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Examining President Trump's Unorthodox Debate Style

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tonight is the first of three debates between President Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. Yesterday, we looked back at how Biden has approached his many debates over the years. And today, we examine Donald Trump's particular style on the debate stage. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When it comes to President Trump's preparation for debating Joe Biden, the message being telegraphed is that he isn't trying too hard. Here's Trump campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

HOGAN GIDLEY: I'm not going to get into the specifics of how this president prepares for these debates. But he's pressure tested every single day by the American people when they ask questions and by the mainstream media.

KEITH: So press briefings are debate prep? Trump's campaign manager told reporters Trump's best preparation is really just being president. That was Trump's argument when he dialed in to "Fox & Friends."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")

STEVE DOOCY: So how are you preparing for this debate?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: By working very hard. You know what? By working very hard not on debates but on running the country.

KEITH: With Trump, it's hard to tell whether this is an effort to lower expectations or whether he really isn't doing anything special to prepare for the debates. In 2016, Trump prepared, but his most memorable moments came in the seemingly unrehearsed interruptions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Putin, from everything I see, has no respect for this person.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States.

TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.

CLINTON: And it's pretty clear...

TRUMP: You're the puppet.

CLINTON: It's pretty clear you...

KEITH: That year, Trump had a few themes - Hillary Clinton's emails, immigration, trade and the economy. He came back to them on repeat no matter the question. He had scrappy comebacks and a total disregard for debate rules or being presidential, which gave him a certain freedom.

CLINTON: It's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

TRUMP: Yeah, because you'd be in jail.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Secretary Clinton...

(CHEERING)

KEITH: This all makes President Trump hard to debate, says Philippe Reines, who stood in for Trump during Hillary Clinton's debate preparation sessions four years ago.

PHILIPPE REINES: It's like trying to perform a piano solo when the other guy's got a grager...

KEITH: Grager is a Yiddish term for a noisemaker.

REINES: ...And just spinning it the whole time.

KEITH: Reines says it's not that Trump was a great debater in any traditional sense, but he was fun to watch and really hard to pin down. Now, though, Trump is president. There is a pandemic and a recession. Reines says watching Trump respond to questions about COVID, you can see he's not the same guy he was four years ago.

REINES: Donald Trump is facing a different circumstance. He's facing different consequences than he ever has in his life.

KEITH: And if sparring with the media really is Trump's debate prep, then his July interview with tonight's debate moderator, Chris Wallace, might offer a hint at where Trump could trip up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: When you talk about mortality rates, I think it's the opposite. I think we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.

CHRIS WALLACE: That's not true, sir.

TRUMP: Well, we're going to take a look...

WALLACE: We had 900 deaths on a single day...

TRUMP: We will take a look...

WALLACE: ...This week.

TRUMP: Really?

WALLACE: You can check it out.

TRUMP: Will you please get me the mortality rate?

KEITH: Trump also faces a different opponent than he did in 2016. For months, Trump has been portraying Biden as not having all his faculties. But now, Trump and his aides are suddenly talking up Biden's debate skills.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We have a debate coming up, and who knows? You know, look, he's been doing this...

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: You know what? He's been doing it for 47 years. I've been doing it for 3 1/2 years, so he should be able to beat me, I would think.

KEITH: As you can hear, Trump loves a crowd. But tonight, the hall will be largely empty due to COVID - another new factor Trump will have to deal with.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "PRAXIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.