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Biden and Trump agree to CNN debate in June, ABC faceoff in September

By Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey Washington Post

President Biden and former president Donald Trump agreed Wednesday to a June 27 debate on CNN and a Sept. 10 debate broadcast by ABC News, hours after Biden announced he would bypass the decades-old tradition of three fall meetings organized by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

Trump’s campaign team released a statement calling on Biden to agree to two more presidential debates in July and August.

“I am Ready and Willing to Debate Crooked Joe at the two proposed times,” Trump wrote earlier Wednesday on Truth Social. “I would strongly recommend more than two debates and, for excitement purposes, a very large venue, although Biden is supposedly afraid of crowds. …

“Just tell me when, I’ll be there,” he continued, before referencing a tag line from professional boxing. “ ‘Let’s get ready to Rumble!!!’ ”

The public agreement follows private back-channel discussions about possible meetings. The officials with the Biden and Trump campaigns have had informal conversations on debates in recent weeks, focused on meetings that would not involve the commission, according to two people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private events.

The CNN debate in Atlanta, which does not yet have an announced moderator, will be conducted without a live audience and is open to any presidential candidate who consistently polls above 15% in approved public surveys and is on enough state ballots to win a majority of electoral college votes, the network said. ABC News did not immediately release its qualification requirements.

The Biden proposal, outlined in a video message and letter to the commission, called for direct negotiations between the Trump and Biden campaigns over the rules, moderators and network hosts for the one-on-one encounters. Biden proposed a separate vice-presidential debate in July, after the Republican nominating convention and before the Democratic nominating convention.

“Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020, and since then he hasn’t shown up for a debate. Now he is acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal. I’ll even do it twice,” Biden said in the video released Wednesday that referenced the weekly break in Trump’s New York criminal trial. “So let’s pick the dates, Donald. I hear you’re free on Wednesdays.”

The first debate on CNN will fall on a Thursday, after the expected conclusion of Trump’s New York trial.

Biden campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon cited the commission’s proposed schedule and past struggles to keep candidates from violating the debate rules in the letter explaining the decision.

“The Commission’s model of building huge spectacles with large audiences at great expense simply isn’t necessary or conducive to good debates,” she wrote. “The debates should be conducted for the benefit of the American voters, watching on television and at home – not as entertainment for an in-person audience with raucous or disruptive partisans and donors, who consume valuable debate time with noisy spectacles of approval or jeering.”

Biden proposed that the moderator should be selected by the broadcast host from its “regular personnel,” with firm time limits for answers, equal speaking time, alternative turns to speak and microphones that are active only during each candidate’s turn.

“Americans need a debate on the issues – not a tedious debate about debates,” O’Malley Dillon wrote.

Trump and the Republican National Committee had previously expressed interest in bypassing the commission, which has convened presidential debates since the 1988 election. The commission has already scheduled one vice-presidential and three presidential debates, starting Sept. 16 with a presidential candidate meeting in Texas that would have been simultaneously broadcast by major broadcast and cable news networks.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, an independent nonprofit with a bipartisan board, did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment. The organization began sponsoring presidential debates after the two major-party presidential campaigns in 1984 struggled to agree on terms.

Televised debates starting in 1960 were held in the final months of the campaign, after the candidates had been formally nominated to lead their parties. But the early debates had also been inconsistent events, subject to significant disputes between the candidates. Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy were the first to meet in a televised presidential debate, during the 1960 election campaign. The next major-party presidential debate took place in 1976, followed by directly negotiated debates in 1980 and 1984.

The commission sought to standardize the practice as a neutral arbiter, creating a candidate qualification standard of at least 15 percent in national polling and a ballot access requirement that provided a path to victory in the electoral college. The commission also picked the locations, moderators and formats, eventually setting a pattern of three fall presidential candidate debates, including one town hall-style event, and one vice-presidential candidate debate.

That system has met bipartisan resistance in recent years. Biden’s advisers were furious about the commission’s failure to enforce agreed-upon masking and coronavirus-testing requirements at the first debate in 2020. Three former aides later said that Trump had tested positive for the virus days before that meeting with Biden, though he only made his condition public afterward. Biden’s aides also objected to the debate commission’s failure to contain Trump’s outbursts during the first meeting.

The Republican National Committee announced in 2022 that the party would leave the commission’s debate system altogether, calling the body “biased” because it started the 2020 debates after voting had begun, its board members had criticized Trump and it had failed to consult the campaign on some format issues. The RNC also objected to the commission’s 2020 decision to hire a debate moderator, C-SPAN anchor Steve Scully, who had briefly interned during college in Biden’s Senate office in 1978.

Two top Trump campaign advisers, Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, announced last month that the timing of the commission’s first debate was “unacceptable.”

“We are committed to making this happen with or without the Presidential Debate Commission,” they wrote in a statement. “We extend an invitation to every television network in America that wishes to host a debate, and we once again call on Joe Biden’s team to work with us to set one up as soon as possible.”

Commission co-chair Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was optimistic as late as Tuesday that his organization’s system would endure, saying in a Zoom call with members of the moderate group No Labels that he had not heard from either campaign but expected to in the coming months.

“We do a pretty good job of walking down the middle,” Fahrenkopf said. “We don’t take sides.”

Fahrenkopf said the commission’s debates could not be scheduled until after Sept. 6, the last date when states determine which candidates appear on their November ballots, since ballot access is a condition of debate eligibility under the commission’s rules.

CNN has adopted a national polling standard for the June debate that is similar to those used by the commission and its predecessor the League of Women Voters, which sponsored multiple debates including a 1980 contest that included independent presidential candidate John Anderson.

Under the CNN proposal, any presidential candidate who gets 15 percent in four separate approved polls between March 15 and June 20 will be invited. They must also be on enough ballots to have a path to winning a majority of the votes in the electoral college.

Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was at 11 percent in a Washington Post average of April national polls, which included two surveys, by CNN and Quinnipiac University, that found him polling at 16 percent.

Kennedy nonetheless claimed that Trump and Biden were “colluding to lock America into a head-to-head match-up.”

“They are trying to exclude me from their debate because they are afraid I would win,” Kennedy wrote in a social media post. “Keeping viable candidates off the debate stage undermines democracy.”

Biden hinted at his decision to leave the commission system and directly negotiate debates with Trump during an April 26 interview with SiriusXM host Howard Stern. Even though the commission had already announced the dates for its debates, Biden told Stern that the time and place for their encounters were still uncertain.

“Somewhere, I don’t know when,” Biden said. “I am happy to debate him.”