The Toughest Job in Politics: Being a Member of Trump’s Debate Prep Team

Patrick Healy, Ashley Parker and Maggie Haberman interviewed 7 campaign aides who have the toughest job in politics right now. They are the ones who are tasked with preparing Donald Trump for the next debate.

A delicate approach to the candidate is now in the works. Before his advisers can shape Mr. Trump’s performance for the next debate, on Oct. 9 in St. Louis — which, contrary to speculation, he does plan to attend, a top aide said — they need to convince him that he can do better than he did in the first one and that only a disciplined, strategic attack can damage Mrs. Clinton with voters.

Right off the bat, notice that there is no discussion about how to work Mr. Trump’s policies or priorities into the discussion. It is all about a “disciplined, strategic attack” to damage Clinton. This is something the media needs to pay attention to. Over the course of the campaign, Trump has demonstrated that he has no real commitment to or interest in articulating a policy agenda for himself as president. Instead, he has lies that are designed to spread anger and fear. Now…for his debate performance, it’s all about attacking his opponent.

But even with that, his debate prep team has a few major hurdles to overcome. Right up front is this one about how to deal with the first debate:

They blamed his overstuffed schedule, including a last-minute rally in Virginia that was added days before the debate. They blamed the large number of voluble people on his prep team, including two retired military figures with no political background. And they blamed the lack of time spent on preparing a game plan in the first place.

Mr. Trump, for his part, sought to blame everything but himself.

Can you imagine trying to convince Trump that he performed poorly on Monday night and needs to improve? Based of what we’ve seen from this candidate, everything he does is great and he’s always the winner. I can only imagine the pretzel logic his aides will have to employ to convince him of the need for some changes.

It doesn’t sound like anyone has settled on a specific approach.

Some of the advisers want to practice getting under his skin, as Mrs. Clinton did, to gauge his response, but they offered no details about doing so. Others wanted practice sessions built around the next debate’s format, a town-hall-style meeting, where Mr. Trump is likely to engage with undecided voters asking him questions and, at times, move from his chair to walk the stage. Mr. Trump has little experience with the format, which can be challenging for people who do not practice managing their body language and movements.

Several advisers also want to impress upon him the need to stick to a strategy and a plan of battle against a female candidate — the kind of opponent he has less experience facing — rather than spend time polishing a string of disparate zingers that Mrs. Clinton, a skilled debater, was able to easily parry Monday night.

If they are able to overcome all of those challenges, there are a couple of remaining problems with the candidate himself. One was demonstrated by what happened in the preparation for Monday night.

There were early efforts to run a more standard form of general election debate-prep camp, led by Roger Ailes, the ousted Fox News chief, at Mr. Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, N.J. But Mr. Trump found it hard to focus during those meetings, according to multiple people briefed on the process who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

That is reminiscent of what Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, said about his experience with Donald Trump.

After Trump gave him a tour of his marble-and-gilt apartment atop Trump Tower—which, to Schwartz, looked unlived-in, like the lobby of a hotel—they began to talk. But the discussion was soon hobbled by what Schwartz regards as one of Trump’s most essential characteristics: “He has no attention span.”

…He asked Trump to describe his childhood in detail. After sitting for only a few minutes in his suit and tie, Trump became impatient and irritable. He looked fidgety, Schwartz recalls, “like a kindergartner who can’t sit still in a classroom.”…

Week after week, the pattern repeated itself. Schwartz tried to limit the sessions to smaller increments of time, but Trump’s contributions remained oddly truncated and superficial.

“Trump has been written about a thousand ways from Sunday, but this fundamental aspect of who he is doesn’t seem to be fully understood,” Schwartz told me. “It’s implicit in a lot of what people write, but it’s never explicit—or, at least, I haven’t seen it. And that is that it’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then . . . ” Schwartz trailed off, shaking his head in amazement.

Based on what Mark Bowden wrote about Trump from his 1996 interview, I can only imagine what awaits those who try to get him to focus.

It was hard to watch the way he treated those around him, issuing peremptory orders…What was clear was how fast and far one could fall from favor. The trip from “genius” to “idiot” was a flash. The former pilots who flew his plane were geniuses, until they made one too many bumpy landings and became “fucking idiots.” The gold carpeting selected in his absence for the locker rooms in the spa at Mar-a-Lago? “What kind of fucking idiot…?”

What the debate prep team is dealing with is a narcissistic bully who has no self control and can’t focus on anything for more than a few minutes. Whew! I’m not suggesting that anyone should feel any pity for them. But you have to wonder what the chances are that they’ll be successful.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .