Why Team Trump is playing a clumsy game on presidential debates

Five days ago, President Joe Biden gave the political world an unexpected jolt, challenging Donald Trump to join him for a couple of upcoming debates. The former president quickly accepted, and both of the major parties’ presumptive nominees got to work preparing for the next phase in the process.

The Republican’s strategy, however, deserves closer scrutiny — because at first blush, it’s deeply odd.

Part of the problem with Trump’s strategy is that he’s lower expectations for Biden’s performance, which is the opposite of what he should be doing. But the other part of the problem is that the former president and his allies keep taking curious shots at the event itself.

Just hours after Team Trump agreed to the upcoming debate schedule, Republican National Committee Co-Chair Lara Trump told Fox News that the June event is “rigged so heavily in Joe Biden’s favor.”

Two days later, the former president himself lashed out at CNN — the network scheduled to host the first debate — and targeted Jake Tapper specifically. Tapper will be one of the moderators for the upcoming event.

Perhaps most notably, Trump also appeared to create a new condition for participating in the June debate. The Daily Beast noted:

Former President Donald Trump, who four years ago called on Joe Biden to take a drug test prior to the pair’s first debate that September, decided to make the same demand on Friday—one that Biden is sure to wave away once more. At a campaign rally in Minnesota … the indicted former president recycled his old line of attack against the now-president in advance of the debate next month on CNN.

“I just want to debate this guy, but you know, I’m going to demand a drug test, by the way. I am, I really am,” Trump told supporters in St. Paul.

At the same event, the former president again falsely accused the incumbent president of being on performance-enhancing drugs during his 2024 State of the Union address, which was, and is, every bit as ridiculous as it seemed.

Assorted Trump surrogates and sycophants are nevertheless peddling the same line.

At first blush, it might be tempting to think the Republican, after reflexively accepting Biden’s offer without a lot of thought or planning, might be trying to back out of the first scheduled debate. After all, between Lara Trump “rigged” comments, the former president’s willingness to denounce the sponsoring news network and a debate moderator, and the candidate’s “I just want to debate this guy, but…” rhetoric, it’s easy to get the impression that Trump might be looking for a way out.

And that might be true, though I suspect something else is going on here.

One of Trump’s go-to moves is trying to preemptively establish parameters, in the hopes of being able to explain away failures. We see it all the time with his criminal charges: The Republican argues that prosecutors are criminals, judges are corrupt, the system is broken, and the jurisdiction can’t provide him with a fair trial.

If he’s convicted, he’ll say, “See? I was right all along.” If he’s acquitted, he’ll say, “My success was even more impressive given that I was up against a corrupt system.”

The same appears to be true here. If Biden excels in the debate, Trump wants to be able to tell his followers, “I said all along that the debates are rigged, the moderators were unfair, and my opponent is high on drugs.” If the former president, however, does well, he’ll declare, “I won the debate despite the fact that the process was rigged and Biden had an unfair pharmacological advantage.”

In other words, Trump probably isn’t trying to get out of the debate, so much as he’s trying to ensure that he can’t lose the debate.

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”