Donald Trump acts as if he just wings it in debates — “winning,” according to “all the polls,” on sheer wit and personality. In reality, Trump used a busy interview schedule during the Republican presidential primary season to try out different talking points — even different positions — before settling on what he thought would work best on the stage.
It appears, however, that Trump might be planning to improvise during Monday’s general election debate against Hillary Clinton. Never big on conventional practice methods — “I believe you can prep too much for those things,” Trump recently told the New York Times — the GOP nominee also has been skipping the media appearances that previously constituted his rehearsals. Since July, Trump has avoided the Sunday talk show circuit he once frequented and scaled way back on other interviews (while making time for Jimmy Fallon and Dr. Oz, of course).
Trump has done 4 interviews since the birther “event.” 2 on Fox. 1 affiliate and one radio. Not one question about birtherism.
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) September 21, 2016
Correction. 5 interviews since Friday and Trump hasn’t been asked about birtherism/Trump Foundation. Tomorrow, intv w/ Lou Dobbs & Hannity.
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) September 21, 2016
So when moderator Lester Holt of NBC asks tough questions about Trump’s foundation or his recently renounced birtherism — as Holt likely will — it could be the first time the candidate is forced to address those subjects. Trump could be going in cold, with perhaps 100 million people watching.
Flash back to Dec. 15, when everyone in the political universe knew the first question Trump would face in a Republican debate at the Venetian in Las Vegas. Thirteen days earlier, two attackers pledging allegiance to the Islamic State had shot dead 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. Five days after that, Trump had called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
So it was practically preordained that moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN would begin with the Muslim ban and ask Trump whether “the best way to make America great again [is] to isolate it.”
“We are not talking about isolation,” the businessman replied. “We’re talking about security. We’re not talking about religion. We’re talking about security.”
Whatever you think of the policy (which Trump has since softened), you have to acknowledge the deftness of the answer. In an instant, Trump turned a conversation about discrimination into one about protection. It was spin, to be sure, but it was well-executed spin. And it was the result of practice in live interviews throughout the previous week.
Leading up to that debate, Trump was all over TV, gamely answering questions about his proposed travel ban on foreign Muslims. He did morning shows on ABC, CNN and MSNBC, sat for interviews with Barbara Walters, Don Lemon and “Kelly & Michael,” and appeared on two Sunday programs.
His answers were all over the place.
Speaking with Chris Cuomo on “New Day,” Trump opened his defense of the ban by saying “people quickly forget [the] World Trade Center.” On “Morning Joe,” Trump said he was simply “using common sense.” He eventually got so off topic and spent so much time talking over hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough that Scarborough hung up on him.
Trump was more focused and less strident with Walters: “We have to do the right thing. Somebody in this country has to say what’s right. I have great respect and love — people that I have tremendous relationships with, they’re Muslim. And, Barbara, they agree with me 100 percent. It’s short-term. Let our country get its act together.”
This his how Trump operates. He eschews focus groups and surveys, but that does not mean he arrives at optimal responses through pure instinct. He often requires multiple takes. Just think of all the “softening” and “hardening” he did on illegal immigration in interviews during the week before his major speech on the subject last month — a speech he delayed, by the way, because it was “still being modified.” Trump needed those interviews — and the ensuing reactions from voters and the media — to figure out what to say.
Delaying Monday’s debate is not an option, of course. In the past, Trump would have been workshopping his answers in a slew of interviews. This time, he hasn’t.