Trump Said He’d Sit Out the Debate, but He Couldn’t Quite Do It

WASHINGTON — His aides teased that President Trump might insert himself into the 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate by live-tweeting the two-hour conversation that unfolded Wednesday night.

But Mr. Trump, who took a classic “stay tuned!” attitude all week about whether he would follow through, said beforehand that he would be sitting it out. “Sorry, I’m on Air Force One, off to save the Free World!” he wrote on Twitter, directing his followers instead to campaign surrogates for instant responses and fact-checks.

Mr. Trump was indeed in the air, en route to Osaka, Japan, for a major summit with foreign leaders, as the candidates took the stage in Miami.

But the town crier, news wire president could not quite stay out of the fray on a night when prime-time television was devoted to prospective rivals.

After all, Air Force One has television, Mr. Trump’s cabin is equipped with Wi-Fi, he does not like to sleep on the plane and he has made it clear that he is happy to engage in domestic politics even while traveling abroad. Despite his feigned lack of interest, Mr. Trump indicated he was watching, and in real time, even as the conversation among the 10 Democrats onstage largely steered clear of attacking him head-on.

At a brief stop in Alaska to refuel and visit with American troops, the president said he chose the service members over the Democratic challengers because they were “so much smarter.” He told reporters that he believed the 10 candidates were all “going to do very poorly.”

But Mr. Trump still managed to blurt out some commentary from the sidelines.

“BORING!” he tweeted about 30 minutes into the broadcast, as the moderators began a series of questions on immigration.

After a microphone malfunction forced NBC into an unplanned commercial break, Mr. Trump slammed the network, rather than any of the candidates, tweeting that it should be “ashamed” for “having such a horrible technical breakdown in the middle of the debate.”

He added, “Truly unprofessional and only worthy of a FAKE NEWS Organization, which they are!”

At the 90-minute mark, Mr. Trump reposted a GIF of a Time magazine cover showing him staying in office for eternity. He was silent, though, as Julián Castro, the former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development who delivered a breakout performance, signed off for the night by saying he looked forward to saying “‘adios’ to Donald Trump” in January 2021.

By Mr. Trump’s standards, his response was muted. He took one parting shot at moderators Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd and the network for technical difficulties, trolling them with a video with his own image appearing on stage as they fumbled with the audio and the debaters disappeared.

But by the standards of his predecessors, his chiming in from 30,000 feet in the air was unusual.

“We, as a campaign, monitored and commented on statements that were made during debates,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama. “Occasionally, the president may have inserted a comment in a speech based on something that was said. But he wasn’t live-tweeting the other side’s race. He was busy with his day job.”

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