Biden Offers to Debate Trump, With Terms, Shunning the Debate Commission

President Biden is willing to debate former President Donald J. Trump at least twice before the election, and as early as June — but his campaign is rejecting the nonpartisan organization that has moderated the presidential debates since 1988, according to a letter obtained by The New York Times. times.

Biden’s campaign letter sets out for the first time the president’s conditions for giving Trump what he has publicly demanded: a televised showdown with a successor whom Mr. Trump has portrayed, and hopes to expose, as too weak to take responsibility. job.

Mr. Biden and his top aides want the debates to begin much sooner than the dates proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, so voters can see the candidates side by side before early voting begins in September. They want the debate to take place inside a television studio, with microphones that automatically cut off when a speaker’s time has elapsed. They want it to be limited to nominees and moderators only — without the raucous crowds that Mr. Trump feeds on and without the involvement of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or other independent or third-party candidates.

The proposal suggests that Mr. Biden is willing to take some calculated risks to reverse his fortunes in a race in which most polls in swing states show the president trailing behind Mr. Trump and struggling to convince voters that he is an effective leader and steward of the economy. .

This is the first official offer from the Biden campaign to hold debates with Trump, who has repeatedly announced that he will debate his successor “anytime, anywhere,” and has demanded as many debates as possible. Mr. Biden recently indicated that he would debate Mr. Trump, but has so far declined to offer any firm commitment or specific details.

The letter, signed by Biden campaign chair Jennifer O’Malley Dillon and addressed to the Commission on Presidential Debates, notifies the group that Mr. Biden will not participate in the three general election debates sponsored by the commission, which are scheduled for Sept. 16, Oct. 1 and Oct. 9.

It is a stunning decision for Mr. Biden, an institutionalist who has tried to preserve Washington traditions.

Instead, Ms. O’Malley Dillon wrote in the letter, Mr. Biden would participate in discussions hosted by news organizations. Mr. Biden also recorded a video to reaffirm his intention to debate Mr. Trump. The move opens the doors for the Biden team and perhaps the Trump team to negotiate directly with the networks — and with each other — for potential discussions.

Ms. O’Malley Dillon proposed holding the first debate in late June, which is when Mr. Trump’s criminal trial in New York should conclude and after Mr. Biden returns from G7 summits with other heads of state.

The second presidential debate should be held “in early September at the start of the fall campaign season, early enough to impact early voting, but not so late as to require candidates to leave the campaign trail in late September and October.” Decisive,” she writes.

The Biden campaign is also proposing to hold a vice presidential debate in late July after Trump and his running mate are formally nominated at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee.

For the president, early discussions hold great advantages. Early voting is crucial, especially for Democrats. Polls show that Mr. Biden is currently trailing Mr. Trump and that his messages on key issues such as the economy are not resonating with enough voters.

In the 2020 election, Democrats focused heavily on early voting by mail as a safe alternative to in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic. The early votes gave Mr. Biden a decisive advantage over Mr. Trump, who told his voters not to trust the mail and instead vote only on Election Day.

Mr. Trump and the Republican National Committee have tried to undo that damage this year by asking Republicans to vote early.

“The Commission’s failure, once again, to schedule discussions that will be meaningful to all voters — not just those who cast ballots in the late fall or on Election Day — highlights the serious limitations of its outdated approach,” Ms. O’Malley Dillon writes in the letter. .

Mr. Trump leads Biden in most polls in hotly contested states, including recent polls by The New York Times, Siena College, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Far more voters trust Mr. Trump than Mr. Biden to handle the economy.

The Biden campaign and the president’s White House staff broadly feel that the debates were important in 2020, and that they will be important again this year.

The Biden campaign is trying to remind voters why the majority removed Mr. Trump from office in 2020. People close to the president have said they are concerned about so-called Trump amnesia — where voters are nostalgic for Mr. Trump and have forgotten how divisive he was — and some recent polls confirm this. the point.

The side-by-side debate, which could have a large viewing audience, is the Biden campaign’s most dramatic way to give Mr. Trump more exposure, in their view.

In the first debate of 2020, Mr. Trump barely let Mr. Biden get a word in. He was aggressive and constantly interrupting, while sweating and looking unwell. An angry Mr. Biden told Mr. Trump: “Will you shut up, man? “This is completely unpresidential.” In the days following that first debate, Mr. Trump’s poll numbers came in He falls.

