Get ready for round two. On Sunday, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will meet in St. Louis for the second of three scheduled debate matchups. A record number of viewers – 84 million, according to some estimates – tuned in early last week to watch Clinton needle Trump into incoherence. His humiliation at the hands of the former secretary of state that night sent the GOP nominee into a week-long death spiral. He declared himself the winner, and when no one agreed with him, blamed the moderator and then his microphone for his loss; for good measure, he lobbed a few extra insults at a former Miss Universe.
It would have been almost a relief, then, when a New York Times report last Saturday finally changed the subject – that is, if the subject hadn’t been changed to Trump losing nearly a billion dollars in a single year, possibly allowing him to avoid paying taxes for nearly two decades.
Then the subject changed again on Friday, also decidedly not in Trump’s favor, this time to a leaked 2005 hot-mic recording of Trump bragging to Access Hollywood‘s Billy Bush about assaulting women: grabbing them “by the pussy” and kissing them without their consent. Since the recording was released by the Washington Post, a number of prominent Republicans have condemned the statements (including his running mate, Mike Pence, who was reportedly furious about the tape), with some rescinding their endorsements of the GOP nominee.
To make matters worse for Trump going into Sunday’s debate, Clinton is now leading him by five percentage points nationally, and by wide margins in a number of critical battleground states where early voting is already underway. Suffice it to say, Trump should be looking forward to a rematch and the chance to regain some of the ground he lost over two terrible, horrible, no good, very bad weeks.
However, there’s no indication Trump is applying himself to the task at hand the way his running mate, Mike Pence, reportedly did from the moment his name was added to the Republican ticket. That preparation served Pence well: His performance against Tim Kaine at Tuesday’s vice presidential debate was widely praised. In fact, Pence is now polling higher than any other Republican, including Trump, in a poll of hypothetical candidates for 2020.
Multiple Trump supporters expressed to the Wall Street Journal this week their hopes that Trump would seek to emulate Pence’s performance in his next debate with Clinton. The flaw in that plan? Pence spent most of the debate denying and distancing himself from Trump’s proposed policies, when he wasn’t outright lying about them.
Reports emerged Tuesday indicating Trump was upset at Pence’s refusal to defend him at the VP debate. Publicly, though, the Republican nominee sought to award himself points for his running mate’s victory. “I’m getting a lot of credit because that’s my first so-called choice; that was my first hire,” Trump said at a campaign event in Henderson, Nevada. “America also got to look first-hand at my judgment.”
If there’s a shred of good news for Trump, whose energy and mental acuity appeared to flag during the second half of the first debate, it’s that this second meeting will have a much different format. Rather than standing behind a podium for 90 minutes, he and Clinton will be seated on stools, and offered the chance to walk around as they field questions from undecided voters in the audience and from moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz.
The bad news is that the format can be awkward for those unfamiliar with it. (Recall, for example, the indelible moment when Al Gore stepped to George W. Bush, only to be dispatched with a casual nod?) Trump, who favors massive rallies, is not experienced in this kind of intimate setting. The advantage goes to Clinton, who’s done a number of “listening tours” during both her presidential and Senate campaigns.
Like a cadre of exasperated parents trying to coax their big fussy baby into eating his vegetables, Trump’s handlers succeeding at getting the candidate to participate Thursday in simulation of Sunday’s debate. The results were not promising: Even with a friendly moderator gently lobbing softball questions in front of a hand-picked audience, Trump struggled to stick to talking points, and lasted less than a third of the time he will be on stage Sunday.
And in those scant 30 minutes, Trump managed to insult no fewer than ten people, places and things, including, according to a tally by the Washington Post, his debate microphone, the Commission on Presidential Debates, Clinton, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, the media in general, CNN and journalists John Harwood and John King (who separately reported Trump’s frustration at Pence’s praised debate performance).
Now, Trump has spent the weekend angrily watching the news and doing damage control on his “Trump tape” remarks, rather than doing any last-minute preparations.
Which is exactly what Clinton surrogates want to hear. The more keyed up Trump is going in, the less work she’ll have to do.
Update, October 9th: This piece was updated to include information about the leaked recording of Trump that came out Friday and its repercussions over the weekend.