In 2016, during one of her first prep sessions for the presidential debates with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton listened to a litany of attacks from Philippe Reines, a longtime aide who was playing the role of Trump and tormenting her with zingers about taxes, jobs, and immigration.
Hillary had never created 100,000 jobs as Trump had!
Trump’s tax plan was endorsed by Larry Kudlow, one of the greatest economists of all time!
You can’t have a country if you don’t have a real border!
Clinton sat down, chastened. This was not going to be easy. ”That’s a devastating argument,” she said. “I have not created 100,000 jobs. And maybe nobody knows who Larry Kudlow is but he’s telling you he’s the expert!”
“She immediately, and throughout, saw the power of the hundred-thousand-job argument,” Reines said recently in an interview, “and how it helped Trump steamroll over 17 non-businesspeople in the Republican primaries.”
After watching hours of Trump’s debates from 2015 and 2016, what comes across in hindsight is that he had an under-appreciated style, strategy, and message. He was not the Donald Trump of Twitter, where he launches his crudest attacks. He was not the Donald Trump of MAGA rallies, where he feeds off the crowd and plays a role that is a mix of demagogue, right-wing pundit, and entertainer.
The matchup with Biden will be much different. Trump is an unpopular incumbent with a record to defend. He no longer has as clear a message as he did in 2016. Biden has the benefit of four extra years to study Trump.
But the conventional wisdom about Trump arriving in Cleveland Tuesday as a manic and extremely, well, Trumpy, debater could be wrong. Trump won the Republican nomination partly on the strength of his debate appearances. And while post-debate polls were generally favorable to Hillary in 2016, Trump’s three general election debates were crucial to his victory.
Maybe everything is different this year, but the debates offer the best — and last — opportunity for Trump to turn around the race.
Attention at all costs
Watching the first Republican presidential primary debates of the 2016 campaign with the benefit of experiencing Trump on the national stage for five years is revelatory.
Most of the other Republican candidates share an understanding of what conservatism means and what presidential candidates should look and sound like.
The media moderators share an understanding of what a candidate can and can’t get away with.
Since we now know the ending, watching Jeb Bush talk about his optimistic vision for America or seeing Chris Wallace react indignantly when Trump bulldozes through a question with a flurry of bombast and nonsense can be painful. Watching these old clips now, it’s mind-boggling how easy it was for Trump to play the media and his opponents.
The tone was set at the very first debate on Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. Fox’s Bret Baier asks if any of the 10 candidates on stage is not willing to pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee or promise not to mount an independent campaign in the fall, something Trump had flirted with publicly.
Trump, standing in the center because he’s already at the top of the polls, is wearing his candidate uniform of blue suit and extra long shiny red tie. He looks around, sees that nobody else is raising his hand and puts his own in the air. The crowd loudly boos him and Trump responds with an exaggerated shrug and outstretched palms.
Naturally, the moderators, channeling the outrage of the Republican audience, ignore the other nine candidates and press Trump on his supposed heresy.
“To be clear, you’re standing on a Republican primary debate stage,” Baier says. The camera zooms in on Trump and his face fills the screen.
“I fully understand,” Trump interjects. And he did. It was everyone else in politics and media who didn’t.
At the end of the first debate Bush wags his finger at Trump’s obnoxious tone. “We don’t have time for tone,” Trump responds.
Trump kept himself as the center of attention at the next 11 debates. Aside from a couple of days in November 2015, he was the polling leader for the rest of the primary. Moderators would challenge him by noting what “experts say” or asking him to “share your proof with the American people” about some absurd claim and Trump would talk about why “we don’t win anymore” or how the press is “a very dishonest lot.”
Whenever Trump would be challenged about his personal criticisms of other candidates he would escalate. “I never attacked him on his looks and believe me there’s plenty of subject matter there,” he said about Rand Paul in the second debate. The purpose was to remain the focus at all costs, and it worked. The rules said that if another candidate mentioned you then you got to respond. Trump made sure he was mentioned.
At the third debate, in October, an exasperated Mike Huckabee was asked if Trump had the character to be president. “As few questions as I’ve got, the last one I need is to give him some more time!” he said. Someone was finally onto the strategy, but it was too late.
He lies: When Jeb Bush accurately says Trump lobbied him on casino gambling in Florida, Trump admonishes, “Don’t make things up!” He cites unnamed experts endorsing his views: “Some of the greatest scholars agree with me,” he tells Carly Fiorina about birthright citizenship. He brags about his scandals: “I used the laws of the country to my benefit,” he said of his company’s multiple bankruptcies. “I’m sorry.”
A more reserved Trump
By the general election, Trump had most of the Republican Party behind him and his ragtag operation had some operatives with traditional campaign experience guiding it, including Kellyanne Conway, who convinced him to tone things down.