Senior Trump campaign officials Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita see the situation differently and share their boss’s eagerness to debate Mr. Biden whenever possible. They have indicated that they do not care who hosts the debate, or where it is held. The Trump campaign believes, almost for one, that Mr. Biden has regressed significantly since 2020 and will be exposed in a debate against Mr. Trump.

Ms. O’Malley Dillon’s letter may spell the end for a long-established organization that has been running presidential debates since the Reagan era. She explained to the committee in her letter that the Biden campaign does not trust the organization’s ability to conduct a professional debate, saying it was “unable or unwilling to enforce the rules in the 2020 debates.”

Among other grievances to the committee, Biden aides remain angry that Mr. Trump was Mr. Biden’s debater in 2020 and appeared visibly under the weather, announcing shortly after the debate that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Biden’s team was also angry that Trump family members took off their masks when they reached the audience for the debate.

However, the Biden campaign’s debate proposal comes with conditions. The decision to marginalize the Commission offers clear advantages to Mr. Biden. First of all, the Biden campaign proposes to limit the number of debates to only two, while the Commission has already scheduled three presidential debates.

Biden campaign officials want to hold the debates in a television studio without an in-person audience that could cheer, boo and derail the conversation, as Trump supporters did during a CNN town hall last year. The committee always invites the public to watch its presidential debates.

There is also a possibility that Mr. Kennedy could reach the 15 percent national polling threshold to qualify for committee debates. The Biden campaign views Kennedy as a spoiler candidate, and people close to the president worry that by using the Kennedy name he could attract support from voters who might support Mr. Biden.

Ms. O’Malley Dillon wrote in her letter that the debate should be one-on-one to allow voters “to compare the only two candidates who have any statistical chance of winning the Electoral College — and not waste debate time on candidates who have no statistical chance of winning the Electoral College.” “The possibility of him becoming president.”

The Biden campaign has proposed rules — including automatic cutting of microphones — to ensure Mr. Trump does not exceed his time limits and talk about Mr. Biden as he did relentlessly during their first debate in 2020.

“There should be fixed time limits on answers, and take turns in speaking – so that time is divided equally and views are exchanged, not a scene of mutual interruption,” Ms. O’Malley Dillon wrote in the letter.

“A candidate’s microphone should only be active when it is their turn to speak, to promote adherence to regulated rules and procedures.”

The Biden campaign also proposed criteria to determine which television networks are allowed to host the debate. Ms. O’Malley Dillon wrote that they should only be hosted by broadcast organizations that hosted a 2016 Republican primary debate featuring Mr. Trump and a 2020 Democratic primary debate featuring Mr. Biden — “so neither campaign should assert that The sponsoring organization is clearly unacceptable.”

Networks that meet this mark include CBS News, ABC News, CNN, and Telemundo.

Ms. O’Malley Dillon adds that debate moderators “should be selected by the broadcaster from among his or her regular staff, to avoid ‘callers’ or partisans.”

The absence of an audience could be a sticking point for Mr. Trump, who has often manipulated crowds at debates and in town halls, encouraged by their applause, shouts and jeers.

However, the Trump campaign has been complaining about the committee for months.

In a May 1 statement condemning the organization, Ms. Wiles and Mr. Lacivita criticized the group for not agreeing to hold earlier discussions given the fact that early voting begins well before Election Day.

“We must host discussions earlier than ever,” they said. He added: “Once again, we call on every television network in America that wants to host a debate to extend an invitation to our campaign and we will gladly negotiate with the Biden campaign, with or without the stubborn Commission on Presidential Debates.”

For decades, candidates in both parties have criticized the commission. In 2000, the George W. Bush campaign attempted to design its own debate schedule, but ultimately agreed to debates led by the organization.

In 2012, Republicans complained bitterly about debates between Mitt Romney, their candidate, and incumbent President Barack Obama, when a moderator fact-checked Mr. Romney in real time during one debate.

In 2016, the Trump campaign sparred with the committee over four women sitting in the Trump family booth at a debate, three of whom accused Hillary Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, of sexual misconduct.

In 2020, the Trump and Biden teams struggled with the commission. Mr. Trump boycotted the second scheduled debate, which the organization decided to make a virtual event.

In 2022, the Republican National Committee — which has no direct role in negotiating presidential debates with the committee — voted unanimously to withdraw the party’s nominee from debates with the organization.

Reid J. Epstein Contributed to reports.

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