Angry and stunned Democrats blame Biden’s closest advisers for shielding public from full extent of president’s decline

At a star-studded fundraiser for President Joe Biden in Los Angeles last month, George Clooney wasn’t the only one who came away concerned about the president.

Even before Biden made remarks that night, whispers of concern rippled through the audience at the Peacock Theater about the president who had just arrived from a long flight from Italy. Some of the biggest donors at the $30 million fundraising event, who had waited in line to take pictures with Biden, expressed unease at how the president looked and carried himself.

“He was less cogent than usual,” said one attendee, who was surprised that during a smaller meeting with donors before the main event, Biden barely spoke. Instead, this person said, he left virtually all of the talking to former President Barack Obama, which struck some guests as unusual for a loquacious politician like Biden.

Biden’s appearance in California struck attendees as starkly different from a fundraising gala he attended in March at Radio City Music Hall in New York, one Democrat guest told CNN, when Biden appeared on stage with Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

“There is a marked difference in the president from the spring to the summer,” a senior Democrat told CNN. “He’s just not the same.”

Back in Washington, there have been clear signs throughout his term of Biden being increasingly stage-managed, with lists of talking points, names of questioners and drawings of where he should walk presented to him by aides. Ahead of closed-door Cabinet meetings that Biden attends, it is customary for Cabinet officials to submit questions and key talking points that they plan to present in front of Biden ahead of time to White House aides, two sources with direct knowledge told CNN.

“The entire display is kind of an act,” one of those sources told CNN. “They would come and say, ‘Hey, the president is going to call on you about 25 minutes in, and ask this question. What are the bullet points you’ll respond with?’”

The second source, who echoed that same description, said when Biden attends Cabinet meetings, they are “not free-wheeling, and pretty well-orchestrated.” And the meetings themselves are infrequent, with one Cabinet secretary telling CNN they are uncertain of Biden’s condition because they so rarely see him.

In fact, the last full Cabinet meeting took place on October 2, 2023. Sources also said Cabinet meetings during the Obama years, which Biden attended as vice president, were not pre-scripted this way.

‘This is going to get worse’

Even as the oldest sitting president in history, at 81, Biden’s halting performance at CNN’s presidential debate last month came as a serious shock to most inside the White House and across the administration, including senior officials who have known the president for years and regularly have private conversations and meetings with him.

CNN talked to more than two dozen current and former Democratic officials, donors and longtime Biden allies, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating Biden and discuss sensitive health matters verboten by the White House. While it’s clear the president had aged in the past year, none of them said they had seen the version of Biden, faltering and dazed, that showed up at last month’s debate.

In many of these conversations, sources blamed the president’s inner circle of advisers and family for what they said has become a painstakingly choreographed daily operation designed to prevent him from being in unscripted settings for extended periods of time.

“There’s this general sense of just, unbelievable holding your breath every time he does an event, every time he’s with people,” one top Democrat in close touch with Biden’s inner circle of advisers told CNN. This person added that some of those advisers have privately acknowledged: “This is going to get worse.”

That Democrat was blunt about how the president’s closest advisers have responded to any criticism or concerns expressed about the president – including his age and fitness: “Everyone who expresses any level of suspicion or contrary views? They call everyone and they beat the s*** out of them and say: ‘Stay on message.’”

At least one official involved in Biden’s debate prep at Camp David raised doubts about his ability  after seeing how rehearsals were going, according to one source briefed on those preparations.

“It’s not like Biden’s inner circle didn’t know this,” one Democratic strategist close to the White House said of the extent of the president’s recent decline.

Campaign officials have rejected Clooney’s and other donors’ characterization of Biden at the Los Angeles fundraiser, with one senior Biden official who was in attendance telling CNN that while the president had in fact been tired that day, he was “animated and extremely present.”

