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Biden gives new details on medical care around ‘bad night’ debate

'I let it distract me,' president says of Trump's chatter during faceoff

President Joe Biden speaks to the press before boarding Air Force One in Madison, Wis., following a campaign rally and television interview.
President Joe Biden speaks to the press before boarding Air Force One in Madison, Wis., following a campaign rally and television interview. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden on Friday gave more details about his medical care while suffering from a cold that he and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre have blamed for a disastrous debate performance that has prompted calls for him to abandon his reelection bid. 

“Because I was sick. I was feeling terrible,” Biden said when asked by ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos about what happened during his dismal June 27 debate with Donald Trump, the expected Republican presidential nominee.

Biden said he went into the debate exhausted, despite having spent several days out of the public eye preparing at Camp David.

“The docs with me, I asked if they did a COVID test because we were trying to figure out what was wrong,” Biden said. “They did a test to see whether or not I had some infection, you know, a virus. I didn’t. They just said I had a really bad cold.”

Biden was unclear about when these tests were done. The White House’s story about Biden’s medical care, especially after the debate, has been shifting for several days. Jean-Pierre first told reporters Wednesday that Biden never saw his physician, while he later that same day told Democratic governors he did.

Jean-Pierre on Friday told reporters that following the debate, the president had a “verbal check-in” with his White House doctor. But Biden hours later told Stephanopoulos, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, about the COVID-19 and other tests.

Biden again blamed the cold and his method of preparation for the bad debate performance. The 81-year-old president mentioned something about sitting down during his debate prep and wanting details, but he was not clear about what went wrong. When pressed, he said, “I just had a bad night.”

Asked if he would undergo a cognitive or neurological medical exam, Biden replied that his doctors have never said he needed them, adding: “They said I’m good.” He also said his cognitive abilities are tested every day, apparently referring to the job of being president.

In a new revelation about the debate, Biden said that even though Trump’s microphone was turned off during the debate, he was “yelling” when the president was trying to answer questions. “I let it distract me,” he said.

Biden called it a “bad episode” and contended doctors found “no indication of any serious condition.” His aides have not responded to several inquiries this week about his medical care and the trajectory of the cold.

“I don’t think anybody’s more qualified to be president or win this race than me,” he said while defending his mental fitness.

During a campaign rally in Madison, Wis., before the interview was taped, Biden finished his sentences and spoke clearly — a big departure from his debate performance against Trump. But during the interview, his answers were not always clear.

White House and campaign aides added a Madison rally and Stephanopoulos sit-down to the president’s schedule earlier this week amid a wave of concern from Democrats about his debate performance and signs he is aging, perhaps more quickly than before. He also is scheduled to campaign in Philadelphia on Sunday, and to do a news conference next week when leaders of NATO meet in Washington.

As he was leaving Madison, Biden was asked by reporters about a Washington Post report that Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., would next week try to form a group of Democratic senators to press him to drop out. “He’s the only one,” the president said, noting that he has spoken with 20 Democratic lawmakers since the debate. During the ABC sit-down, Biden incorrectly said Warner had once wanted the presidential nomination. Warner never ran.

There were signs Friday that the campaign’s and White House’s efforts to bolster Biden’s standing were not working.

Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois added his voice to House Democratic colleagues Lloyd Doggett of Texas, Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts in calling for Biden to step aside.

“So I would say to those folks who say everything’s fine: It’s not, and everything you care about is on the line,” Quigley said on MSNBC. “I’d say, ‘Mr. President, your legacy is set. We owe you the greatest debt of gratitude. The only thing that you can do now, to cement that for all time and prevent utter catastrophe, is to step down and let someone else do this.’”

Biden told Stephanopoulos his pollsters tell him his race with Trump is a “toss up,” and he jabbed at his opponent, calling Trump a “pathological liar” who has “never been challenged the way he’s about to be challenged.”

Though Biden used his Friday appearances to dismiss calls for his departure, Vice President Kamala Harris has been at his side most of the week. She is widely seen as among the top candidates to replace him atop the Democratic ticket.

Others include Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. One upshot for Harris would be that analysts have said she would have the easiest time accessing Biden’s massive campaign war chest.

“While Harris would appear to have the best chance of winning the nomination due to her party connections and expected endorsement from Biden, Whitmer is probably the candidate with the greatest ability to defeat Trump in November,” according to analyst Giles Alston of Oxford Analytica, a firm owned by the same company, FiscalNote, as CQ Roll Call.

“She is a generation younger than Trump, offers a boost in one or more battleground states, and is strongly identified with abortion access,” he added of Whitmer, “while having the ability to distance herself from some unpopular Biden administration positions.”

But if Biden holds the line on what he insisted both when pressed by Stephanopoulos and to his supporters earlier Friday in the Wisconsin capital, those three Democrats will have to wait until 2028 to make a White House run.  

“Let me ask you: Do you think I’m too old to beat Donald Trump?” Biden asked the rally audience.

“No!” they yelled back.