On PBS Roundtable, ABC’s Jon Karl Claims Trump Is Losing It, Getting ‘Fuzzier’

The latest edition of the Washington Week with The Atlantic weekly political roundtable tried to change the subject from President Biden’s obvious frailty and mental decline to Donald Trump’s odd anecdotes about sharks at campaign rallies.

Show host (and editor of The Atlantic magazine) Jeffrey Goldberg opened the show by noting the looming Biden-Trump debate, admitting both candidates were old and unpopular, but “….Only one is a convicted felon, however, and yet the pressure is somehow on Joe Biden to prove that he has what it takes to continue in office. Donald Trump will obviously try to highlight what he and his supporters see as Biden’s frailty. Biden will undoubtedly highlight the fact that Trump led an anti-constitutional insurrection.”

Does “convicted felon” have any gas at all as an anti-Trump insult? Especially when Biden’s son is a convicted felon? How do they leave that out? 

From that slanted start, the panelists spent time trying to make the Republican candidate’s mental acuity the issue, not the Democratic candidate’s obvious physical and mental decline. A 15-second clip of a stiff, awkward Biden at a Juneteenth event was followed by a 38-second clip of former President Trump relaying some odd hypothetical situation about a boat, a battery, and a shark, which was used to suggest that while President Biden “has some frailty issues,” that Trump is lacking “in matters of cognition and coherence and storytelling….often Donald Trump doesn`t make any sense, right? So, Jon [Karl], how does Trump come into this debate and prove that he`s cognitively competent?”

ABC News’ Jonathan Karl approved of the long clip and wished it were longer.

Goldberg’s Atlantic colleague Anne Applebaum underlined the mainstream press’s desperate defensiveness toward Biden, trying to suggest what everyone saw didn’t really happen that way.

Biden did indeed “wander off at a G7 meeting” toward a paratrooper who’d landed nearby via parachute, with Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni trying to wrangle Biden back, and the whole group of world leaders shifting toward the president to accommodate his meandering for the photo-op. Applebaum continued the rant later: 

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: We’re just days away from watching Joe Biden and Donald Trump, two men whose combined age is 159, debate in front of a television audience of millions, and a live studio audience of not one single person. Tonight, a close look at what we should expect when these two superannuated rivals take the stage, next.

Good evening and welcome to Washington Week and to our new studio here at WETA. If you notice the table, I built it myself.

This coming Thursday, President Joe Biden and the man he defeated in 2020, former President Donald Trump, will make their respective cases to the American people. Neither would want to hear this, but they actually have much in common. Both are unpopular, they are more or less tied in recent polls, and both are older than our previous oldest president, Ronald Reagan. Only one is a convicted felon, however, and yet the pressure is somehow on Joe Biden to prove that he has what it takes to continue in office.

Donald Trump will obviously try to highlight what he and his supporters see as Biden’s frailty. Biden will undoubtedly highlight the fact that Trump led an anti-constitutional insurrection.

Joining me tonight to discuss this and more, Anne Applebaum is my colleague and a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of the forthcoming book, Autocracy, Inc., The Dictators Who Want to Run the World, Zolan Kanno-Youngs is a White House correspondent for The New York Times, Jonathan Karl is the chief White House — chief Washington correspondent, excuse me, for ABC News and the author of Tired of Winning, Donald Trump and the End of the Grand Old Party, and Vivian Salama is a national politics reporter at The Wall Street Journal.

John, I didn’t mean to demote you, I’m sorry, or promote. I don’t know. Promote, demote, I don’t know.

JONATHAN KARL, Chief Washington Correspondent, ABC News: I thought that was still a good title.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Yes. No, everybody here hears great titles. So, welcome to our new table, very proud of it. I want to focus our attention really on the debate tonight. It’s something that I didn’t think was going to happen. I’m still not a hundred percent sure it’s going to happen. We’ll get to that. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the particular weaknesses that both men bring to Atlanta next week. And actually watch this short clip and you’ll see what I’m referring to.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Former U.S. President, 2024 Presidential Candidate: And it must be because of MIT, my relationship to MIT, very smart, he goes — I say, what would happen if the boat sank from its weight, and you’re in the boat and you have this tremendously powerful battery, and the battery is now underwater?

