Trump Tries to Set Expectations, and Floats Excuses, for His Debate With Biden

A few minutes into his speech at a campaign rally on Tuesday, Donald J. Trump asked a question of the few thousand who’d turned up to hear him speak. “Is anybody going to watch the debate?”

Mr. Trump was in Racine, Wis., but it was clear his mind was in Atlanta, the site of his matchup against President Biden next week. He repeatedly mused about the potential scenarios, lowering expectations that he would dominate Mr. Biden and then, as if he couldn’t help himself, raising them again.

The expectations game is a particular challenge for the Trump campaign. Mr. Trump, 78, has spent months casting the 81-year-old Mr. Biden as a husk of a man who can barely walk or formulate complete sentences. Republicans have pumped out a stream of videos of Mr. Biden walking stiffly — some deceptively edited — that are meant to be proof of Mr. Biden’s decline.

Mr. Trump’s supporters in Racine showed they have been marinating in this content. “Biden can’t stand up!” one woman yelled during Mr. Trump’s speech. She stood near another woman who wore a T-shirt with a picture of Mr. Biden that read, “Impeach me. I won’t remember.”

But Mr. Trump was also preparing for his caricature of Mr. Biden to be punctured next week. He openly wrestled with the obvious question: What if Mr. Biden clears the very low bar that Mr. Trump has now set for him?

He had answers: If that should happen, it’s only because Mr. Biden will be “pumped up,” he told his followers, suggesting that the president would hoover up a pile of cocaine beforehand, since the narcotic was recently found in the White House by the Secret Service, though investigators never did figure out how it got there and it was not linked to the president or anyone in his family. (Still, it was an acutely cutting notion, coming a week after the Delaware trial that publicly aired the first family’s struggle with Hunter Biden’s addiction.)

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