Trump lets Democrats dominate public debate over Biden’s future

As Democrats increasingly question whether President Biden should or will remain his party’s presidential nominee, former President Donald J. Trump has remained conspicuously silent on the issue in public.

Mr. Trump, who rarely backs down from his opinions, has not been entirely silent since last week’s debate, giving a handful of radio interviews and keeping up a steady stream of posts and videos on his social media platform, Truth Social. But Mr. Trump has largely retreated, letting the Democratic Party dominate the discussion of Mr. Biden’s political future, in a sign of his favored opponent.

After months of relentless criticism of Biden as too physically and mentally weak to lead the country, the former president has settled for news coverage of Democrats’ doubts about their party’s leader, according to two advisers who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.

His relative lack of public comment on the issue also reflects to some extent his desire for Biden to stay in the race and his confidence that he can easily defeat the president in November, one of the advisers said.

A New York Times/Siena College poll conducted after the debate and released Wednesday found that some Republican voters agreed, with 28 percent of them saying they believed Biden should remain the Democratic nominee, up from 21 percent in a poll conducted before the debate.

On Monday, Trump publicly rejected the idea that the president would be replaced on the Democratic ticket.

“If you listen to the professionals who do this stuff, they say it’s very difficult for anyone else to get into the race,” Trump said in an interview with Virginia talk radio host John Reid.

And in an echo of a talking point Biden’s Democratic allies have long used to argue that he is best positioned to defeat the former president, Trump has also argued that polls have shown “Biden is doing better than the people they’re using to replace him.”

The day after the debate, he argued at a rally in Virginia that Biden fared better in head-to-head confrontations with him than Vice President Kamala Harris, whom he said he would “love” to face, or Michelle Obama, the former first lady.

Two polls released on Tuesday somewhat debunked that claim: A CNN poll found Ms. Harris ahead of Mr. Biden by two percentage points in a hypothetical matchup against Mr. Trump, though he still defeated her. And an Ipsos/Reuters poll found Ms. Obama — a potential longshot for Democrats, given that she has repeatedly said she has no interest in running — beating Mr. Trump, 50 percent to 39 percent, in a hypothetical matchup.

Trump appeared to relish mocking his rival in a crude video first reported by The Daily Beast on Wednesday and later shared by Trump. It was not clear who originally shot the clip or what day it was filmed. While golfing at his New Jersey estate, Trump referred to Biden as “that old, broken-down pile of shit” and suggested he would drop out of the race, according to video of his remarks.

If Mr. Biden were to step aside, Mr. Trump would lose two lines of attack that were central to his campaign. He has spent years attacking Mr. Biden as “sleepy,” posting videos of Mr. Biden’s stumbles, ridiculing his speech and doing caricatured impersonations of him, attacks he could not easily use against any other opponent.

And in recent months, Mr. Trump has sought to appeal to undecided voters by directly comparing his time in office to Mr. Biden’s, often in misleading terms. That message would be undermined if another candidate replaced Mr. Biden on the ticket.

A new opponent could present new political challenges. Trump could face a younger opponent who could appeal to voters who are concerned about the age of both candidates and are looking for fresh alternatives to two men who both had a shot at a term in the White House.

“I don’t think anyone on the Trump campaign has ever said they want Biden off the ballot,” said Corey Lewandowski, a longtime Trump adviser who is now an adviser to the Republican Party’s nominating convention. He added that the matchup of “two candidates that America both knows very well and have similar records is one that favors us very, very much.”

The Heritage Foundation, a major conservative group, is also exploring possible legal challenges it could file that would make it difficult to replace Biden on the ballot in some states if he withdraws.

Mike Howell, director of Heritage’s Oversight Project, said the group is eyeing key states like Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin, where the legislation could make it difficult to put another Democrat on the ballot.

In a statement on Wednesday, Trump’s two campaign managers, Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, said they were confident Trump could “beat any Democrat” in November. They accused Democrats now turning against Biden of hypocrisy, saying “every single one of them has lied about Joe Biden’s cognitive state and supported his disastrous policies over the past four years.”

There are signs that some in Mr. Trump’s inner circle are preparing more seriously for the remote possibility of a showdown with another Democratic candidate this fall. The Trump campaign and Republican allies have stepped up attacks on Ms. Harris, a longtime target of the right.

In their statement Wednesday, Trump’s campaign officials called her “Cackling Copilot Kamala Harris,” ridiculing her mannerisms and directly linking her to Biden’s policies. During the debate, the campaign ran an ad suggesting that Biden was incapable of leading the country through a second term and warning that Harris was waiting in the wings to take over.

On Tuesday morning, Make America Great Again Inc., the leading super PAC backing Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, sent out a list of attacks on Ms. Harris that essentially argued she was no better than Mr. Biden, particularly on immigration, an issue Mr. Trump has made central to his campaign.

On Wednesday, the Republican House Campaign Committee announced a new digital ad that linked Ms. Harris to Mr. Biden’s border policies. “Vote Republican. Stop Kamala,” reads a title card at the end of the ad.

“Any good campaign looks at every possible eventuality,” Mr. Lewandowski said. “The campaign’s strategy doesn’t change, but it would be a dereliction of duty not to be prepared if Joe Biden were to withdraw from the race.”

In the video clip at his golf club, however, Trump was already looking past Biden to Ms. Harris as his likely opponent.

“That means we have Kamala,” Mr. Trump said. “I think she’s going to be better. She’s so bad. She’s so pathetic.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a staunch Trump ally, warned on social media about how the 2024 race could change if Ms. Harris becomes the nominee.

“I believe the Trump campaign realizes that the 2024 race could very quickly shift dramatically from Biden’s capabilities to a battle for the heart and soul of the country,” Graham wrote on X Wednesday afternoon.

And if that scenario were to play out, Graham added, Republicans “would need to build on President Trump’s ability to expand our party’s demographic reach in 2024.”

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