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Why Trump is now haunted by his incessant ‘Sleepy Joe’ insults

Donald Trump, eager to make the 2024 race about age, has called President Biden “Sleepy Joe” many times. There’s fresh reason to believe that was unwise.


Let’s make one thing clear right at the outset: I cannot definitively say, with absolute certainty, that Donald Trump fell asleep during the first day of his criminal trial in New York. There’s no video footage of the proceedings, and there were no photographs taken as the jury selection process got underway.

But there’s no great mystery as to why this was a major topic of conversation yesterday. NBC News’ report summarized matters this way:

Trump’s eyes were closed during part of Monday’s proceedings when [Judge Juan Merchan] was reading the potential jurors his instructions — creating speculation about whether he was asleep or just deep in thought.

As MSNBC’s on-air coverage from yesterday afternoon made clear, other news organizations presented the public with related observations. A New York Times report, for example, said that the former president “appeared to nod off a few times, his mouth going slack and his head drooping onto his chest.”

Soon after, a Washington Post report added that Trump “closed his eyes and at times appeared to nod off.”

Again, I wasn’t there. I don’t know whether Trump fell asleep. But I do know that this reporting doesn’t do the presumptive GOP nominee any favors.

There will be some who will no doubt argue that the underlying question is not relevant. What matters, they’ll say, are the substantive takeaways from a historic day and a serious criminal case involving a former American president. I’m not unsympathetic to those who downplay the importance of “optics” stories.

But context matters, too. As Rachel explained during MSNBC’s coverage, “We are in the middle of a campaign. The age issue is the main thing the Trump campaign wants to use against his opponent — the whole ‘Sleepy Joe’ thing.”

It’s a timely sequel to a related story from a few months ago. Trump and his allies urged voters to take seriously allegations that President Joe Biden was somehow cognitively impaired. It was against this backdrop that Trump told an audience that Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is “the leader of Turkey,” suggested Biden might be responsible for starting “World War II,” confused Jeb Bush and George W. Bush, mixed up Biden and Barack Obama, repeatedly declared that Hungary borders Russia, and twice confused former Ambassador Nikki Haley with Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi.

Were these innocent missteps? Perhaps, but when a White House hopeful makes such slip-ups a core part of his campaign message, and then he starts glitching during public events, it stands to reason that the incidents are going to get some attention.

Similarly, when Trump repeatedly calls the incumbent Democrat “Sleepy Joe,” and focuses endless attention on Biden’s age, it stands to reason that the political world will take note when the former president goes to a courtroom and is seen, as an NBC News report put it, with his eyes “shut tight.”