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Trump spurns traditional debate prep with first faceoff less than 3 weeks away

Some allies of the president worry that the cavalier approach to a debate with Joe Biden could backfire.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has not held a single mock debate session, and has no plans to stage a formal practice round, as he readies for his first faceoff with Joe Biden in less than three weeks, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.

The president has dismissed the typical debate preparations he participated in four years ago, joking to aides and allies that he’s been preparing for debates since he was born. His ability to fire back at an opponent in real time, he’s argued, “isn’t something you have to practice.”

Instead, Trump has so far chosen to prepare through informal discussions with key allies and with briefings from top officials in his administration on various topics that are likely to come up, these people said.

“It’s not the traditional, ‘we need Chris Christie to fill in and play Hillary Clinton’ like we did four years ago,” one of the president’s allies said, referring to the former New Jersey governor who has helped Trump prepare in the past.

The lack of formal preparation is notable given how much emphasis Trump’s team has put on the debates. His allies have pushed for more of them beyond the scheduled three. And his re-election campaign was so concerned about early voting that it even pushed the Commission on Presidential Debates to schedule a debate earlier than the first one Sept. 29, but that idea was quickly rejected.

Not all of the president’s allies think his casual approach is a wise strategy. Privately, some of them are expressing concern that the president’s overconfidence could backfire.

In particular, they’re worried that Trump appears to be banking on a Biden misstep in the first 2020 debate; all the three debates are scheduled for 90 minutes each. They said Trump has repeatedly told aides that he’s not worried about debating Biden because the former vice president is likely to have a gaffe moment or stutter. Biden had a severe stutter as a child that he overcame.

These advisers point to former President Barack Obama, the last incumbent to square off on a debate stage, who took a similarly overconfident approach to the first debate in his 2012 re-election campaign and was widely seen as being bested by his opponent, Mitt Romney. They also note that Romney prepared extensively and was seen as losing the second and third debates with Obama.

Trump’s allies said he plans to head into the debate with some talking points but has resisted practicing a series of scripted exchanges. The president doesn’t want to be told precisely what to say on specific issues, they said.

Underscoring the shift from 2016, Christie met with Trump last month at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, to discuss some debate strategy. The meeting also included the president’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien. And Trump has held other debate discussions while flying on Air Force One or sitting at his desk in the Oval Office.

But, as one adviser put it, “He’s not standing at the podium” in those instances, and no one is playing Biden.

Other allies involved in debate discussions with the president include White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller.

Trump’s aides have provided him with details of Biden’s record, including his support for a crime bill in the 1990s and his recent comments on policing. The president also has been advised to point out policy inconsistencies between Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.

Trump has discussed foreign policy issues that might come up in the debate with national security adviser Robert O’Brien and economic issues with adviser Larry Kudlow.

But Trump’s focus on the debate shifted several weeks ago toward preparing for the Republican National Convention and hasn’t moved back, people close to the president said.

The president’s allies who are supportive of his cavalier approach argue that Trump is best off the cuff, and that he’s preparing regularly by holding news conferences with the White House press corps.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh has said the president’s best asset in the debates will be his record in office.

“I think if you ask the president, he would say that he is preparing for debates by running the country, as president,” Murtaugh said. “I think the way that he sets himself apart from Joe Biden is to talk about his record.”

Biden and Trump have each done three one-on-one debates at the presidential campaign level. Trump and Clinton debated three times in 2016. Biden has debated one-on-one in two vice presidential debates, in 2008 and 2012, and against Sen. Bernie Sanders in March for what was the final debate of the 2020 Democratic nomination battle.

The president’s team is trying to raise expectations for Biden’s debate performance while also labeling him as a career politician.

Stepien argued Tuesday that Biden is a skilled debater, with decades of experience over Trump. He said the small team helping prepare Trump has been watching all of the former vice president’s debates in recent days on — as he said in a jab at Biden’s 47-year political career — “creaky movies reels.”

“He’s a politician. He gives speeches. He’s really good at doing it. He’s also very practiced at it,” Stepien told NBC News, diverging from the campaign’s usual effort to cast the Democratic nominee as borderline incoherent and stressing that Trump has only been in politics for five years.

“Joe Biden is not formidable anywhere else but he is formidable on the debate stage,” Stepien added. “We just hope he shows up.”

There is no reason to suspect Biden won’t, given he has already committed to all three presidential debates.

For his part, Biden told NBC News last week that he has begun to prepare for the debates "by going over what the president has said and multiple lies he's told.”

He quipped that there should be a real-time fact check scrolling at the bottom of the screen during his televised debatewith Trump.

In both 2008 and 2012, Biden took an extended stretch of time off the campaign trail to prepare for debates, participating in multiple mock sessions at a makeshift debate set constructed inside a Wilmington, Delaware, hotel. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm played the part of Sarah Palin in 2008, and now-Sen. Chris Van Hollen played Paul Ryan in 2012.

To the extent Biden advisers will acknowledge that some of his 2020 primary debate performances were less than stellar, they’ve said the former vice president wasn’t comfortable with the crowded debate stages and expectation that he attack fellow Democrats with whom he mostly agrees on the key issues. Biden’s aides note that of the 11 debates he participated in during the primary, his final one with Sanders — a candidate with whom he has significant policy and philosophical differences — was among his best.

Biden is likely to find it far less difficult to spar with Trump, whom he’s increasingly targeted in more personal and stark terms.

"I'm looking forward to debating the president and I'm going to lay out as clearly as I can what I think we have to do to bring this country back and build back better,” Biden said last week.