Special: Trump and Clinton look ahead to debates, as Trump tries to catch up in fundraising

Aug. 26, 2016 AT 4:31 p.m. EDT
The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is just one month away, and both candidates have begun to prep. While Clinton's campaign sticks to a more traditional approach, Trump has reportedly abandoned past examples as he prepares to debate his Democratic rival. Trump trails behind in the campaign fundraising, and he has taken an unconventional approach to spending his war chest.

Get Washington Week in your inbox


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Webcast Extra.

SUSAN DAVIS: Hello, and welcome. I’m Susan Davis, filling in for Gwen Ifill. Joining me around the table, Jeff Zeleny of CNN, Jeanne Cummings of The Wall Street Journal, and Robert Costa of The Washington Post.

The first presidential candidates debate is just a month away, and, Robert, let’s start with some of your reporting on that. What do we know about the debates? And what’s going on behind the scenes?

ROBERT COSTA: Oh, it’s such a contrast on the Republican side compared to four years ago, when Mitt Romney would have a group of consultants in a conference room or a cabin going through briefing books. With Donald Trump, it’s at a golf course – his own course in New Jersey, Bedminster near New York City, and it’s piles of food and hamburgers and hot dogs and friends and family, and not really debate prep at all. It’s strategy sessions and talking through issues. And his campaign tells me that’s who he is. He wants to be authentic, but he also sees that this is political theater more than some kind of wonkish enterprise.

MS. DAVIS: Don’t we normally know by now who’s going to moderate the debates, when they’re going to be? I mean, do you know what’s fueling the delay here?

MR. COSTA: Well, I think the Commission on Presidential Debates has been reluctant to roll out their moderators until after the summer, but expect it in early September. And the campaigns are still talking to the Commission on what exactly they’d like to do in terms of negotiations. Usually, the Commission would like to select the moderators on its own, and I think that still remains their position based on my reporting. But a lot of the logistics – one thing is that these debates sometimes are 90 minutes long, and these are two candidates who in primary debates have often enjoyed having a bit of a break. Will there be a break? Sometimes there are not any breaks in these presidential debates. These are the kind of things that are being debated.

MS. DAVIS: Right, do they have a podium, are they sitting down, all those kind of things. Trump has teased that he might not participate in all of the debates in the past. Is his campaign talking differently now? Are they committed to appearing in all three?

MR. COSTA: I think they’re moving toward participating. I don’t think “commitment” is the world I would use based on my conversations. (Laughter.) I think Trump is always prone to making a last-minute decision, especially if he’s irritated or infuriated about something. What I can report is that he has Rudy Giuliani now, who has an increasingly influential role at his side, being his point person with the Commission on Presidential Debates. And those two together, I think, are very similar personalities. So if Trump is unhappy, you could see Giuliani pushing hard, and he’s a former prosecutor.

MS. DAVIS: Do we know yet who’s playing Hillary Clinton in debate prep, if anyone is?

MR. COSTA: Stay tuned to The Washington Post this Sunday. We’ll see.

MS. DAVIS: All right. Jeff, whenever I talk to voters on the trail, one of the things they say is they’re really looking forward to the debates, that they want to see Trump and Clinton on a stage together and how they interact. How is her side of this preparing for these debates?

JEFF ZELENY: Sure. I mean, this will be the climax of this, you know, very unusual campaign season. We saw during the primaries the audiences, at least at the very beginning of the debates, were incredibly high because people were curious to see what Donald Trump is going to do and say. I think we’ll have that at least for the first debate, the same level of curiosity just to see both of them standing or sitting side by side. Perhaps they’ll be on the phone with one another. They seem to be doing phoners a lot on television.

But look, I think the Clinton campaign is taking a much more traditional approach to this. One thing I’m told, she’s gone back to watch a lot of Donald Trump. During real time, during the presidential debates in the primaries, she was off campaigning, sort of doing her own thing. There isn’t a lot of time to watch all these debates. But I’m told that she and others have watched most, if not all of his debate performances, you know, to really get a sense of who he is, you know, and how he acts, but also on policy. But it’s a little bit different preparing for this debate because he’s not a traditional candidate like Mitt Romney, for example, or John McCain, for example, who has positions locked in stone. I mean, imagine trying to debate this immigration, you know, this week. It’s like Jell-O on a wall here. (Laughter.) And that, you know, probably benefits her in some respects, but not necessarily.