As for Biden’s Cabinet meetings, the White House provided a statement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack – who also served under Obama – saying what is described in this story is “standard practice for any administration” because “there should not be surprise in Cabinet meetings.”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates defended the breadth of Biden’s engagements with the press, his travels and record. “Joe Biden has always said that it is fair for reporters to ask about his age and has always confidently shown his values, agenda, intelligence, and determination to the American people,” Bates said. “Officials who meet with him frequently have spoken to his sharpness and command.”

Bates did not specifically offer comment on sources telling CNN that Biden’s closest advisers are unaccepting of criticism or concerns about the president, including his age and health.

‘Drip, drip, drip’

After two weeks of defiance following the debate, Biden faces a growing number of calls to bow out of the 2024 race. Many of the sources who spoke to CNN said they expected that the pressure will keep building, as more and more Democratic lawmakers signal he should go.

“Expect a drip, drip, drip,” said one former Biden White House official.

It’s a crisis of potentially historic importance, with growing fears among Democrats that Biden could drag down the party’s ticket, threaten the quest for reclaiming their House majority and further complicate efforts to hold onto Senate control.

By Tuesday of this week, as frontline campaigns reviewed their own internal polling, it became clear that the concerns were widespread – and carried signs of sweeping down ballot damage, according to four Democratic campaign officials involved in key races.

“Erosion. Across the board,” one of the officials said.

President Joe Biden makes opening remarks during the NATO summit in Washington on Wednesday, July 10, 2024, next to NATO Attorney General Jens Stoltenberg, right, and British Prime Minister Keir Starmer, left. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) - Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Joe Biden makes opening remarks during the NATO summit in Washington on Wednesday, July 10, 2024, next to NATO Attorney General Jens Stoltenberg, right, and British Prime Minister Keir Starmer, left. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) - Jacquelyn Martin/AP

For Biden himself, the coming days are pivotal. His longtime ally, Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, said so herself when, during an appearance on MSNBC this week, she reopened the door to Biden’s decision, despite his insistence he is staying in the race.

The president’s news conference Thursday will be highly scrutinized, as donors and allies look for signs that Biden has the vigor to remain the Democratic candidate, as his campaign has argued.

Biden will hold further off-the-cuff engagements next week as he sits for another closely-watched network interview Monday with NBC News’ Lester Holt. He will also hit the campaign trail, seeking to bolster his stance with Latino and Black coalitions during a trip to Las Vegas.

No matter how Biden does, though, the damage of the debate is baked into the minds of a lot of Democrats who spoke to CNN.

“Blinders are off and everyone is aware,” one source close to the White House told CNN. “Numbers have changed; reality has changed; the people who make this all possible from a funding perspective are concerned; and your voters are telling you there’s a lack of enthusiasm.”

‘What’s your Plan B?’

Even last year, concern around Biden’s age was noticeable – and hardly a secret – among Democratic power circles.

Last September, at the ultra-private confab in Aspen, Colorado, known among attendees as “The Weekend,” Hollywood power broker and Democratic donor Ari Emanuel asked a pointed question of Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff and longtime adviser.

“What’s your Plan B?” Emanuel yelled to Klain who was on stage for a panel discussion about the presidential race, according to two attendees. Given Biden’s age, Emanuel wanted to know what the Democrats’ back-up plan was heading into the primaries and how quickly it could be executed.

Klain, the attendees said, appeared exasperated in his response. “He’s the sitting president of the United States! What do you want me to do?”

As attendees rode a bus to another venue to hear Obama deliver a lunchtime speech, the chatter turned to Emanuel’s outburst, and the shared view that Biden, then 80, was getting over his skis: “Why doesn’t anyone protect this man?” one wondered aloud.

The exchange – which neither Emanuel nor Klain would confirm or deny – underscores the long-held reservations among influential Democrats about the viability of Biden months before the debate.

That same month, when Biden spoke at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at their annual gala last September, attendees took notice of his slurring of words and at times, appearing confused. Some started to wonder: Is this more than just his stutter?

The thought among attendees who spoke to CNN was brushed aside – until the presidential debate.

