Biden Blames Jet Lag for Poor Debate as He Looks to Calm Revolt

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden blamed travel plans that took him to France and Italy in the weeks ahead of his disastrous debate against Donald Trump for his poor performance on stage, seeking to explain a moment that has upended the 2024 race and imperiled his reelection prospects.

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“I didn’t have my best night but the fact is that you know, I wasn’t very smart. I decided to travel around the world a couple times, going through around 100 time zones. For real, I think it was about 15 time zones,” Biden told Democratic donors at a Tuesday fundraiser in Virginia.

“Didn’t listen to my staff and came back and nearly fell asleep on stage. That’s no excuse but it is an explanation,” Biden said, offering some of his most extended remarks yet on his condition during the first debate with Trump this election cycle.

Biden in June went to France for the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings and a state dinner. He returned to Europe days later for the Group of Seven leaders’ summit, which was followed by a trip to Los Angeles for a celebrity-laden fundraiser. Before his encounter with Trump in Atlanta, Biden spent more than a week out of the public eye, visiting his vacation home in Delaware and preparing for the debate at Camp David.

The jet lag explanation came after Biden’s advisers had previously chalked up his shaky performance to a cold. He was still struggling with the illness but had not taken medicine before his debate with Trump, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday.

Biden’s disastrous performance touched off a storm of Democratic angst, escalating worries about his fitness and leaving party members to openly call for him to stand aside. To counter that, Biden this week plans to meet with Democratic governors and lawmakers, travel to two battleground states and sit for his first televised interview in an attempt to reassure anxious supporters.

The peril Biden faces as he presses on with his reelection campaign only heightened earlier Tuesday, when Lloyd Doggett of Texas became the first sitting US House Democrat to call on him to exit the race and new polls showed the president’s support fading.

The president’s troubles were further exacerbated by a report in the New York Times that cited US and foreign officials expressing concern over a series of instances in which he seemed to be struggling.

Biden’s meeting Wednesday with the governors is expected to be held virtually, with many joining via video call, according to people familiar with the matter. But a spokesman for Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, says he will be at the White House. Governor Gavin Newsom of California will also attend, according to the Sacramento Bee.

ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos will interview Biden on Friday.

Biden plans to travel on Friday to Wisconsin and to Philadelphia on Sunday then hold a press conference next week at the NATO summit in Washington, Jean-Pierre announced Tuesday. The president is also expected to speak with leaders on Capitol Hill, she said.

“We’re going to turn the page. We’re going to get out there across the country. Americans are going to see him for themselves,” Jean-Pierre told reporters.

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients will also hold an all-hands meeting on Wednesday and is expected to emphasize the importance of continuing to execute on the administration’s mission, according to people familiar with the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity. The meeting, set for 12:30 p.m. local time, is scheduled to last 15 minutes.

Democratic Fears

The effort is meant to counter brewing discontent among top Democratic donors, aides and elected officials over what happened at the debate, which has deepened their fears that Trump will return to the White House.

Three quarters of US voters said Democrats would have a better chance of retaining control of the White House if someone else was atop the ticket, according to a CNN poll released Tuesday. Biden polled worse in head-to-head match ups than other prominent Democrats — including governors like California’s Gavin Newsom and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer — who are expected to be on Wednesday’s call.

Puck, a news site, also published a leaked memo from a pollster for a leading Democratic political action committee, finding that Biden’s favorability numbers plummeted after the debate in “the largest single-week drop” in nearly three years.

Earlier: Biden Plummets in Leaked Democratic Polling Memo, Puck Says

Prominent Democrats have begun to wonder aloud about the president’s mental state.

“It is a legitimate question to say, is this an episode or is it a condition?” former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday on MSNBC. “So when people ask that question it is legitimate, of both candidates.”

The governors meeting, reported earlier by CBS News, is a chance for Biden to persuade them he should remain the party’s standard bearer as some privately harbor concerns about Biden’s viability. Whitmer said Monday that she stands behind the president, pushing back against suggestions there were tensions between her team and Biden’s.

Despite the fears about Biden’s candidacy in many corners of the Democratic Party, no top lawmakers, governors or cabinet officials have publicly said the president should end his campaign. Newsom and Illinois Governor JB Pritzker have also issued statements supportive of Biden.

‘Too Much Is at Stake’

News of the meeting with Biden came a day after Democratic governors held their own call, during which some expressed concern about the president and said they wanted to speak to him, CNN reported. Biden’s team was in touch with the governors and their staffs about Monday’s meeting, according to a Democratic official.

Vice President Kamala Harris also plans to have lunch with Biden on Wednesday, according to a White House official. The two have shared midday meals on a semi-regular basis but this one comes at a time when she has also been mentioned as a possible stand-in for Biden.

Biden, however, received unwelcome news on Tuesday when Doggett released his statement. “Too much is at stake to risk a Trump victory,” Doggett said.

The president and his team have sought to shift the public’s focus away from his mental fitness and onto Trump’s conduct following the Supreme Court’s decision that the former president is partly immune from criminal prosecution. That argument represents Biden’s narrow path to victory, but thus far his case has fallen flat with voters.

The president in a Monday speech at the White House called on voters to “render a judgment” on whether the presumptive Republican nominee’s involvement in his supporters’ Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol makes him “unfit for public office.”

Blame Game

Biden’s team also touted his $127 million June fundraising haul to counter post-debate angst. That’s $15 million more than Trump raised last month, though the Republican now has a cash advantage. Campaign officials, including chairwoman Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, on Monday held a question-and-answer session with donors intended at reassuring them that Biden has a path to victory, according to people familiar with the call.

After acknowledging the debate went poorly, Biden’s campaign went on the offensive against party figures and media personalities who have called on him to drop out of the 2024 race, labeling them disloyal “bed wetters.”

Members of Biden’s family and donors have also blamed the president’s close-knit circle of advisers for last Thursday’s debacle against Trump. But Biden’s apparent refusal to even consider a campaign shakeup has rattled outside Democrats who are calling for a course correction.

The Democratic National Committee is considering formally nominating Biden as soon as mid-July, according to people familiar with the matter. The move is intended to ensure that Biden makes the ballot in all 50 states this November, but it could also help stamp out talk about replacing him. A potential date for Biden’s nomination is July 21 when a key party panel is scheduled to meet virtually, the people said.

--With assistance from Billy House and Nacha Cattan.

(Updates with Newsom attending meeting, in ninth paragraph.)

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