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As debate commission considers rule changes, Trump signals he’ll reject them

President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden spent time arguing and interrupting each other during the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump and his top aides signaled Thursday that they would reject any changes to the presidential debate format, as members of the commission in charge of the matchups zeroed in on potential adjustments aimed at avoiding a repeat of Tuesday’s chaotic faceoff between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

The changes — which could be announced as early as this weekend — would be aimed at reining in behavior like Trump’s on Tuesday and making the debate more orderly. But the looming dispute with the Trump camp casts a cloud of uncertainty over the remaining debates, including Wednesday’s session between the vice-presidential nominees.

Biden told reporters Thursday that he is open to changes following a debate in which Trump repeatedly cut him off and talked over him. Trump campaign officials told reporters that Biden’s team had proposed several alterations, including allowing the moderator to mute candidates’ microphones; having more questions addressed directly to each candidate; adding opening and closing statements; and limiting the “free discussion” period, which devolved into inaudible crosstalk during Tuesday’s debate.

But Trump rejected such ideas, suggesting they would be aimed at eroding his advantage. “Why would I allow the Debate Commission to change the rules for the second and third Debates when I easily won last time?” Trump wrote on social media.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, an independent body, unilaterally determines rules for the exchanges and does not need approval from either campaign to change the terms, giving Trump few options if the commission does adopt the changes other than accepting them or boycotting the debates.

“We do not want any changes to what has been laid out and already been agreed to for the second and third debates,” said Trump campaign strategist Jason Miller. “We have not asked for any changes. The Biden camp has.”

But he stopped short of threatening to boycott the debates, saying that Trump “fully plans on participating.”

Biden’s campaign declined to answer questions about the debate negotiations or the suggestions that Trump’s team said they had offered. “We are running our campaign, not running the debates,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement.

Why changing the debate rules might be hard

The caustic first debate prompted outrage and calls for changes after Trump ignored his time limits throughout and repeatedly interrupted Biden. Several commentators called it the worst debate in history, and the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, told the New York Times afterward, “I’m just sad with the way last night turned out.”

Beyond Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate, the two remaining Trump-Biden matchups could be among the few opportunities to shake up the race, with Election Day less than five weeks away. The next session, in Miami on Oct. 15, will have a “town hall” format with undecided voters posing questions, an arrangement that could significantly change the dynamic.

So far the presidential campaign has been remarkably steady, with Biden holding a consistent lead in national polls and surveys of swing states.

More than 73 million viewers tuned in for Tuesday’s debate, a large audience but smaller than the 84 million who watched the first exchange between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

During Tuesday’s 90-minute session, Trump interrupted Biden so many times that the former vice president at one point told him to “shut up, man.” The president often scoffed at Biden’s answers, while Biden smiled incredulously at Trump’s behavior.

Biden’s and Trump’s teams met with debate commission staff at 9 a.m. the day after the debate in a pre-scheduled session to review the upcoming vice-presidential faceoff in Utah. Biden’s campaign offered input about potential changes to the format, according to Max Miller, the lead negotiator for Trump campaign, and another person familiar with the conversation.

Miller said Brady Williamson, Biden’s debate negotiator, offered “suggestions” for changes but “he wasn’t demanding it.” The teams are set to meet again Friday.

Trump’s aides Thursday also attacked the debate commission itself, with Jason Miller saying that those who run it are “permanent swamp monsters” who want to cozy up to Biden.

“They picked the moderator. They picked the questions, but it didn’t turn out the way that they wanted,” Miller said. In truth, the questions were written by the moderator.

Privately, Trump campaign officials acknowledged that the debate commission is likely to limit how much Trump and Biden can engage in direct verbal combat.

They said they see attacking the commission as good strategy, and something Trump has wanted to do for many months. Many aides viewed Trump’s debate performance as less than stellar, so criticizing the commission as unfair to Trump is an alternative way to bolster the president, they said.

Trump advisers such as Kellyanne Conway and Chris Christie were seeking to convince the president to talk less in the next debate, officials said, while striking a different tone that was less combative and more empathetic.

There was a widespread belief in Trump’s orbit on Wednesday and Thursday that the debate was a missed opportunity, according to conversations with eight White House officials, campaign advisers and others close to the president, because Trump talked too much and interrupted too frequently.

“My advice to the president is to let Biden speak because he’s going to wear himself down,” Conway said. “He will wear himself out. Folks already lack confidence in his competence. It is well known when Biden speaks with or without notes, he stumbles and bumbles, confuses numbers and makes a mess out of it.”

Biden’s supporters argued that Trump’s performance was a display of bullying that would turn off everyone other than his base, but they acknowledged it was sometimes hard for Biden to get his message across, given the frequent interruptions.

Asked whether he would accept a change that would allow mics to be muted, Biden said he’s open to that as long as “we have an opportunity to respond to the questions from the people in the audience.”

It was unclear if the commission would make any changes to next week’s vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City. That will be a seated exchange (with the candidates sitting far apart due to coronavirus restrictions) moderated by Susan Page, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief.

Aides and allies of Vice President Pence said they believed he would make a traditional Republican pitch for the president’s record. And after Tuesday’s scorched-earth debate, some of them said they welcomed the change of pace and Pence’s penchant for staying on-message.

“He’s playing the same role in the debates that he did in 2016, which is coming in after the president had a big debate and made a lot headlines. He’ll just be Mike Pence,” said one senior White House official who was not authorized to discuss debate prep. “That means he’s going to be a conservative guy, this calm former talk radio host who talks up MAGA and Trump and owns the libs.”

Still, Pence’s leadership of the coronavirus task force is likely to be front and center since the pandemic’s death toll in the United States surpassed 200,000 last month.

Most Trump associates said they expect Pence, a conservative with deep ties to religious groups and evangelical leaders, to stay cool even if Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Biden’s running mate, attacks him over the pandemic, abortion rights or gay rights.

“All he has to do is be kind and pleasant, to be reassuring and competent, and remind people that Kamala Harris is a San Francisco radical,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally. “He works well with this president because he has his own style. You don’t need two people who are as aggressive and as tough as Trump. He’s a bridge to everyday Americans.”

Harris and her advisers, aware that she has not debated a Republican in a decade, have sought to lower expectations in recent weeks. On a fundraiser with former ambassador Doug Hickey last month, Harris jumped in when Hickey said he felt sorry for Pence for having to face her.

“Mike Pence debates really well,” Harris said. “So lower the expectations!”

Her chief of staff, Karine Jean-Pierre, offered a similar message on a podcast with former Obama adviser David Plouffe.

“Mike Pence is a very good debater, and we have to be mindful of that,” Jean-Pierre said.

Harris said that this debate will be different from those she took part in during the Democratic primary.

“Then it was mostly about speaking up about my position on various issues as compared to my colleagues on the stage,” Harris told Hillary Clinton on a new episode of the former Democratic presidential nominee’s new podcast.

“This time, it will be about requiring some level of knowledge, if not mastery, of Joe’s record, the Vice President Mike Pence’s record, Trump’s record, and of course defending my own record,” Harris said.

The last time Harris debated a Republican was in 2010, when she first ran for attorney general of California. She did not debate her challenger in the 2014 reelection to that post, and California’s “jungle primary” rules meant that she faced a fellow Democrat in her 2016 Senate race.

Harris told Clinton that she is preparing for Pence to force her to confront “a series of untruths.” Clinton warned Harris against “efforts to diminish you personally” and “to try to put you in a box.”

“I don’t necessarily want to be the fact-checker,” Harris told Clinton. “At the same time, depending on how far he goes with whatever he does, he’s going to have to be accountable for what he says.”