So I said, so there’s a shark ten yards away from the boat, ten yards, or here. Do I get electrocuted if the boat is sinking? Water goes over the battery, the boat is sinking. Do I stay on top of the boat and get electrocuted or do I jump over by the shark and not get electrocuted? Because I will tell you, he didn’t know the answer, he said, you know, nobody has ever asked me that question.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Okay. So, one man in that little sequence has some frailty issues. It just seems that way. I know his people are telling us, the journalists in Washington, that Joe Biden is like the Hulk. He’s all like muscle and vigor, but our eyes are telling us something else. The other man is only three years younger, actually, and it doesn’t seem very frail physically. But, you know, in matters of cognition and coherence and storytelling, you know, it’s something else entirely. So, I mean, I don’t want to overstate it, but often Donald Trump doesn’t make any sense, right?

So, Jon, how does Trump come into this debate and prove that he’s cognitively competent?

JONATHAN KARL: Well, you did something important there, which is you played an extended clip of Donald Trump. And, by the way, you could have kept on going. And I think it’s something that people haven’t seen much of. Donald Trump is omnipresent in our lives, the criminal cases, all this, but there has been not much coverage of what he is actually saying since he was in the White House. I mean, people have largely tuned out.

So, here you will have an extended period of time where we actually hear what Donald Trump have to respond to real basic questions, give answers, have to have rebuttals and hear what he’s actually talking about. And it’s — but he’s been out there. I mean, this is actually the case I’ve been making, based on my reporting, is this is not even the same Donald Trump of the Trump presidency. He wanders all over the place. His ideas have gotten fuzzier.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Because he’s never been lenient.

JONATHAN KARL: No, he’s never in particular, but, I mean, I think this is the first extended look that a mass group of American people will have of Donald Trump since he was in the White House.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, White House Correspondent, The New York Times: And that was the thinking too when sort of the Biden campaign, when President Biden first sort of challenged him this early. I, like you, was surprised when the news of this popped this early in what is normally the debate schedule, that it’s happening this early. But when you talk to Democrats and Biden’s top aides, they think that by being able to put Trump out there in the spotlight can sort of help them accomplish what they’ve been trying to do for now the past couple of years and have thus far failed to really convey to voters, and that’s the contrast.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right. Vivian, I want to ask you two questions. The first is, would you rather be electrocuted or eaten by a shark? You don’t have to answer that one right now. The second question is, how does Joe Biden come into this debate and prove that he’s not too old for the job?

VIVIAN SALAMA, National Politics Reporter, The Wall Street Journal: Well, first of all, to your first question, I’m terrified of sharks. So, definitely, electrocuted, that’s just me.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Something you have in common with Donald Trump.

VIVIAN SALAMA: There you go. As far as President Biden, you know, typically when you go into a debate like this, it’s a referendum. When there’s an incumbent, it’s a referendum on their presidency.

Of course, now we have a very unusual situation where both men have served as president, and so both of them have a record. That’s one of the big differences between Donald Trump of today versus Donald Trump back in ’16, where he didn’t have that.

But then you have two presidents who are older and Donald Trump has really fixated on this idea of Joe Biden’s age. They’ve been playing those clips over and over again on everything from Fox News to any other Republican or conservative networks to show that he is either too frail or kind of wandering off. Trump talks at his rallies about Biden’s cognitive abilities.

Ironically, at one of his rallies a few days ago, he talked about Biden’s cognitive abilities and then he messed up the name of the former White House doctor/congressman, Ronny Jackson, he called him Ronny Johnson, immediately after talking about Biden’s cognitive abilities.

So, obviously the two men come in here with challenges. They are both older at this point. Trump himself, you know, not the man he was in ’16. You just played a clip of him kind of rambling a little bit and that’s one of his issues as well.

And so one of them is going to have issues of coming out there and appearing strong and the other one is going to have kind of that beyond the offense to corner him on everything, from his age and his frailty to his record on the economy and other things as well. And it’s going to be a challenge for President Biden.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Anne, just your opinion on this, but who’s in greater danger in this debate, in the sense of, oh my goodness, I didn’t realize he was like that?

ANNE APPLEBAUM, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: I mean, they both face a certain kind of danger. I think, in a way, Joe Biden has the advantage, partly because that clip that you just showed, plus the other clips that have been circulating, there’s one of him appearing to wander off at a G7 meeting when, in fact, he was going to greet somebody.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: That was edited.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: That was edited to make it look like that. But that means the bar for him is very low. All he has to do is prove that he’s not senile. And, clearly, he isn’t senile. And so he has a chance of doing very well, whereas I think actually the expectations for Trump are higher. And so it will be harder for Trump to appear coherent, to sound coherent. Trump doesn’t seem to me anymore capable of making a coherent argument or making a case.

