    When anyone on this board endures what our Donald has endured?….. then critique him.
    Otherwise ? … JUST SHUT TF UP

  5. I am deeply frustrated with Trump’s prep team. They showed universal lack of imagination in dealing with Biden’s and Wallace’s attacks.

    Example: Imagine that, when Wallace asked Trump to “condemn white supremacy,” Trump had said–

    “Good grief, Chris! I’ve condemned white supremacy a dozen times. I’ve condemned it on your network, Fox. I’m tired of being badgered about this. It’s gaslighting. My team has just uploaded a video montage to my Twitter account of all the times I’ve condemned white supremacy, and anyone can see it there right now.”

    Viewers at home would love that sort of interactivity, the chance to fact-check both men right on the spot. As soon as Trump says his line, his team uploads something like this:


    There were all kinds of opportunities for similar tactics, but Trump’s team missed them all and let Biden play his game. I hope they wake up and do better next time.

  6. It’s all 20/20 vision in the rear view. It appears now, DjT would have been better served to allow Joe to ramble on and become flustered, but his interruptions and challenges in the last 3/4 of the debate saved Biden. (with numerous assists from Wallace from the outset.)

    Trump doesn’t need preparation to debate issues, but preppers should have readied killer responses for contentious issues that continue to nag him, which need to be put to rest, .i.e. the “white supremacist” issue. He should have slammed Wallace to the mat on the premise of Charlottesville and cited any number of supremacist/nationalist/racist denunciations. ” I did NOT say those white supremacists were good people. I said the opposite …and that those who protested tearing down statues were good people. Check the damn video tapes.”

    Or….”I did not encourage drinking chlorine..excuse me Chris, this must be cleared up”. Check the damn tapes. It’s intentional media lynching.

    Biden slid through the cracks in the 1st debate. Stay tuned for the fall.

  7. And to which advisor does President Trump listen to?

    He’s a great leader but I’m pretty sure every seasoned and unseasoned political professional in Washington (not to mention a million arm chair political pundits) knew that he would be asked whether he paid only $760 in taxes yet he was unable to succinctly parry the blow and then redirect the punch to Biden’s jaw regarding his use of an S corp to avoid paying FICA, not to mention several other potential Biden weaknesses. Classic Trump. But he won’t (hopefully) make the same mistake twice.

  8. Now I remember why I hardly ever visit this blog anymore. Really bored by all the armchair QB opinions. Trump should do this, Trump should do that. LMAO, STFU! Sorry pal, but I’m gonna trust the instincts of the guy who ran for public office once in his life and became president of the USA.

    “What frustrated the president’s base”
    Who did you talk to in Trump’s base? I’m in Trump’s base and you didn’t talk to me. I’m not frustrated. I understand what Trump did trying to rattle Biden and dividing him from the Left by making him denounce the Green New Deal and other socialist programs. I also saw him expose Biden on packing the Court which surely won’t be looked upon favorably by independents.

    What are the names of the people you spoke with in Trump’s base or are you just making shit up?

  9. Excellent point and something he has needed to do all year

  10. As much as I support President Trump, This was a missed opportunity. With very few events during the Covid campaign it magnifies their importance. The President is losing among middle class women voters, bigly. His tone and main points should have been directed significantly toward that very large voter group. His training team, reportedly Christie and Giuliani would not be capable in the slightest degree to address these issues. We got the same blustering, arrogant candidate that lost the popular vote last time. Might have picked up a few pointers along the way, or not so much.
    I’m hoping for better next time, it certainly can’t be any worse.