Biden and Trump reached an agreement on debates. Then the fighting began.

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Less than two hours after President Biden announced his plan to disrupt the nation’s presidential debate tradition on Wednesday, two of CNN’s top political journalists were on the phone with Donald Trump’s top advisers.

“We are sending you a proposal for a debate that will be in your inbox at 10 a.m.,” one of them told the Trump senior leadership, Susie Wiles, Chris LaCivita, and Tony Fabrizio, in a call, before rattling off the details of a June 27 meeting in Atlanta, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Biden and Trump reached an agreement on debates. Then the fighting began.
Biden and Trump reached an agreement on debates. Then the fighting began.

By 10:14 a.m., Biden’s team had declared that the president will attend the CNN event. The Trump campaign agreed minutes afterward. One of the most significant disturbances to the sequence of American presidential elections since the first broadcast debate in 1960 was done by lunchtime. All that remained was for the campaigns and the country to figure out what had occurred. Even as voters began to hear the news, disagreements over the debate conditions and the meaning of the agreement arose. At 10:56 a.m., CNN stated terms that basically mirrored Biden’s earlier announcement — a first meeting in June, coordinated by a network on Biden’s preferred list, with no live audience.

Biden sought a one-on-one debate with Trump. However, CNN established standards that permitted other people to qualify. According to the network, all participating candidates must meet a polling criteria and appear on “a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidency” by June 20th. Not only did that threshold allow independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to take the platform, but it also appeared to exclude Trump and Biden, who will not be their party’s formal nominees until later this summer.

Biden advisers swiftly clarified that they had not agreed to any agreements that included Kennedy. During a Wednesday call with Trump aides, one of the CNN producers stated that “RFK will not be on the stage,” according to a person familiar with the call. CNN reported that Biden and Trump had been invited, despite the language requiring “candidates” to have ballot access. The confusion would only worsen in the coming days, as Biden’s campaign advisers celebrated their ability to persuade Trump to agree to their terms, while the Trump campaign celebrated Biden’s willingness to debate at all. Kennedy advisers hastened their plans to send in ballot access signatures, which had been held back to avoid legal issues, and they began to consider a lawsuit to force CNN to put them onstage. Then Trump made a social media post saying, “I don’t care if [Kennedy] joins the debate.”

Biden and Trump reached an agreement on debates. Then the fighting began.
Biden and Trump reached an agreement on debates. Then the fighting began.

This reconstruction of the tumultuous 72-hour period that could determine the fate of the 2024 election is based on interviews with 14 persons who witnessed the events as they happened, several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. They detailed how the Trump and Biden teams, with the help of eager networks, had managed to come together for two encounters, including a second debate hosted by ABC News in September, despite the fact that antagonism between the two camps remained strong. At the heart of their conflict is the question of whose campaign will gain from the extraordinary reorganization of the campaign season. There has never been a televised discussion between major party presidential contenders before the fall. For decades, all major networks have shown live general election debates, but these two sessions will be produced by a single outlet, which is expected to significantly reduce viewership.

Trump and Biden had long agreed that the first debate should take place before September 16, when the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has overseen such gatherings for decades, had scheduled it. Both parties had become dissatisfied with the commission and believed they could engage directly, even speaking secretly in recent weeks about abandoning the commission setup.

Biden

Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the commission’s co-chair, contended that Biden won this week because Trump gave away his campaign’s negotiation position by publicly stating that he would meet Biden whenever and wherever the president wanted. He was still digesting Biden’s letter withdrawing from the commission on Wednesday morning when he received word that Trump had agreed to the debate parameters.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he admitted. “Anytime in politics you can get the opposing side to agree on what you want to accomplish without making substantial adjustments, that’s fairly excellent. But I suppose when your candidate goes out there and says, “I’ll debate you at any time, under any circumstances,” it makes it difficult for his supporters to fight back. According to LaCivita, Fahrenkopf was a “loser” whose time had gone, and “two-thirds of the Washington intelligentsia didn’t think Joe Biden would ever debate.”

Biden’s closest advisors in Wilmington hailed the speedy resolution of discussions as a clear victory. They had been preparing for months to take the debates away from the commission’s supervision, eliminate a live audience that Trump might utilize to his advantage, and move the debates earlier in the year, in order to present the election as a decision between Biden or Trump. They believed Trump erred by declaring his public desire for debates, which provided them an opportunity to manage the situation.

Biden and Trump reached an agreement on debates. Then the fighting began.
Biden and Trump reached an agreement on debates. Then the fighting began.

