Gatorade and Trump impersonators: Inside Biden’s debate prep camp

Joe Biden at Camp David in 2023
Joe Biden at Camp David in 2023. He has again sequestered himself in his secluded country residence in Maryland - dpa picture alliance/Alamy

Joe Biden’s lawyer is to impersonate Donald Trump and ‘insult’ the president in preparation for the set-piece debate on Thursday night.

The US president and a group of aides have relocated to Camp David, his secluded country residence in Maryland, for intensive practice sessions ahead of the first of two 2024 debates that could be pivotal to the election.

Bob Bauer, Mr Biden’s personal attorney, will reprise his role as the freewheeling Republican candidate in mock debates, according to reports.

Unlike previous stand-ins, the 72-year-old will not be donning a costume, telling Politico that “this is not a Saturday Night Live impression.”

But, while refusing to explicitly confirm his role, he said the person playing Trump ‘cannot be afraid of laying down on the table something that your candidate that you’re preparing this for won’t like.”

“That could be something personally insulting.”

‘Prep-and-rest routine’

Aides are keen to ensure Mr Biden, 81, spends plenty of down time ahead of the high-stakes event, in what has been described as a “prep-and-rest” routine.

Both Mr Biden and Trump, 78, believe their first of two carefully staged debates offers a critical opportunity to change the course of the White House race, advisers said.

Tens of millions of Americans are expected to tune into the 90-minute debate in Atlanta, Georgia, at the prime-time slot of 9pm (2am British Summer Time).

The president’s team hopes a strong performance will quell the persistent doubts over his age. But many insiders fear the president will be exposed under the lights after a string of public gaffes and awkward appearances.

For the Trump team, the debate is a chance to reset and move beyond the blanket coverage of the Republican’s criminal conviction last month.

Some Democrats have privately conceded that Mr Biden’s decision to agree to a debate – despite the risks – is a tacit acknowledgement that drastic action is needed to jumpstart his ailing re-election bid.

However, they argued the Biden team had masterfully negotiated the debate setup.

There will be no live audience, which they believe would have benefited Trump, who is adept at feeding off a crowd, and each candidate’s microphone will be muted while the other is speaking.

The president will likely be fueled by his favourite drink of orange Gatorade, CNN reported.

Democratic insiders also said the Biden team successfully pushed for the timing of the debate to coincide with the anniversary week of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v Wade, its landmark 1973 ruling enshrining nationwide abortion rights.

The Biden campaign has sought to link the subsequent rollback of abortion access in dozens of states to Trump, who appointed three of the justices in the Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

“They’re going to have a whole lot of programming next week in the run-up to the debate [about how] reproductive rights are under threat,” said one Democratic source, who noted abortion was one of Trump’s most problematic policy issues.

“Trump will be held to account as much as possible for some of his past statements and actions,” the Democrat added.

Another insider said Mr Biden would aggressively attack Trump over his most controversial remarks and the Jan 6 2021 Capitol riots, making his warnings over the former president’s threats to democracy a central message.

Given the high stakes surrounding his performance, some Biden allies have voiced concerns that the president’s preparations did not begin sooner, amid a hectic stretch of foreign travel.

Nevertheless, the president relocated to Camp David on Thursday evening with a small group of close aides.

Aides suggested Mr Biden could remain at his presidential retreat right up until the debate, rather than returning to the White House before travelling to Atlanta.

The practice sessions are expected to range from brainstorming responses to potential questions, as well as 90-minute-long mock debates.

Insiders say that, as a career politician, Mr Biden plays an active role in honing his answers, rather than relying on aides to formulate them. He is known to reject suggestions he feels are too laden with jargon, or that do not reflect his style.

Alongside Mr Bauer, Ron Klain, the president’s former chief of staff and a longtime adviser, has been drafted in to lead the preparation.

A veteran of presidential campaigns, Mr Klain is often described as the most experienced debate coach of the Democratic Party.

Bruce Reed, Mr Biden’s deputy chief of staff, has watched hours of Trump’s on-stage appearances to inform the preparation.

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has shunned traditional debate preparations in favour of a series of concise roundtables with GOP officials and policy experts.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump will be held to account for some of his past statements and actions, say Democrats - Andrew Harnik/AP

In 2020, Trump was coached through mock debates by Chris Christie, a Republican former New Jersey governor and a skilled debater himself. Mr Christie has since said Trump ignored all the advice he was given during the debate rehearsals, and went on to incessantly interrupt Mr Biden during the pair’s chaotic first debate in 2020.

One Trump insider described the mock sessions as “a terrible mistake”, and said aides have decided against repeating the exercise this time around.

They have, however, warned Trump against heckling Mr Biden on stage on Thursday amid fears he will alienate viewers at home. He plans to heed that advice, aides claim.

Jason Miller, a senior Trump adviser, downplayed the importance of traditional debate preparation for the campaign. He said: “Trump takes on numerous tough interviews every single week and delivers lengthy rally speeches while standing, demonstrating elite stamina.

“He does not need to be programmed by staff like Joe Biden does.”

There is broad internal consensus that the most effective way of coaching Trump is to “be conversational with him, go over the issues”, rather than feeding him canned responses to questions. “Which is what they’re doing now,” one insider added.

Trump briefed on immigration

Some of Trump’s leading vice presidential contenders, senators JD Vance and Marco Rubio, have been heavily involved in the debate preparation.

The sessions have mostly taken place in Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club and main residence, in Palm Beach, Florida.

Many of the briefings have been focused on the economy, which Republicans believe is Mr Biden’s most vulnerable area.

One former aide said Trump would probably be focusing his lines of attack on trade, taxes and the macro economy. “This is what he’s good at,” the former aide said.

Immigration is another topic Trump has received multiple briefings on, including from his former White House immigration tsar Stephen Miller.

Despite the lack of formal preparation, Trump has proven to be “nimble on his feet”, said Brett Bruen, an Obama-era White House aide, describing Thursday as a “make or break moment” for Mr Biden’s campaign.

“If Biden is able to land some punches, then it may be enough to knock Trump off of the momentum he’s been riding for the last year,” he said.

“But if his performance is uneven, I think we will have a lot more questions and consternation in the Democratic Party going into the convention.”