Trump’s Rivals Seize on Opportunities to Challenge His Acuity

REUTERS/Marco Bello
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sits for a live television interview after the conclusion of the third Republican candidates’ U.S. presidential debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, U.S., November 8, 2023.

The DeSantis campaign recently posted a thread of more than two dozen clumsy or confusing remarks by former president Donald Trump, positing that “this is why his handlers won’t let him debate.”

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, speaking to Jewish donors, mocked Trump for speaking positively about the leaders of China and North Korea, saying he is evidently “confused” about which countries are American allies and which are adversaries.

And the Biden campaign has also stepped up its posts about Trump’s verbal fumbles, including a minute-long video compilation of various miscues. In press statements, it has slammed Trump for mispronouncing “Hamas” and for musing aloud that the abbreviation for United States is spelled like the word “us.”

As Trump’s Republican rivals face growing pressure to stop his momentum, while Democrats seek to neutralize concerns about Biden’s age, the two sides are converging on a common argument – that Trump’s cognition has declined too far for him to lead the country again.

The Biden-Harris HQ account on X, formerly known as Twitter, sometimes even reposts jabs at Trump from the DeSantis campaign. When DeSantis’s campaign “war room” posted a video of Trump sounding confused at a rally in New Hampshire, for example, Biden’s account shared it.

Biden, 80, has faced a relentless spotlight on his verbal and physical stumbles, and polls suggest his age could be a major political vulnerability in 2024. His team is increasingly eager to point out that Trump, 77, is susceptible to similar missteps, which have sometimes been overlooked amid the other chaos surrounding the former president, including the 91 criminal charges he faces.

Trump’s freewheeling speeches and improvisational rallies lend themselves easily to mistakes, said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau.

“I think it’s smart to also just remind those who are shaping the coverage of this that ‘Hey, Trump says some really ridiculous and crazy things – much more so, by the way, than the president ever does,'” said Mollineau, who serves as an adviser for the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country.

In recent speeches, Trump has incorrectly described Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the leader of Turkey and falsely suggested Hungary shares a border with Russia. He has repeatedly referred to the Obama administration when he meant the Biden administration, and at one point he inaccurately suggested he’d beaten Obama – rather than Hillary Clinton – in the 2016 election.

Trump has also mispronounced “on purpose” as “on perfect” and “Marxist” as “markers,” and he has combined the names of Florida Democrat Andrew Gillum and Florida Republican Adam Putnam to get “Pullam.” At the end of one speech, he warned that the world must not slide into World War II, when he meant World War III.

Such verbal stumbles are hardly new for Trump, who in 2016 referred to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as “7/11” and in 2019 addressed Apple CEO Tim Cook as “Tim Apple.” But while the slips can be minor and not necessarily reflective of a broader issue, such mistakes have become political fodder at a time when critics scour Biden’s public appearances for evidence of age-related blunders – though Biden, like Trump, has a history of gaffes that goes back years or even decades.

Because Trump makes so many inflammatory or controversial comments that seize attention, his critics say, his flubs can be eclipsed. The former president has suggested former Joint Chief Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley deserves execution, for example, and called special counsel Jack Smith “deranged.”

For the Republican hopefuls, who have been frustrated by their inability to make significant inroads into Trump’s lead, raising questions about his mental acuity lets them distinguish themselves without attacking his record in a way that might alienate GOP primary voters.

Haley, 51, took a swipe at Trump last month when she excoriated him for saying – shortly after Hamas killed more than 1,400 people in Israel – that the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah is “very smart.”

“These are not good or smart people. Along with Iran’s ayatollah, they’re the most evil dictators in the world,” Haley said. “They want us to stay divided, distracted and morally confused. . . . With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”

Spokespeople for Haley’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

DeSantis, who was initially more circumspect, has recently begun suggesting directly that Trump is too old.

“The presidency is not a job for someone that’s 80 years old,” DeSantis told CBS News in September, calling both Trump’s and Biden’s ages a “legitimate concern. His campaign has launched an online “accident tracker” to highlight Trump’s slip-ups and released a “supercut” of Trump clips to argue that he has “lost the zip on his fastball.”

Speaking to voters in New Hampshire last month, DeSantis argued that Trump has to be glued to a teleprompter to speak coherently. “This is a different Donald Trump than 2015, ’16,” DeSantis said.

One recent post from the DeSantis campaign centered on a moment from Trump’s stop in Sioux City, Iowa, when he said hello to Sioux Falls, which is in South Dakota.

“Donald Trump recently forgot what state he was in, prompting a handler to inform him that he was in Iowa,” the post said. “Who does that remind you of?”

A person familiar with the incident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the teleprompter was wrong and Trump read what was on the screen.

In some sense, Trump is being targeted by his own weapons, since he has been relentless in going after Biden’s age and mental competence.

Last year, Trump’s rallies started featuring mash-ups of Biden gaffes in a video called “Let’s Get Ready to Bumble.” The former president recently has mimicked Biden onstage, portraying him as feeble, confused and “cognitively impaired.”

At a rally in Hialeah, Fla., on Wednesday, Trump attempted to draw a distinction between mocking Biden’s age and criticizing his abilities.

“Biden’s not too old. That’s not his problem,” Trump said. “He’s too incompetent.”

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump, said attempts to raise awareness of Trump’s mistakes have not changed the basic dynamics of the race.

“The contrast is Biden falling onstage, mumbling his way through a speech, being confused on where to walk and tripping on the steps of Air Force One,” Cheung said in a statement. “There’s no correcting that, and that will be seared into voter’s minds.”

So far in the campaign, age has been a greater liability for Biden than for Trump, despite the relatively small difference between their ages. Questions about the president’s age have dogged him since he launched his campaign in 2019, and Republicans have pointed to videos of him tripping or stumbling over his words to portray him as fragile.

Voters have signaled that Biden’s age is a real concern: Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults said Biden would be too old to serve another term, while half said the same about Trump, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released in September. Almost half of Americans – 48 percent – said both men were too old to complete another term.

Biden has said he understands why people are interested in his age, but he also turns the remarks into punchlines and tells worried voters to “watch me.” His allies argue that Trump is not young, either, and that the former president is such a threat to democracy that any concerns about Biden’s age should take a back seat.

The goal of flooding social media with videos of Trump’s mistakes is to show that the president is not the only 2024 candidate prone to gaffes, said a Biden campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

“The Biden campaign feels like it’s filling a void in media coverage, because there’s wall-to-wall coverage of everything President Biden says or stumbles on but there is a lack of coverage of Donald Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior,” the official said. “The central thrust of our campaign against Donald Trump, if and when he stumbles into the nomination, has always been substantive – that he’s a dangerous, erratic person who’s extreme and MAGA.”

Trump’s long history of being less than forthcoming about his health is also playing into questions about his age and acuity. His medical disclosures during the 2016 campaign were limited to a doctor’s note claiming he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Over the years, Trump has inconsistently reported his height and disclosed weights that would put him just below the threshold for obesity.

Trump also has bragged since 2020 that he aced a cognitive test that typically features questions such as identifying animals and remembering words from earlier in the exam.

Haley, who frequently calls for a “new generation” of leadership, has advocated throughout her campaign for a requirement that candidates over age 75 take competency tests. Trump told reporters in March that he doubted Haley could pass the test.

Many of Trump’s supporters say they appreciate that he does not sound like an ordinary politician and they enjoy his often digressive communication style. But critics say his erratic method of speaking should not be overlooked.

“His verbal skills are limited,” Trump’s former attorney general, William P. Barr, said in a recent appearance at the University of Chicago. “He’s not very disciplined when it comes to what he says.”