“He had no choice,” Biden campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon explained. “At the end of the day, we’re always measured and disciplined. We always follow through on the president’s intentions.”LaCivita contended that what mattered was that Biden agreed to stand onstage with Trump for two 90-minute meetings, something the Trump campaign had doubts would ever happen.

“An open invitation was issued by Donald Trump, the hook was baited with a juicy worm and they took it — hook, line and sinker,” LaCivita stated. “The fact is, there will now be a debate. Donald Trump will kick his a– in a studio or in front of an audience. It does not matter.”

Trump has told advisers in recent months that he is supremely confident that he can beat Biden in a debate, and that Biden will look weak and old compared to him. He wished to accept the proposals immediately. Top Trump officials were in New York on Thursday at CNN headquarters for a meeting about the debates and other topics, four people familiar with the matter said. The Trump campaign and CNN declined to comment on the meeting. Some of Trump’s advisers want to negotiate extensively with CNN in the coming weeks. They intend to continue pressing Biden to accept additional debates, a possibility that Biden’s aides categorically reject. Some of Trump’s advisers, however, privately think Biden will be better on the stage than he is at answering questions from reporters because he will be prepared and rested.

“The truth is, on debate night, you don’t know which Biden you’re going to get, because he clearly has his good days and bad days,” said Tim Murtaugh, the 2020 Trump campaign’s communication director. “I think you have to plan for ‘awake Biden,’ but know that there’s a chance you’ll get Sleepy Joe instead.”

The confusion over debate qualification rules has given hope to the Kennedy campaign, which has been seeking its own debate with the major party candidates. Under the old commission system, debates did not begin until after all state ballot access deadlines had passed, ensuring that debate organizers would know which candidates were on enough ballots to be eligible. The commission also averaged together polling from five firms to determine which candidate was polling over 15 percent.

Kennedy has been polling well below 15 percent in recent polling averages — at 11 percent and 10 percent, according to two popular aggregators. But the CNN qualifications required only four polls at or above 15 percent to make the stage, a much lower standard, given the natural variation in individual polling results. Kennedy already has at least two polls that meet that standard. ABC News has adopted a similar standard for the Sept. 10 debate, but the network has not yet disclosed the time period for those polls.

Kennedy’s campaign emailed CNN on Wednesday to make clear that they intended to make the June debate stage, followed by a Friday call with the network, according to a campaign official. His top aides have said they will definitely have submitted verified signatures in enough states to meet the 270 electoral vote threshold. The campaign is still trying to determine if enough states will have officially placed Kennedy on the ballot by June 20.

Kennedy’s advisers have also begun speaking with lawyers about drafting a lawsuit against CNN, based on the argument that CNN is obligated to treat all candidates equally. “How many state ballots are Presidents Biden and Trump officially on yet? The answer is zero, pending their conventions,” Kennedy campaign manager Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, who is his daughter-in-law, said in a statement. “We can’t anticipate whether some states will try to delay their own internal processing, but again, official appearance on the ballot cannot be the threshold, or else neither of the major party candidates would qualify.”

Jed Rubenfeld, a law professor at Yale University who has been talking with the Kennedy campaign about its legal options, said there are federal regulations that require equal treatment of candidates and “preestablished objective criteria” for debates, even by cable networks without broadcast licenses.

“If CNN is going to apply a likelihood kind of criteria than they would have to apply that evenhandedly to all candidates,” he said. “I think the campaign will be looking at possible liability on CNN’s part if it starts to play fast and loose with its criteria.”

Biden and Trump reached an agreement on debates. Then the fighting began.
Biden and Trump reached an agreement on debates. Then the fighting began.

CNN declined to comment on Rubenfeld’s legal theory. LaCivita dismissed the legal threats as spurious. “The notion that Biden and Trump are not the nominee yet is ludicrous,” he said. “That’s what unemployed lawyers talk about when they have nothing better to do.”

Biden’s team is adamant that the debate issue is now settled. They have accepted a CBS News proposal for a vice-presidential debate this summer. But other networks continue to try to propose alternative dates for Biden and Trump to meet.

On Friday afternoon, Trump accepted a Fox News vice-presidential debate, and an NBC-Telemundo debate in the fall. Biden advisers say the president will do exactly two debates. Fox News, they add, is not eligible in their initial proposal for a vice-presidential debate, because, like MSNBC, the network did not host both Republican debates in 2016 and Democratic debates in 2020.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has decided to continue to plan for the traditional debates later this year, just in case the agreement between Trump and Biden does not last.

 

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