How Biden and Trump agreed on where and when to disagree

For two men who agree on so little, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump could agree on this: They needed to debate.

After months of speculation over the traditional pre-election face-offs – when they would happen, what they would look like and whether the candidates would actually show up – the 2024 showdowns were quickly announced Wednesday morning after Biden’s campaign laid out its criteria for participating.

It was hardly a foregone conclusion. Trump skipped his party’s primary debates, deeming them useless. Biden and his aides had long harbored deep skepticism about the traditional debate format and schedule.

To Biden’s team, the move to lay out its debate proposals seized back control of a narrative that he was unwilling or unable to square off against Trump. Some of the president’s advisers hoped that by listing out their terms first, they could box Trump into a format he wouldn’t have chosen for himself. On Wednesday, some Trump allies and advisers expressed frustration after Biden’s public announcement that the quick acceptance of network debates left them playing catch up — something they described as particularly annoying after Trump’s campaign had repeatedly, and publicly, called on Biden to debate.

Still, apart from Trump’s desire to hold more than two debates and his urgings for a live audience, many of the conditions laid out in the Biden campaign’s proposal were criteria the Trump campaign also wanted – namely, to move up the schedule by three months and to avoid sharing a stage with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

The sudden resolution of one of the contest’s biggest unanswered questions had actually been in the works for weeks, people familiar with the matter said, as the campaigns separately came to the conclusion that debates over the summer would benefit both their candidates and American voters. The calendar appears set for the earliest debate between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in decades. And a campaign that had been trudging along slowly, through a GOP primary that seemed foretold and a fog of legal problems for Trump, has suddenly jolted into high gear.

Biden’s declaration last month to Howard Stern that he was “happy” to debate Trump, a statement that wasn’t planned ahead of time, helped spur a chain of events leading up to Wednesday’s announcements.

Both candidates’ campaigns believed that the earlier the men could debate, the better. It made little sense to debate after voters were able to cast ballots, which would have been the case if they stuck to the schedule proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Trump’s advisers had privately expressed frustration at the commission, which had announced debates would begin mid-September. Susie Wiles and her fellow campaign manager Chris LaCivita criticized the body after it denied their request for more and earlier debates.

Trump’s advisers argue they want at least four debates but would prefer there to be more. The campaign, and Wiles and LaCivita specifically, believe having Trump and Biden face-off onstage will only benefit the former president, the two advisers said. Trump’s team believes Biden has declined both physically and mentally in the four years since they last debated in 2020, one adviser said.

“Anything in this campaign that provides a contrast will be important for us. And there’s not a better contrast than Joe Biden having to defend a miserable record standing next to successful President Trump, whose energy and enthusiasm is always present,” one of the senior advisers said.

A Trump adviser said the campaign believed it was critical for Trump to be able to reach voters before they made a decision on their votes — a rationale echoed by Biden’s team in its letter to the commission.

“The Commission’s failure, yet again, to schedule debates that will be meaningful to all voters – not just those who cast their ballots late in the fall or on Election Day – underscores the serious limitations of its outdated approach,” Jen O’Malley Dillon wrote.

In recent weeks, after the commission seemed disinclined to agree to their requests on timing, Trump advisers began internally discussing ways to circumvent the commission altogether. Many advisers privately acknowledged they’d likely be more successful in achieving the type of debates they want by having a network hold them, two sources familiar with the talks told CNN.

Top members of Biden’s team had long similarly harbored reservations about the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized the events for decades. Two of his top advisers, Anita Dunn and Ron Klain, helped coauthor a report in 2015 recommending an overhaul to the debate system.

In a statement on Wednesday, the commission said the sites it had already selected were “prepared to host debates on dates chosen to accommodate early voters. We will continue to be ready to execute this plan.”

For Biden’s team, earlier debates hold another goal: bringing the contrast with Trump into living rooms at a moment when many potential voters haven’t tuned in. In their view, an accelerated start of the general election campaign will force Americans to reckon with Trump’s potential return to the White House in a way they haven’t yet.

“Our campaign has been saying for months that democracy is literally at stake and is what’s on the ballot in this election. The American people deserve to hear from … two of the individuals who have a chance of being elected president of the United States, that are going to represent them on the world stage, that are going to be in charge of the economy that affects their life every day,” Biden’s principal deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said on CNN. “President Biden deeply believes this. We have nothing to hide.”

For Biden, debate preparation will compete with a heavy campaign travel schedule and two foreign trips: to France for the 80th anniversary of the June 6 landings at Normandy and to Italy for the Group of 7 summit. Trump, meanwhile, continues to grapple with a swirl of legal issues, including the conclusion of his New York hush money trial.

Klain, the president’s former chief of staff, is planning to take a vacation from his job as AirBnB’s top lawyer to help Biden prepare. It wasn’t clear whether Biden’s personal attorney Bob Bauer, who played Trump in previous debate practice session, would reprise his role.

Trump and his campaign have made debating Biden a key part of their campaign. During rallies, Trump has brought an extra podium to the stage to mock Biden’s refusal to answer Trump’s calls to debate. Last month, surrogates received talking points that encouraged them to say that “President Trump is ready to debate anytime, anyplace, and anywhere” and that “Americans deserve a full chance to see both candidates on the same stage before they start voting.”

Seeking to take control of the media narrative back around the debates, Trump posted on Truth Social that he would be accepting a third debate on Fox News, which the Biden campaign swiftly rejected.

Both campaigns had little interest in debating Kennedy, the third party candidate who could siphon votes from both Biden and Trump.

As CNN previously reported, in recent weeks Kennedy has gone from a perceived nuisance to a political problem that the Trump campaign is eager to swiftly extinguish. Biden, meanwhile, has sought to blunt Kennedy’s appeal to Democrats by appearing with other members of the Kennedy family.

“It is still too early to tell who RFK would take votes from,” one senior Trump adviser told CNN. “We absolutely believe that its possible he could take away from Trump in a general election.”

Even after accepting in short order the invitations from CNN and ABC, neither campaign sounded entirely sure the debates would actually occur. The skepticism reflected the logistical tripwires and political considerations that could still forestall an eventual debate.

“We’ll see Donald Trump on June 27th in Atlanta – if he shows up,” O’Malley Dillon said.

“I wonder whether or not he shows up,” Trump told radio interviewer Hugh Hewitt.


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