How Trump’s verbal blunders could weaken his attacks on Biden’s age

One of Donald J. Trump’s new comedy bits at his rallies features him impersonating the current commander-in-chief with an over-the-top caricature mocking President Biden’s age.

With his eyelids down and his mouth open, Mr. Trump stutters and mumbles. He squints. His hands are flapping. He shuffles his feet and wanders loosely around the stage. A burst of laughter and applause erupts from the crowd as he feigns confusion by turning and pointing at unseen supporters, as if unaware that his back is turned to them.

But his recent campaign events have also included less intentional stumbles. Mr. Trump has had a series of unforced errors, misunderstandings and general incoherence that go beyond his usual discursive nature and that his Republican rivals point to as signs of his declining performance.

On Sunday in Sioux City, Iowa, Mr. Trump profusely thanked supporters in Sioux Falls, a South Dakota city about 75 miles away, correcting himself only after being pulled onstage and informed of the mistake.

It was strikingly similar to a fictional scene Mr. Trump acted out earlier this month, pretending to be Mr. Biden who had traded Iowa for Idaho and needed an aide to sort him out.

In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has also told his supporters not to vote, and has claimed to have beaten President Barack Obama in the election. He praised the collective intellect of the Iranian-backed militant group, a longtime enemy of both Israel and the United States, and repeatedly misspelled the name of the armed group that rules Gaza.

“This is a different Donald Trump than 2015 and ’16 — he’s lost his zipper on a fastball,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters last week on the campaign trail in New Hampshire.

“In 2016 he was on the loose, he’s out there roaming the country,” Mr. DeSantis added. “Now, it’s just another guy. And it’s sad to see that.”

It is unclear whether Mr. Trump’s recent mistakes are related to his age. He has long relied on an unorthodox speaking style that has served as one of his main political strengths, placing him, incredibly, among the most effective communicators in American politics.

But as the race for the White House in 2024 heats up, Trump’s increasingly frequent verbal gaffes threaten to undermine one of the Republicans’ most powerful lines of attack, and the whole point of his pantomime on stage: the argument that Mr. Biden is too old to be president.

Mr. Biden, a grandfather of seven, is 80 years old. Mr. Trump, who has 10 grandchildren, is 77 years old.

Although only a few years separate the two men in their golden years, voters view their strength differently. Recent polls have shown that roughly two in three voters say Mr. Biden is too old to serve another four-year term, while only half say the same of Mr. Trump.

If that gap begins to close, it is Mr. Trump who has much more to lose in the general election game.

According to the previously unreported finding in an August survey from the Associated Press-NORC Public Affairs Research Center, 43 percent of American voters said both men were “too old to effectively serve another four-year term as president.” Among those voters, 61 percent said they planned to vote for Mr. Biden, compared with 13 percent who said the same for Mr. Trump.

Last week, similar findings emerged at Franklin & Marshall College survey of registered voters in Pennsylvania, one of the most watched battlegrounds in 2024.

According to the poll, 43 percent of Pennsylvanians said both men were “too old to serve another term.” An analysis of that data by The New York Times showed that Mr. Biden led Trump among those voters 66 percent to 11 percent. Among all voters in the state, the two men were statistically tied.

Berwood Yost, director of the Franklin & Marshall poll, said Mr. Biden’s large lead among voters who were concerned about the age of both candidates could be explained in part by the fact that Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to identify age as a problem for their party’s leader.

“The question of the age is that if Trump is tarred with the same brush as Biden, it really hurts him,” Mr. Yost said.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, noted that the former president had maintained a commanding lead in the Republican primary and that in the general election, several recent polls showed Mr. Trump slightly ahead of Mr. Biden.

“None of these false narratives have changed the dynamics of the race at all — President Trump is still dominating because people know he’s the strongest candidate,” Cheung said. “The contrast is that Biden falls on stage, mumbling his way through a speech, confused about where to walk and stumbling over the steps of Air Force One. It cannot be corrected, and it will be burned into the minds of voters.”

Mr Trump’s rhetorical skills have long relied on a mixture of brute force and a seemingly preternatural instinct for the imprecise. That mesmerizing combination — honed from a lifetime of real estate negotiations, New York tabloid slander and prime-time reality TV stardom — often means voters hear what they want to hear from him.

Trump’s supporters leave his speeches energized. Undecided voters who are open to his message can find what they are looking for in his writing. Opponents are outraged, and when they furiously accuse him of something they heard but didn’t quite say, Mr. Trump turns the criticism into the fact that he’s being unfairly persecuted—and the whole cycle starts over.

But Mr. Trump’s latest missteps are not easily classified as calculated obfuscations.

During a Sept. 15 speech in Washington, moments after declaring Mr. Biden “cognitively impaired, unable to lead,” the former president warned that America was on the brink of World War II, which ended in 1945.

In the same speech, he boasted of presidential polls showing him leading Mr. Obama, who is not, in fact, running for an illegal third term. He mistakenly referred to Mr. Obama again during an anecdote about winning the 2016 presidential race.

“We did it with Obama,” Trump said. “We won an election that everyone said was unwinnable, we won…” He paused for a moment as he seemed to realize his mistake. “Hillary Clinton.”

At a rally in Florida on October 11, days after a brutal terror attack that killed hundreds of Israelis, Mr Trump criticized the country for being unprepared, lashing out at its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It seems that Mr. Mr Trump angered Mr Netanyahu, once a close ally, after the Israeli leader congratulated Mr Biden on winning the 2020 election.

In the same speech, Mr. Trump relied on an inaccurate timeline of events in the Middle East to criticize Mr. Biden’s handling of foreign affairs and, in the process, attracted headlines for praising Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group.

Last week, while speaking to supporters at a rally in New Hampshire, Mr. Trump praised Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s strongman prime minister, but called him the “leader of Turkey,” a country hundreds of miles away. He quickly corrected himself.

Elsewhere in the same speech, Mr Trump jumped into a confusing spat that ended with him telling his supporters: “You don’t have to vote – don’t worry about voting,” adding: “We’ve got a lot of votes.”

Mr Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said the former president “was clear about the integrity of the election and made sure only legal votes were counted”.

In a speech on Saturday, Mr. Trump sounded like he was talking about hummus when he mispronounced Hamas (huh-maas), the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip and launched one of the biggest attacks on Israel in decades in October. 7.

The former president’s speech caught the attention of the Biden campaign, which released the video clip on social media, noting that Mr Trump sounded “confused”.

But even Republican rivals have sensed the issue of age opening up against Mr. Trump, who has maintained an unshakable hold on the party despite a political record that in years past would have forced conservatives to consider another standard-bearer. Mr. Trump has lost control of Congress as president; he was voted out of the White House; failed to help achieve the “red wave” of victories in the mid-term elections last year; and this year he made 91 changes to criminal offenses in four criminal cases.

Nikki Haley, the 51-year-old former governor of South Carolina, opened her presidential bid this year by urging candidates 75 or older to take mental fitness tests, an incentive she renewed in recent weeks.

On Saturday, Ms. Haley attacked Trump over his comments about Netanyahu and Hezbollah, suggesting in a speech to Jewish donors in Las Vegas that the former president lacked the ability to return to the White House.

“Let me remind you,” she added with a small smile. “With all due respect, I’m not confused.”

Jazmine Ulloa contributed to the reporting.

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