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Donald Trump Loomed Over the Democratic Debates

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With his megaphone, Trump can upstage Democrats at every turn, for better or worse. As the first 10 Democrats readied themselves for the debate Wednesday, Trump gave an interview to the Fox Business Network in which he demeaned his hand-picked Federal Reserve Chairman, Jerome Powell, and accused Special Counsel Robert Mueller of having committed “a crime” in his handling of the Russia investigation. He wasn’t done. Trump went on to insult an ally he was on his way to visit. If the U.S. were attacked, he complained, Japan wouldn’t help. Instead, “they can watch it on a Sony television, the attack,” he said.

Even Trump’s trip to Japan has turned out to be a bit of 2020 counter-programming. Hours after the Democrats left the stage Thursday night, Trump went into a high-stakes meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A lingering point of contention is Russian interference in U.S. elections. U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia meddled in the 2016 elections to help defeat Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton—a conclusion the president has resisted. At a summit in Helsinki last year, Trump appeared to accept Putin’s word that Russia didn’t interfere in 2016. Would Trump warn Putin not to disrupt American elections in 2020? “Yes, of course I will,” Trump told reporters. Turning to Putin, he said: “Don’t meddle in the election, president. Don’t meddle in the election.” A readout of the meeting later provided by the White House didn’t mention election interference as an issue that was broached. On Wednesday night, the candidates were asked to identify what they see as the biggest threat to the U.S. and only one—New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—said Russia.

With the first round of debates complete, it’s clear that the candidates are split on how to confront Trump going forward. Certainly, the party’s rank-and-file wants them to take a combative approach. A poll last month showed that 65 percent of Democrats or those who lean Democratic said it’s more important to nominate a candidate who stands the best chance of ousting Trump. Only 35 percent said they’d rather have a candidate who agrees with them on the issues.

One of the biggest applause lines at Wednesday’s debate came when Washington Governor Jay Inslee, asked to name the country’s biggest security threat, gave a clear-cut answer: “The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump. No question about it.” The first words out of Biden’s mouth on Thursday were an attack on Trump, as were the last words he spoke.

Other candidates were more tepid, targeting the president largely on policy grounds. At Wednesday’s debate, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota faulted Trump for not reducing prescription drug prices. Julian Castro, the former housing and urban development secretary, promised to overhaul Trump’s immigration policies. These sorts of policy-based critiques of a norm-shattering president who many Democrats want impeached were likely to fall flat, Williamson warned Thursday. She said that, “It’s nice if we have all these plans, but if you think we beat Donald Trump by having all these plans, you’ve got another thing coming, because he didn’t win by saying he had a plan. He won by simply saying ‘Make America Great Again.’”

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