Trump keeps debate prep secret to build drama, get in Clinton’s head

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles as he listens to a reporter’s question at Geno's Steaks, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, in Philadelphia. Trump faces Hillary Clinton in Monday’s presidential debate.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles as he listens to a reporter’s question at Geno's Steaks, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, in Philadelphia. Trump faces Hillary Clinton in Monday’s presidential debate. AP

WASHINGTON Rep. Peter King was with Donald Trump in New York recently when the Republican presidential candidate suddenly said he had to leave.

“I was with him about a week ago and he said, ‘I think I’m going to do some debate preparation today,’ ” said King, a Republican from New York’s Long Island. “I don’t know what that meant or where he was going.”

Neither do a lot of other people. Trump has offered little on how he’s preparing for Monday’s prime-time debate against Hillary Clinton in New York.

Those who are supporting and advising him say Trump faces a challenging balancing act Monday between being briefing-book smart – a Hillary Clinton trademark – or the unpredictable, shoot-from-the-lip, free-wheeling candidate that his voters adore.

“The good and the bad is he’s spontaneous,” King said.

Ever the showman, Trump has teased the audience on what he might and might not do on the big broadcast, which is expected to draw at least 100 million viewers, which would be a record for a presidential debate.

He’s going to keep it civil. He’s going to talk about the facts. He’s going to talk about what she’s done as secretary of state and that she’s said Obama’s done good things

Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., a Trump supporter

Earlier this week, he sent an email survey to supporters that said, “The media keeps asking what I’m doing to prepare for my debate.”

“While Hillary is listening to a team of psychologists and advisers to teach her what to say, I’m turning to the very people who got me where I am today . . . YOU.”

The survey then asks a series of questions, including whether he should refer to Clinton as “Crooked Hillary,” a nickname Trump gave her earlier in the campaign.

But in a Fox News interview earlier this week, Trump indicated that he doesn’t intend to make the debate a personal grudge match with Clinton – unless he’s provoked.

“If she treats me with respect, I will treat her with respect,” he told Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. “You’re going to have to feel it out when you’re out there. She’s got to treat me with respect. I’m going to treat her with respect. I’d like to start off by saying that because that would be my intention.”

Trump lightened his campaign schedule as the debate neared, retreating from the public eye altogether on Friday and scheduled one rally Saturday.

He planned to spend more time preparing over the weekend, huddling with advisers such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, campaign CEO Steve Bannon and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, according to Trump allies.

Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., one of Trump’s earliest supporters in the House of Representatives, said Trump had been “doing a lot of real serious reading on foreign policy and budgeting.”

But Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., another early Trump supporter who’s occasionally in touch with the candidate, said Trump wasn’t a briefing book kind of guy and didn’t want to appear to be stiff and overly scripted.

“He’s not a traditional politician and trying to make him into one and sitting him down and doing debate prep and canned answers is not Donald Trump’s style,” said Barletta. “There will still be some preparation, but to try to have canned answers will not be his style.”

However, King said some set responses were unavoidable – and necessary so Trump wouldn’t get bogged down in policy minutiae, Hillary Clinton’s strong suit.

“I think what will be rehearsed, memorized, are answers to the shots she may take at him,” he said. “The idea is to answer it quickly, then go back on offense.”

The good and the bad is he’s spontaneous.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a Trump backer

Trump is a singular personality in politics, but his profile comes closest to that of 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin or independent Ross Perot, who appeared in 1992 debates, said Alan Schroeder, author of “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV.”

Palin was someone who had a large television presence, Schroeder said. But she entered the debates at a stark disadvantage, following disastrous interviews with Katie Couric, in particular, and her debate with Joe Biden was largely a draw.

Perot, like Trump, was an “outsider,” a businessman with a large media presence, following constant appearances with Larry King on CNN.

Perot performed amiably in the first debate, Schroeder said, tossing out one-liners that resounded with the audience.

“He was a breath of fresh air in comparison with the two politicians,” Schroeder said.

But Perot fell flat during the subsequent debates: “He was just repeating himself. There was no sense of depth to him, and that’s something the debates showed. He got progressively worse in the polling, and fewer and fewer people were viewing him positively as the debate went on.”

He said Trump would be walking a fine line “because it’s live TV it can easily turn into something no one anticipated, just by the mere fact there is no script.”

“They both have to remember this belongs to the voters and resist the temptation for it to be all about yourself,”he said, noting that Trump’s performance in the primary debates often focused on him “boasting about poll numbers, or that he had won previous debates.”

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas