Biden and Trump cut a deal on debates. Then the fighting started.

biden and trump cut a deal on debates. then the fighting started.

Biden and Trump cut a deal on debates. Then the fighting started.

Less than two hours after President Biden made his move Wednesday to upend the nation’s presidential debate tradition, two of CNN’s top political journalists were on the phone with Donald Trump’s high command.

“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 terms of a June 27 meeting in Atlanta, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

By 10:14 a.m., Biden’s campaign had announced the president would attend the CNN event. The Trump campaign agreed minutes later. One of the most consequential disruptions to the sequence of American presidential campaigns since the first televised debate in 1960 had been completed by lunchtime.

The only thing left was for the campaigns and the country to figure out what had happened. Disagreements about the debate conditions and the agreement’s significance flared even as voters began hearing the news. At 10:56 a.m., CNN announced terms that largely followed the demands Biden had announced earlier that morning — a first meeting in June, organized by a network on Biden’s suggested list, with no live audience.

Biden had demanded a one-on-one debate with Trump. But CNN laid out criteria that allowed for other candidates to qualify. The network said all participating candidates had to meet a polling threshold and gain ballot access in “a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidency” by June 20. Not only did that standard provide a path for independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to make the stage, but it appeared to exclude both Trump and Biden, who will not become their party’s official nominees until later in the summer.

Biden advisers quickly let it be known that they had not agreed to any terms that could include Kennedy. One of the CNN producers on a Wednesday call with Trump aides had explained at the time that “RFK will not be on the stage,” the person familiar with the call said. CNN announced that both Biden and Trump had been invited despite the language requiring “candidates” to have ballot access.

The confusion would only deepen in the coming days, as Biden’s campaign aides said they were celebrating their ability to get Trump to agree to their terms and the Trump campaign said they were celebrating getting Biden to debate at all. Kennedy advisers quickly accelerated their plans to turn in ballot access signatures that had been holding at bay to prevent legal challenges, and they began to explore a lawsuit to force CNN to put them onstage. Then Trump released a social media post that said “I don’t care if [Kennedy] joins the debate.”

This reconstruction of the whirlwind 72 hour span that could shape the outcome of the 2024 election is based on interviews with 14 people familiar with the events as they unfolded, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. They described how the Trump and Biden campaigns, with the help of eager networks, had for once found a way to come together for two meetings, including a second debate by ABC News in September, even as animosity between the two camps remained high.

At the center of their fight is the question of which campaign will benefit from the unprecedented reordering of the campaign season. Never before has a televised debate between major party presidential candidates occurred before the fall. General election debates have been carried live by all major networks for decades, but these two meetings will be produced by single outlets, which is likely to dramatically limit viewership.

Trump and Biden long agreed that the first debate needed to take place before Sept. 16, when the Commission on Presidential Debates, for decades the arbiter of such meetings, had scheduled the event. Both parties had also grown impatient with the commission and thought they could negotiate directly, even communicating privately in recent weeks about ditching the commission structure.

Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the co-chair of the commission, argued that Biden came out on top this week, because Trump gave up his campaign’s negotiating leverage by publicly saying he would meet Biden when and where the president wanted. He was still processing the Wednesday morning letter from Biden pulling out of the commission when he was notified that Trump had accepted the debate terms.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Anytime in politics you get the other side to agree to what you want to do, without any major changes, that’s pretty good. But I guess when your candidate has gone out there and said, I’ll debate you under any time, under any circumstances, it kind of makes it hard for his people to fight back.”

LaCivita said Fahrenkopf was a “loser” whose time had passed and that “two-thirds of the Washington intelligentsia didn’t think Joe Biden would ever debate.”

Biden’s top advisers in Wilmington celebrated the rapid conclusion of negotiations as a clear win. They had been plotting for months to move the debates out of the commission’s control, eliminate a live audience that Trump could use to his advantage, and move the debates earlier in the year, as they seek to cast the election as binary choice between Biden and Trump. They believed Trump erred by expressing his public eagerness for debates and gave them a chance to control the situation.

“He had no choice,” Biden campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon said. “At the end of the day, we are always calculated and always disciplined. We always do what the president sets out to do.”

LaCivita argued that what mattered was that Biden had agreed to appear at all onstage with Trump for two 90-minute meetings, which the Trump campaign had doubted 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 said. “The fact is there is now going to be a debate. Donald Trump will kick his a-- in a studio or in front of a group of people. It doesn’t 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 wanted 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.”

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.

“I don’t know if it will fall apart,” Fahrenkopf said. “We’re hanging tough to see what happens.”

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