Decision 2024

A defiant Biden borrows some tactics from his rival as he tries to put debate debacle behind him

NEW YORK — (AP) — He’s calling in to his favorite morning cable news show, bashing the “elites” of his party and dismissing unfavorable polls. He’s even talking up his crowd sizes.

As an increasingly defiant President Joe Biden rejects calls to step aside after a disastrous debate performance, he's been embracing some of the tactics used by a man he calls a mortal threat to democracy: his rival, former President Donald Trump.

Trump has weathered a seemingly never-ending list of controversies, from the Access Hollywood tape that threatened to derail his candidacy weeks before the 2016 election, to his two impeachments, four indictments and conviction on 34 felony charges for falsifying business records. Through it all, Trump has developed a well-worn playbook for confronting allegations. He aggressively denies any wrongdoing. He lashes out at his detractors. And he often disputes what people have seen with their own eyes.

To be clear, there are significant differences between the men’s approaches. Unlike Trump, Biden has repeatedly acknowledged his poor debate performance, saying he had a bad night. Instead of publicly blaming his advisers, he’s said, “Any mistake made is my fault.”

But longtime Trump watchers say there is nonetheless something familiar in some of the ways Biden has pushed back at criticism in recent days.

It remains to be seen if Biden’s efforts to keep his party behind him will work. Many congressional Democrats, worried about his prospects and their own in November, have declined to give him a full vote of confidence, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an interview Wednesday. Trump, meanwhile, has maintained a tight grip on his party, even after becoming the first former president to be convicted of a felony. He will accept the GOP nomination next week facing no serious opposition.

Former Trump White House communications director Alyssa Farah Griffin, who is now a Trump critic, has called for Biden to withdraw from the race after the debate. She argues that Biden, in trying to hold onto the nomination, is “employing Trump-like tactics” with combative responses, cable news call-ins, pressure on lawmakers and an ‘I alone can fix it’ attitude.

“It very much echoes how Trump operates,” she said. “I think Trump has changed the stakes and lowered the bar for how to behave in office and what the expectations are.”

Biden’s campaign sharply rejects any comparison between the two men and between one debate performance and Trump’s presentations.

“President Biden respects and defends our democracy, including the more than 14 million who voted for him to be his party’s nominee,” said Biden campaign senior spokesperson Sarafina Chitika. “Trump, meanwhile, is a convicted felon who cannot accept that he broke the law or that he lost to Joe Biden by more than 7 million votes. The difference between them couldn’t be more clear to voters – and it’s why Donald Trump will lose yet again this November.”

Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, who traveled with the president over the weekend and has been one of his staunchest defenders in the wake of the debate, scoffed at any comparison to Trump.

Instead, he said he saw parallels to his own 2022 race and a debate in which he struggled at times to explain his positions and often spoke haltingly several months after suffering a stroke.

After that debate, Fetterman acknowledged it didn’t go well, and then quickly got back to making the case against his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz. Fetterman went on to win his race.

“They predicted I would lose by two points and we won by five,” he said. “I refuse to allow a debate to define a great president’s legacy, just the way people tried to do that to me.”

Echoes of Trump

This week began with Biden calling in to “Morning Joe,” a favorite cable news show, where he railed against his naysayers and insisted he will be his party’s nominee.

He dared those who doubt him to challenge him at the convention and dismissed those who have called for him to step aside as out of touch with rank-and-file voters, despite recent polling that shows widespread concerns about his age.

“I’m getting so frustrated ... by the elites in the party,” he said, mocking, in a sing-song voice, the assumption that “they know so much more.”

Trump spent many mornings of his 2016 campaign calling in to “Morning Joe” and other morning shows, giving him unfiltered access to millions of viewers and hours of free airtime. He continues to do so, at times, including an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity that aired Monday night.

Like Trump, Biden has also aggressively dismissed polls he doesn’t like, rejecting the notion that he’s behind.

“I don’t buy that,” he said when pressed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “How many people draw crowds like I did today?” (Stephanopoulos retorted by telling Biden: “I don’t think you want to play the crowd game. Donald Trump can draw big crowds.”)

Biden has also lashed out at the press, albeit in far less hostile terms than Trump, who casts the news media as the “enemy of the people” and slams any story he dislikes as “fake news.”

On an airplane tarmac last Friday, Biden castigated reporters.

“Look, you’ve been wrong about everything so far,” he said. “You were wrong about 2020. You were wrong about 2022 that we were going to get wiped out. Remember the ‘red wave’? You were wrong about 2023.”

He’s even making calls thanking people for defending him on TV — another Trump hallmark. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, said she had received one such call from Biden after an appearance.

Trump has changed the crisis playbook

Eric Dezenhall, a crisis communications expert who has written multiple books on the subject, said Trump in some ways has changed the way people respond to public relations crises.

“Trump pioneered something that a lot of us in this business knew long before he did it, but were not sufficiently ethically challenged to try it. And that includes lying often works and it also includes the idea that apologies do not always work,” he said. “The PR industry loves this idea that if you apologize the problem goes away, when in fact an apology can exacerbate a crisis because it confirms for your critics that you did something wrong.”

He said he saw similarities between Biden and Trump — “He’s giving audacity a shot by saying, ’I’m going to stick it out. I’m fine. Pound sand'" — but said Trump can get away with things other can’t.

“Trump is special. Trump can do things other people cannot. And one of the first things you learn in the crisis business is that not all crisis principals are created equal,” he said. “Lying is built into Trump’s stock price.”

Fetterman, meanwhile, offered a long list of differences between Trump and Biden.

He referred to Trump's alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, which the former president denies. "He was never impeached. Not twice either, Joe does not appear to be consumed by revenge. Joe never vowed to pardon all of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists ... Joe never promised to be a dictator."

“I’d like to remind everybody: There’s only one person in America that kicked Trump’s ass in an election,” he added of Biden. “And that’s our guy.”

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