Tan, Rested, Not Ready: Bronzed Biden Struggles Through Brief Interview with Former Dem Operative Stephanopoulos

Octogenarian president delivers incoherent answers and says 'really bad cold' left him 'exhausted' during debate

July 5, 2024

A noticeably orange President Joe Biden on Friday struggled through a brief interview with ABC News moderator and former Democratic Party operative George Stephanopoulos, with the octogenarian blaming his disastrous debate performance on exhaustion that stemmed from "a really bad cold."

But the president refused to concede any deterioration of his condition, telling Stephanopoulos that he is no more frail today than he was four years ago and categorically ruling out subjecting himself to a cognitive test, which he said he had not undergone.

"No one said I had to," Biden said. "I get a full neurological test every day … I have a cognitive test every single day."

Asked whether he was being honest with himself about his ability to defeat former president Donald Trump in November, Biden responded with one word: "Yes," describing a race in which several polls show him trailing his predecessor as a "toss up."

"I don’t think anybody is more qualified to be president or win this race than me [sic]," Biden told Stephanopoulos.

The president waved away his debate performance as a "bad episode" that did not reflect "any serious condition." Biden said he was "exhausted" going into the debate and had "a bad night."

Biden had nearly two weeks to recover from a pair of European trips ahead of the debate. He spent days prepping at Camp David, where he never started daily sessions earlier than 11 a.m. and was allotted time for an afternoon nap each day.

Pressed on his light pre-debate schedule, Biden said he was still exhausted going into the contest because he "was sick" and "feeling terrible." Doctors tested him for "some infection, a virus," Biden said, but those tests came back negative. "I just had a really bad cold."

Stephanopoulos then asked Biden whether he realized in real time that the debate was going badly. "Yeah, look," the octogenarian responded. After taking a long pause, he delivered a largely incoherent answer.

"The whole way I prepared—nobody's fault, mine. Nobody's fault but mine," Biden said. "I prepared what I usually would do, sitting down as I did, come back with foreign leaders, or national security council, for explicit detail."

"And I realized partway through that, you know, I get quoted, the New York Times had me down 10 points before the debate, nine now, or whatever the hell it is," he continued. "The fact of the matter is that what I looked at is that he also lied 28 times, I couldn't—I mean, the way the debate ran—my fault, no one else's fault. No one else's fault."

Biden's team approached Stephanopoulos to arrange the interview on Tuesday. The White House was drawn to the ABC anchor because the network "has a large viewership" and "is widely considered a nonpartisan news outlet," the New York Times reported.

Missing from that assessment, however, are Stephanopoulos's close ties to Bidenworld, most notably to Ron Klain, Biden’s first chief of staff who took vacation time from his lucrative new job at Airbnb to prepare Biden for the debate.

Stephanopoulos, one of President Bill Clinton’s most powerful aides, worked closely with, and was a mentor to, Klain, when the two were Hill staffers. From there, Klain and Stephanopoulos worked for Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and subsequent administration.

At the time, Klain was described in the New Republic as part of the "Stephanopoulites," a group of young Clinton staffers who reported to Stephanopoulos when he served as senior adviser to the president. Stephanopoulos heaped praise on Klain, calling him "terrific" and a "friend." In turn, Klain offered loyalty.

"The Stephanopoulites do not have burning consciences. They are not crusaders for social reform," the New Republic's Ruth Shalit wrote in 1994. "They are baby-faced enforcers, directed to sand the sharp edges off their undisciplined elders. … They work for principals, not principles."

Klain has faced intense criticism following Biden's debate performance, with some Democratic donors and Biden family members blaming the debacle on his preparations. Still, Biden stood by his former chief of staff and "still trusted" him in the wake of the debate, according to the New York Times.

Biden's interview with Stephanopoulos was originally set to air on Sunday, but ABC changed the schedule to release it as a Friday night "primetime special." While the network advertised Stephanopoulos's sitdown with Biden as "extended," the White House gave ABC just 20 minutes with the octogenarian president.

Hours before the interview, Biden held a rally at a Madison, Wisconsin middle school. He was defiant, pledging to stay in the race and not let "one 90-minute debate wipe out three and a half years of work." He was also gaffe prone, at one point saying, "I will beat Donald Trump. I will beat him again in 2020."

Around that time, an attendee watching from the risers positioned just behind Biden held a sign reading, "Pass the torch Joe." Earlier in the day, the White House reneged on its promise to allow a group of local reporters to travel with Biden, citing a lack of transportation.

Away from Wisconsin, top Democratic officials continued to plot Biden's exit from the race.

Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), for example, is rallying colleagues to form a group that would call on Biden to step aside, the Washington Post reported as Biden concluded his speech in Wisconsin. Warner "is telling Democratic senators that Biden can no longer remain in the election in the wake of his faltering debate performance."

Biden addressed the report Friday, saying he and Warner "have a different perspective."

"Well, Mark is a good man," he said. "He also tried to get the nomination, too." Warner has never been a candidate for president. "Mark and I have a different perspective. I respect him," Biden continued.

It's unclear how Biden's Stephanopoulos sitdown will impact that effort. Some Democratic senators planned to assess Biden's performance in the interview before committing to join Warner's group. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) "has told senators to try to wait to make any moves until there is more polling data about Biden and Democrats' standing," according to the Post.