If watching the Republican primary debates of 2015 and 2016 is jarring for how effective Trump was at using a shock jock schtick to dominate a political campaign, watching the 2016 general election debates is jarring for how relatively restrained Trump could be.
Simply commanding the spotlight— crucial in a 17-candidate field — was no longer a wise strategy in a two-person race. But watching the debates knowing that Trump would defeat Clinton by winning over white working-class voters reveals Trump to be cannier in his messaging than he was given credit for at the time.
The issues that flummoxed Clinton during debate prep proved to be deadly. “In 2016 he had his message killers: immigration, trade, Obamacare, and corruption in Washington,” Reines said.
In the early moments of the first debate, which was the most-watched period of the three matchups, the two candidates outline their economic visions. Clinton was cogent and talked about a series of specific policies like raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, affordable child care and debt-free college. There was a dash of populism when she talked about “having the wealthy pay their fair share” and closing corporate loopholes.
It all seems so clear now, but it’s like watching a horror movie where you can’t believe another victim is going to fall prey to the same mistakes that Rubio and Jeb made when they were drowned in the lake by Trump.
When it’s Trump’s turn to talk about the economy, he launches into a simplistic riff about the world taking advantage of Americans. “Our jobs are fleeing the country,” Trump begins. He blames it all on Mexico and China and the other foreign countries using America as a piggy bank to rebuild their own countries. The Obama administration’s refusal “to fight them” is the problem. On the issues that he did have details about, they were skeletal, like his promise to cut corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 15 percent, which he said would be an explosive “job creator” would “be a beautiful thing to watch.”
Clinton was cerebral and hemmed in by only proposing things she genuinely believed were possible to pass into law as president.
Trump was visceral and unencumbered by any sense of what might work or what was possible to get through Congress.
There were sporadic outbursts from Trump through the three debates that had nothing to do with his four pillars. He threatened to jail Clinton. During the second debate, in the wake of the release of the Access Hollywood tape, when it seemed his candidacy might implode, he made a spectacle of the evening by inviting to the event several women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault or sexual harassment.
But what comes across watching these events back-to-back is the power of Trump’s populism and demagoguery and the relative restraint he showed compared to what we have seen on his Twitter feed and at his press conferences for much of this year.
Reines, who has studied Trump’s debating style as much as anyone, agreed with that assessment. “He had his four pillars, and a well honed attack on Hillary,” he said. “He spent nominal time defending himself even in the face of the most egregious incidents, like Access Hollywood.”
There was a Trump formula for almost every question a moderator posed that might be uncomfortable for him. In the first debate, Lester Holt asked Trump about releasing his tax returns, a topic certain to come up tonight. His response set the pattern he would use for all three events.
“I don’t mind releasing — I’m under a routine audit,” he said. “And it’ll be released. And — as soon as the audit’s finished, it will be released.” Trump then bragged about how he made $694 million the previous year. Then he pivoted to discussing trade deficits and the “political hacks negotiating our trade deals.” He finished by proposing he release his tax returns “when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted.”
Reines described that three-step response that Trump patented in 2016 as, “word salad, weird digression, I’m great and she’s terrible.”
There is a good case that the political dynamics of 2020 are completely different. It’s always easier in American politics to run as an outsider against the establishment. Successful presidential candidates as different as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all profited from that strategy. Trump now has the burden of trying to defend an objectively poor record on the central issue of 2020: his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. His message is not as simple and clear as it was in 2020.
Though it’s perhaps a tad self-serving, Reines has become convinced that Trump’s message was so effective in 2016 that no Democrat would have fared better than Hillary Clinton. He described some revelatory moments during debate prep when he was doing his best to inhabit the character of Trump but all that was really coming out were the words.
“What’s scary is that I’m dressed like him and I have the Trump mannerisms, but I’m not crazy,” he said. “I’m still Philippe Reines. And when you hear me saying what he says, you see the power of it. Even without any of the crazy stuff. It’s why Biden or Bernie would not have beaten him.”
In his view, the fact that Trump has a real governing record and is unpopular — 45 percent job approval — changes everything. Clinton struggled to make the case that Trump would be the wrong person to lead the country through a crisis, and his act was still a novelty to many Americans willing to give him a chance. But Biden has the benefit of being able to ignore much of Trump’s familiar histrionics and instead focus clearly on his record.
Reines’s two pieces of advice for Biden were “not to overthink it” — Trump is not that sophisticated — and to serve as a narrator of Trump’s tactics for viewers at home by declaring early on that what they will hear from Trump Tuesday night can’t be trusted.
“He has to beat him to the punch,” Reines said. “They don’t have opening statements, but I would start with ‘I’ve served with and for eight presidents before you, and I never thought I would say this to a president but most of what you hear from him tonight will be false.’”
Still, last time around Trump learned to master and dominate the debates in the Republican primary, and he was extraordinarily effective against someone as skilled as Hillary Clinton in the three general election debates. He shouldn’t be underestimated.