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Democrats uneasy about Biden’s ‘crappy’ debate night

Speaker Johnson calls for Cabinet to ‘search their hearts’ about invoking 25th Amendment

President Joe Biden looks down as he participates in the first presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle Thursday in Atlanta.
President Joe Biden looks down as he participates in the first presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle Thursday in Atlanta. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

House Democrats on Friday expressed concerns about President Joe Biden’s inability to answer questions or communicate coherently in his first debate in four years against Donald Trump.

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries was among the first House Democrats to head for the chamber floor for the day’s only vote series, and he attempted to deflect blame away from Biden’s performance Thursday night.

“Donald Trump lied his way through the debate,” the New York Democrat said.

That was the common refrain from Biden’s fellow Democrats, with a number calling Trump unfit to be president again — although most also admitted Biden had a “bad night,” the term most often uttered in the corridors around the House chamber as members prepared to pass several spending bills and head home.

“We’ve got a candidate. It’s Joe Biden,” former House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters. “He’s got an extraordinary record of accomplishment. He’s done an extraordinary amount for the American people,” Hoyer added, ticking off what he saw as top accomplishments, including boosting the “competitiveness of the United States, dealing with climate change, which is obviously very severe. He’s got a wonderful record.”

Some House Democrats had little to say when confronted with the obvious follow-up: What good, in an election cycle against an opponent like Trump, is a strong perceived record if the incumbent cannot articulate or defend it before a large prime-time television audience?

[Fact-checking the Biden-Trump debate]

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., told reporters her party needs “time to make decisions in a 10- or 12-hour time frame,” adding of Biden: “He wasn’t at his best. … But his record stands.

“So, let’s see what happens,” she said. “We’ll get through this.”

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., wasn’t ready to let things go, however, saying at a news conference that members of the Cabinet should “search their hearts” about whether to invoke the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

“Our adversaries see weakness in this White House, as we all do. I take no pleasure in saying that. I think this is a very dangerous situation, but … unfortunately it’s not the House that gets to determine that, it’s the Cabinet under the Constitution,” Johnson said. 

“We have a president here who by all appearances is not up to the task, and these are very dangerous times. This is a very serious moment in American history, and it needs to be regarded and handled as such,” Johnson said.

[Debate transcript from]

During a campaign rally Friday afternoon in Raleigh, N.C., Biden didn’t go into his performance in depth, but he acknowledged the reaction it drew.

“I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious,” he said, adding, “I don’t debate as well as I used to. … I know, like millions of Americans, when you get knocked down, you get back up,” he said to loud cheers.

He added moments later that he wouldn’t be seeking a second term unless he knew “with my heart and soul that I can do the job.”

Biden also called Trump a “one-man crime spree,” prompting the boisterous crowd to chant, “Lock him up.” Biden chuckled and replied, “There’s time for that.”

Biden left the stage to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” a new feature since his previous rally.

Trump: ‘Big victory’

Hours later, Trump wasted no time hitting Biden once he stepped onto a sun-drenched stage in Chesapeake, Va. He declared a “big victory” in the debate and dubbed Biden “incompetent.”

“He studied so hard that he didn’t know what the hell he was doing,” Trump said of Biden’s weeklong cram session. “No amount of rest or rigging could help him defend his record. … As every American saw firsthand last night, this election is a choice between strength and weakness, competence and incompetence, peace or prosperity [and] war or no war.”

Trump said he did not believe “many people” who were saying Biden would be leaving the race. The White House, however, was not saying that.

“There are no discussions like that whatsoever,” Biden campaign spokesman Michael Tyler said when asked aboard Air Force One whether campaign officials were discussing the president dropping out. He also said Biden intends to participate in the next planned debate, scheduled for Sept. 10.

On the Hill, Democrats were willing to concede that the debate, as Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar put it, “was not the night any of us wanted.” But she then pivoted to what she contended was a night of falsehoods and lies from Biden’s twice-impeached and once-convicted predecessor.

