Media Buzz

Psychological warfare? Trump and Clinton camps leak debate strategies

'MediaBuzz' host Howard Kurtz reacts to dueling leaks from both camps in regards to prep work being done for the upcoming Presidential Debates


If you were running debate prep for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, it would seem a safe bet that you wouldn’t want to give away your strategy.

And yet, in dueling leaks to the press, we are getting glimpses into how each camp is preparing heading into the first faceoff at the end of next month.

Which means I can only conclude the following:

Strategists on both sides are engaging in trash-talking, trying to rattle the other side, like before a big NBA game. To use a sports phrase, each contender is trying to get inside each other’s head.

Or, the leaks amount to a head fake, signaling one strategy to throw off the opposition while secretly pursuing another.

Or it’s people who just can’t help themselves when it comes to spilling the beans to reporters.

What’s also amusing here are the venues. The Washington Post ran a detailed story over the weekend that was more about Trump’s prep than Clinton’s. The New York Times came back yesterday with a detailed story that was more about Clinton’s prep than Trump’s.

Given the craziness and intensity of interest in this race, there will be endless speculation between now and the Sept. 26 debate at Long Island’s Hofstra University. But everyone wants to know what’s happening behind the scenes.

The Times piece on Hillary says her team is “seeking insights about Mr. Trump’s deepest insecurities as they devise strategies to needle and undermine him in four weeks at the first presidential debate, the most anticipated in a generation.”

Got that? What’s more, “her team is also getting advice from psychology experts to help create a personality profile of Mr. Trump to gauge how he may respond to attacks and deal with a woman as his sole adversary on the debate stage.”

This is sounding very scientific! And rather than just chat with shrinks, “they are undertaking a forensic-style analysis of Mr. Trump’s performances in the Republican primary debates, cataloging strengths and weaknesses as well as trigger points that caused him to lash out in less-than-presidential ways.”

Hillaryland is also enlisting Tony Schwartz, Trump’s coauthor on “The Art of the Deal” (which made him rich), who has since turned on the billionaire and supplies some negative quotes. The Times says she met with her top debate advisers: former Obama, Biden and Gore aide Ron Klain, D.C. lawyer Karen Dunn and senior strategist Joel Benenson.

There is an interesting quote from Trump from last week: “I believe you can prep too much for those things. It can be dangerous. You can sound scripted or phony — like you’re trying to be someone you’re not.”

The Post story has Trump taking a more unconventional approach, as you might expect: 

“Trump’s aides have put together briefing books, not that the candidate is devoting much time to reading them. Trump is not holding any mock debates, proudly boasting that a performer with his talents does not need that sort of prepping.”

To its credit, the Post got on-the-record quotes from Rudy Giuliani and Kellyanne Conway, who scoffed at Clinton’s briefing-book approach: “Donald Trump is the unpredictable X-factor and Hillary Clinton is the scripted statist.” But the headline-grabbing quote about Trump came from former adviser Sam Nunberg: “Not only does he want 100 million viewers, he wants to be a showstopper at the Roman Colosseum, the main event at WrestleMania.”

Oh good—a smackdown!

The paper says Trump “summons his informal band of counselors — including former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, talk-radio host Laura Ingraham and ousted Fox News Channel chairman Roger Ailes — to his New Jersey golf course for Sunday chats.” In fact, if Trump does a mock debate, says the Post, Ingraham could be the stand-in for Hillary. 

There was also a bit of expectations-setting, with Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon saying “we are fully expecting to have our hands full.”

So these events are divided into three phases: the pregame buildup, the debate itself, and the post-game analysis. Right now both sides are trying to win the pregame.

There is no overstating the importance of the three debates as the last potentially game-changing moments of the election. But it’s also true that for all the advance hype, most people watching the debates find reasons to back the candidate they were already supporting.

Unless, of course, it turns into Wrestlemania.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.