And in a way, the difficulty is also going to be for those who are running the debate because Trump is going to lie. That’s what he does now. He just goes off on these rants. He makes stuff up.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I want to get to that. I want to get — how do you actually manage this debate in a second? But I just want to come to this question I sort of foreshadowed a bit at the beginning. Do you think that the debate is going to happen?

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: At this point. I mean, just based off of my reporting, what I’m hearing, yes.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Trump is fully in? He’s not going to look for an exit?

JONATHAN KARL: Trump is fully in.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: Yes. And, look —

JONATHAN KARL: Biden is fully in.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: And Biden is fully in. He’s going to Camp David. He’s going to Camp David. He’s in Camp David right now. Ron Klain will be helping out with moderating as well. They are going through mock debates. I’m of the position, the reporting basically says thus far, that’s —

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right.

JONATHAN KARL: But I agree with Anne that the expectations game is favoring Biden. But I think this is a potentially perilous moment for Joe Biden. I mean, his people will have you believe that the problem that he faces is basically the media hasn’t been covering how great and, you know, strong he is. And there’s been — and that his enemies have taken clips out of context. But in reality, I mean, Democrats who are not inside the Biden campaign, but very much want him to win are deeply concerned about his ability to make it through this campaign and are worried about at least the perception of him being so old and not able to make it through four years of a second term.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Yes, stay on that for a little bit. How much of that anxiety is related to the fact that, at the end of his perspective, theoretical second term, he’d be 86 years old, how much of the worry is like, even if he can get through next year, is Kamala Harris going to be president? Are you voting essentially for Kamala Harris?

JONATHAN KARL: I think that is the concern. And, look, I went back, and I know you’ve done this too, but I went back and re-watched the debates from four years ago, particularly the second debate, which was the more — the first debate was a bunch of shouting, and they both looked awful. Trump looked a little worse than Biden. But Biden was sharp in that second debate. And when you look at it, you’re struck at how much younger he looks. It was four years ago. It looks like more than four years ago. And I think one of the significance of this debate coming so early is it is coming before the Democratic Convention, and that dream, that fever dream of Republicans and some Democrats, that there will be some change at the Democratic Convention will not be over until Biden speaks and accepts the nomination in the convention.

VIVIAN SALAMA: But there’s also so much riding on this debate because of that. You have the conventions coming right afterwards. And then we don’t have another debate until September. So they are going to be there. It’s the first time that these two see each other since the last time they debated.

And for them at this point to be able to come out there and actually have an exchange, a policy discussion, that’s why so many rules have been put into place, everything, from cutting the mics while they’re speaking, to having them on opposite ends of the stage, so that you don’t have an incident like that first debate where they’re just shouting over each other. I’m sure there’s still going to be opportunities for them to do that.

But also remember that both of these men, when they are not scripted, they tend to say things that can be a little bit off the cuff and/or, you know, not what their aides would like. President Biden has been doing these mock debates trying to really kind of soak in all the talking points where they’re trying to get him to really memorize and stick to certain policy framings.

But former President Trump is not. They say he’s having policy discussions. So, whether or not they’re really getting into the nitty-gritty of specific policy talking points, or if he’s just going to go out there and riff, that could really make a difference for him.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, Jon, you’ve written a whole book on this. The idea that Donald Trump is going to read the briefing book is not historically grounded.

JONATHAN KARL: No. And policy is not Trump’s thing, as you know.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right.

JONATHAN KARL: But if I can just say — so I think just to finish the Biden point is this is a moment where he can either answer those concerns, particularly the concerns among Democrats that he can do this. Like here he is hype big moment. He seizes it. He looks like he can handle it. He can take on Donald Trump. Or, if it’s a disaster, there will be questions about whether or not he should continue to be the nominee.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right. Anne?

ANNE APPLEBAUM: No, I was just going to say that one of the things that’s at stake in this election is do we vote on policy? Do we vote on what’s really happening in the economy? Or do we vote on bombast and identity politics and essentially lies and that suit whatever biases you have? And the debate might show that. I mean, we might have a contest between one person who’s trying to talk about policy on the one hand and another person who’s riffing about sharks on the other.

But there’s a constituency that likes the sharks. I mean, he’s funny, he’s a showman, I can identify with someone who says wacky stuff, you know, that’s just like me, that’s just like my uncle. And that’s one of the things that we’ll discover.

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