“I think there needs to be a real conversation about the things that Donald Trump said. It is beyond vile — and that … should be unacceptable,” Escobar said.

Rep Troy Carter, D-La., said of Biden, “I think he can recover. I think that the facts will bear out.” He faulted the CNN moderators for “not point-for-point calling these things out.”

“You saw a president that … articulated the facts and … has receipts — not just promises made promises, but kept, versus the other guy who just repeatedly didn’t tell the truth,” Carter added. “It was frustrating for anybody who cared to listen, that Trump just didn’t tell the truth repeatedly.”

Specifically, Escobar pointed to Trump’s claims that Central and South American countries are sending individuals from their asylums and prisons into the United States. But she didn’t answer directly when asked why Biden was unable to counter that claim on Thursday night.

Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., described the Thursday night showdown this way: “Two candidates had really crappy performances at last night’s debate.”

Casten continued, “One of them had a crappy performance because he was a terrible president and he lied about everything about his past and history. The other one had a crappy performance because he has an amazing record to run on and seemed to have not even prepared for the debate. And it’s, I think, it’s frustrating. Because we all know how competent Biden is, we all know how good he is in those rooms. And he wasn’t prepared.”

Biden repeatedly struggled to speak clearly and finish his points despite spending a week at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, preparing with a group of his most trusted aides. White House aides said Thursday night that the president had a cold and the president later told poolers, during an unscheduled stop at a Waffle House, that he had a sore throat.

The duo was face-to-face for the first time since a pandemic-era 2020 debate and traded barbs in Atlanta as they stood just a few feet apart on a CNN-assembled set with no live audience. They battled during the prime-time spectacle on issues ranging from abortion to the economy to immigration to foreign policy to their golf games.

Trump struggled to tell the truth or recount parts of his presidency accurately, giving Democrats political ammunition with which to give Biden cover.

‘People are not pleased’

Several Democrats muttered “bad night” before quickly disappearing into the House chamber to vote.

Rep. Gregory W. Meeks gave reporters a sketch of the attitude inside the chamber on the Democrats’ side. But he didn’t say there was a widespread call for the president to drop out of the race.

“People are not pleased. … Nobody’s in there jumping for joy, saying, you know, that was a great night last night. So, yeah, there’s concern because we know how important it is to make sure that we win this election,” the New York Democrat said. “And so is angst up today? Yes. But it’s also about the focus because we care about this country and we care about people.

“We know the differences between us and the MAGA Republicans and those that support Donald Trump, and we’ve got to make sure that that message continues to get out, and that has not happened,” Meeks added. “And we’ve got to make sure that we continue to do that because it is so important not for these individuals but for our country, for the future of our country, for our allies. We’ve got to get this done.”

Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, was asked before the debate on Air Force One what to expect from Biden, and she set what Democrats would consider a high bar. “I would refer you to the State of the Union,” she replied. But Biden was anything but the clear and sometimes-forceful self he showed in his joint address to Congress earlier this year, causing heartburn for Democrats just four months from Election Day.

At one point early on, Biden froze mid-answer.

“What I’ve been able to do with the, with, with, with the COVID, excuse me. With dealing with everything we have to do with,” Biden said, looking down at his lectern, adding after several seconds of silence: “Look, if we finally beat Medicare.”

A FiveThirtyEight average of multiple polls before the debate put Trump up by a paper-thin margin nationally, 41 percent to 40.9 percent, with independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. netting 9.2 percent. Several surveys, like one from The New York Times and Siena College (48 percent to Biden’s 42 percent), gave Trump a larger national edge among registered voters with four months to go.

Republicans such as Chip Roy of Texas said they weren’t surprised by Biden’s sluggishness.

“The simple fact of the matter,” he said, “is the president of the United States is not capable of doing the job.”

Briana Reilly, Caitlin Reilly, Daniela Altimari and Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.