Biden, Trump agree on debates in June and September, but working out details could be challenging

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump appear to agree on a timetable to participate in two debates before the November general election

Published - May 15, 2024 08:47 pm IST - WASHINGTON

A file photo of the then U.S. President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden participating in a debate in 2020.

A file photo of the then U.S. President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden participating in a debate in 2020. | Photo Credit: Reuters

U.S. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump on May 15 appeared to agree on a timetable to participate in two debates before the November general election in the United States, as the Democrat announced that he would not participate in fall presidential debates sponsored by the nonpartisan commission that has organised them for more than three decades.

Mr. Biden's campaign has proposed that media organisations directly organise the debates with the presumptive Democratic and Republican nominees, with the first to be held in late June and the second in September before early voting begins.

Mr. Trump, in a post on his Truth Social site, said he was “Ready and Willing to Debate” Mr. Biden at the two proposed times in June and September.

Still the two camps remain far part on key questions of how to organise the debates, including agreeing on media partners, moderators, location and rules — some of the very questions that prompted the formation of the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987.

Mr. Biden's proposal would exclude third-party candidates, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Mr. Biden’s campaign has long held a grudge against the non-partisan commission for failing to evenly apply its rules during the 2020 Biden-Trump matchups — most notably when it didn’t enforce its COVID-19 testing rules on Mr. Trump and his entourage — and Mr. Biden’s team has held talks with television networks and some Republicans about ways to circumvent the Commission’s grip on presidential debates.

The debates should focus ‘solely on the interests of voters’

Biden’s campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates on May 15 to say that the president’s campaign objected to the fall dates selected by the Commission, which will come after Americans begin to vote, repeating a complaint also voiced by the Mr. Trump campaign. She also voiced frustrations over the rule violations and the Commission’s insistence on holding the debates before a live audience.

“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," she said. ”As was the case with the original televised debates in 1960, a television studio with just the candidates and moderators is a better, more cost-efficient way to proceed: focused solely on the interests of voters."

There was little love lost for the Commission as well from Mr. Trump, who objected to technical issues at his first debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 and was upset after a debate with Mr. Biden was cancelled in 2020 after the Republican came down with Covid-19. The Republican National Committee had already promised not to work with Commission on the 2024 contests.

The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment on May 15.

The Trump campaign issued a statement on May 1 that objected to the scheduled debates by the Commission, saying that the schedule “begins AFTER early voting” and that “this is unacceptable” because voters deserve to hear from the candidates before ballots are cast.

Under the Commission's rules, Mr. Kennedy or other third-party candidates could qualify if they secured ballot access sufficient to claim 270 Electoral Votes and polled at 15% or higher in a selection of national polls.

Biden, Trump battle it out on social media

In teeing up the debates, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump traded barbs on social media — each claiming victory the last time they faced off in 2020. “Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020, since then, he hasn’t shown up for a debate,' Biden said in a post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. "Now he’s acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal.”

The Democrat suggested that the two candidates could pick some dates, taking a dig at Mr. Trump’s ongoing New York hush money trial by noting that the Republican is “free on Wednesdays,” the usual day off in the trial.

Mr. Trump, for his part, said Biden was the “WORST debater I have ever faced - He can’t put two sentences together!”

“I would strongly recommend more than two debates and, for excitement purposes, a very large venue, although Biden is supposedly afraid of crowds - That’s only because he doesn’t get them," he added. “ Just tell me when, I’ll be there.”

The president first indicated he would be willing to debate Mr. Trump during an interview with the radio host Howard Stern last month, telling him that “I am, somewhere. I don’t know when. But I’m happy to debate him.” He indicated again last week that he was preparing to debate, telling reporters as he was leaving a White House event: “Set it up.”

Mr. Trump has repeatedly dared Biden to debate him, keeping a second podium open at rallies and claiming that his rival would not be up for the task. He said at a Pennsylvania rally before his hush money trial began that the debates were needed. “We have to debate because our country is going in the wrong direction so badly,” Trump said with the empty podium next to him. “We have to explain to the American people what the hell is going on.”

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