So I can tell you I’m told the Clinton campaign is taking this incredibly seriously. This comes from the top down, from Bill Clinton as well but also from the candidate herself. No joking about Trump; they take this deadly seriously. Because, as Robert said, it is a touch of entertainment, and he’s probably the better entertainer than she is. What she wants to remind people, look, this is a deadly serious presidential contest. This is for commander in chief – the role of commander in chief. So I think that, you know, they’re approaching it very seriously. And they’re also planning for some insults and some very tough conversations about Monica Lewinsky and other things, which makes it sort of dicey who will play Trump, because no one who’s in her orbit or a friend of hers wants to be up there really making her uncomfortable like that.

MS. DAVIS: Nobody wants that job? You referenced Bill Clinton. Is he – does he play a role in this debate prep?

MR. ZELENY: Sure. He plays a role in everything. It’s largely behind the scenes. He has not been campaigning nearly as much as he used to be. Of course, he’s sort of under fire with the Foundation stuff. We saw him out once in public this week. But yes, he plays a big role in everything substantive of the campaign, so certainly that would be this.

MS. DAVIS: Jeanne, let’s talk a little bit about campaign money. There is a huge gap between what Donald Trump has been raising and spending and what Hillary Clinton has in her campaign account. Clinton has raised more than $315 million and spent just under 260 million (dollars) since she launched her campaign. Trump has raised less than half of that – 125 million (dollars), including 52 million (dollars) of his own money – and he’s spent just over 80 million (dollars). What else did – Jeanne, what else did the recent financial reports tell us about the differences between these two campaigns?

JEANNE CUMMINGS: Well, the gap still exists. The number that matters when you’re going into the Labor Day weekend is what do you got in the bank – you know, what’s left? She’s got 140 million (dollars) in the bank. He’s got about 90 million (dollars). So she still has a very big advantage.

One thing that has changed is that he is really ramping it up. He is raising money fast. Now, granted, it’s low-hanging fruit because he has not been out there raising money at all, so this is like his first cut. And so it’s much easier to get money at this time in the fundraising cycle for a candidate. But he is getting a fair amount from small donors, too. It’s like 60/40, where a little over 60 percent of his money are donations that are under $200. So that’s a lot of people to help him generate that kind of cash, and those are a lot of people he can go back to over and over again. That’s assuming he’s not using direct mail, because direct mail is so expensive it’s almost not worth it – you spend as much as you’re raising. So we are still analyzing some of his numbers, but a lot of it is online, and so those – these are perfectly great sources of resources for later.

And he has – he has kept that schedule up. So that’s what we show he raised in July. In August, he’s been very active on the fundraising trail as well. He’s interesting to watch because, unlike Hillary Clinton who will just go dark for two days – I’m fundraising, see you later, take some time off, Jeff – Trump always likes to have an event, and so Robert doesn’t get that break. (Laughter.) He has to still be out there. And that’s why sometimes I think that explains why his travel schedule and appearance locations look odd, because he –

MR. ZELENY: Like Mississippi and Texas this week.

MS. CUMMINGS: Right, because he’s fundraising but he always wants to go public, have a little public event at the same time.

MS. DAVIS: But he’s made it this far without raising the traditional amounts of money a presidential candidate would raise. I mean, does his campaign – are they concerned at all? They don’t seem to be concerned.

MS. CUMMINGS: No, they aren’t. They aren’t, and they shouldn’t be, because he has outsourced so many core pieces of a campaign to the Republican National Committee. So the ground game is not something Donald Trump is even going to try to create. He has told the RNC that’s your job, you go create the ground game.

MS. DAVIS: Is that a smart decision?

MS. CUMMINGS: We’ll find out. If people look back and analyze it and say is it smart – it was done by John McCain by necessity, because he went broke and so the RNC had to take it over. It sure didn’t work for him. We’ll see if it works this time. Now the RNC is like better prepared. They knew this was coming their way. And the RNC has more money than the DNC. So, you know, this may level out the difference in cash flow.

MS. DAVIS: Robert.

MR. COSTA: Just one point to add to Jeanne’s great analysis about the fundraisers. I’ve heard from a couple Trump sources that Trump himself can’t stand the fundraisers, doesn’t like the fundraisers, but he’s being encouraged by his finance director, Steve Mnuchin, to make sure he goes to a place like Jackson, Mississippi, or Seattle, Washington, or Oregon, all these different not really places a nominee would go. And one thing Bannon and Conway are doing as they take over the campaign is taking some of those stops off the schedule because they know Trump doesn’t like it, they don’t think it’s maybe worth his time. So we’ll have to see if he continues the pace he had under the latter days of Paul Manafort when it comes to fundraising.

MS. DAVIS: All right, I think we have to leave it there. Thank you all for being here.

Stay online all week long and check out the News You Need to Know on the Washington Week website. That’s, of course, at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And that’s all for this edition on the Washington Week Webcast Extra. I’m Susan Davis. Thanks for tuning in.


Support our journalism

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving

kconnolly@weta.org or 703-998-2064