“He’s declined,” one House Democratic lawmaker who attended the gala told CNN.

As a part of the White House’s response for this story, Bates also said “officials who meet with [Biden] frequently have spoken to his sharpness and command,” and shared the following quote from White House Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk: “If what is being written now about President Biden were true, history would be very different.”

‘We all noticed it’

Advisers to the president have grown extraordinarily sensitive to how Biden will physically appear on camera. His team has sought to remedy for the president’s stiffened gait, which in more recent years has produced images of the president shuffling and taking shorter steps – universally understood signs of aging.

President Joe Biden walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Filoli estate on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in Woodside, California, in November 2023. - Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
President Joe Biden walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Filoli estate on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in Woodside, California, in November 2023. - Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File

In the lead-up to last November’s summit between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California, some senior officials vehemently argued that only photos – and not video – of the two men walking side-by-side should emerge from the historic meeting. They did not want the image of the president shuffling next to his younger Chinese counterpart to play on loop on TV news and circulate on social media.

Ultimately, after the conclusion of hours of meetings, the two men took a brief walk around the gardens of the Filoli estate. What the cameras caught of that walk lasted all but a minute – Biden flashed two thumbs-up to reporters before rounding the corner.

Bursts of activity are often followed by planned downtime which is fiercely protected on the president’s schedule.

The practice of planned downtime extends to overseas trips as well.

French officials involved in the planning of the June state visit said that the Biden team had requested two days of rest during the five-day trip. Those so-called “down days” allowed First Lady Jill Biden to travel back to Wilmington, Delaware, to hold forth in the courtroom during Hunter Biden’s trial on gun charges, but they also afforded the president large swaths of time to rest and prepare for the varied engagements on D-Day and in Paris with President Emmanuel Macron.

Biden returned to the US between the visit to France and the gathering of G-7 allies the following week, and during the interim days delivered remarks on gun safety and visited Wilmington to huddle with family following the conclusion of his son’s gun trial.

When he arrived in Italy days later, one European diplomat mentioned that his exhaustion was apparent, as it had become in many recent encounters.

“At the G7, it was obvious that he was old. At one point, he wanted to sit and there was no chair,” the diplomat said. “He was moving slowly. Stupid things, but they showed that he’s an old person who need assistance. We all noticed it.”

Eyes on Jill

Many of the Democratic sources who spoke to CNN expressed concerns and disappointment with Jill Biden for enabling the president’s defiant stance. But defenders of the first lady argue she will always be supportive of her spouse of 47 years and pushed back on recent criticisms of her since the debate.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden walk to the White House in Washington on July 7, as they return after attending campaign events in Pennsylvania. - Chris Kleponis/AFP/Getty Images
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden walk to the White House in Washington on July 7, as they return after attending campaign events in Pennsylvania. - Chris Kleponis/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s unfair (and frankly ludicrous) to put the future of the Democratic Party on Jill Biden,” one ally of the president and first lady said. “She’s not elected, not a professional political advisor; she’s not a pollster, or a campaign manager. This is not to diminish her – she is a very consequential First Lady, and she has done incredible things as FLOTUS.”

The first lady remains the president’s closest adviser and fiercest protector – a role she’s long held but has taken on heightened significance as Biden has grappled with the debate fallout. She wields influence in the White House and campaign, and sits in on some of the president’s political meetings. As the president plots a path forward, sources have emphasized that no significant decisions will be made without her input.

Jill Biden’s campaign schedule has ramped up aggressively in recent weeks – coinciding with the end of the spring semester at the community college where she teaches English. A reluctant politician, Jill Biden has emerged as one of her husband’s top surrogates and fundraisers.

One Biden adviser, however, said that the first lady and the president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, are the only figures in the president’s orbit who could ultimately persuade him to exit the race, and only if they had hard data. “Jill and Valerie won’t let him go down in flames,” a Biden adviser said.

CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez, Kylie Atwood, Betsy Klein, Arlette Saenz and Phil Mattingly contributed to this report.

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