The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump tries to muscle through changes in presidential debates to gain advantage

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton before their first presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2016.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton before their first presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s efforts to influence the timing and makeup of this fall’s presidential debates, some of the last planned events with the power to shift the trajectory of the campaign, have been rejected, with both the independent debate commission and the Biden campaign showing no interest in altering course.

But that has not stopped Trump from trying to gain advantage by making the debates a top-tier issue, as he and his advisers circulate unfounded claims that Joe Biden may try to dodge the events and suggest that the Democrat may try to cheat by using notes if the sessions are held virtually.

“I would be highly surprised if Joe Biden actually went through with all three debates,” Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said Friday. “I think their strategy will be to show up to one, show that he is able to function and then pull the plug on any additional debates.”

The Fix’s Aaron Blake breaks down what could shrink former vice president Joe Biden’s lead over President Trump ahead of the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden pledged in June to attend all three of the scheduled debates, a commitment that the president only matched in a letter Thursday, after the debate commission rejected a request to use a list of Trump-approved moderators and move up the timing of the debates. The Biden team has taken to mocking the Trump campaign’s effort to shape the rules and timing of the events, with one Biden aide suggesting that the president and his staff can Google the phrase “be there” if they have any questions.

“The Trump campaign’s attempt to create a debate about debates is as phony as the president’s claim that coronavirus will vanish on its own,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said. “It’s unsurprising they have adopted this embarrassing tactic.”

The debates, set to begin Sept. 29, are expected to carry outsize importance in a remarkably bizarre election cycle — without public rallies or much in-person campaigning — offering homebound voters one of the few chances to see both candidates in an uncontrolled environment and to make direct comparisons.

“This is like the Super Bowl,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Hillary Clinton who played the role of Trump in her 2016 debate preparations. “It is one of the few moments of the year when we all gather together. We all have a shared base of experience and knowledge.”

The debates have taken on particular gravity for the Trump campaign, which has fallen behind in swing-state and national polls and has been frustrated by the Democrat’s cautious and controlled campaign, which offers only limited opportunities for the Biden flubs and gaffes that Trump has made central to his argument for reelection.

Three campaign officials said Trump knows that the debates are important to turning around his chances in November. His new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has told other advisers that getting Biden to engage more publicly in uncontrolled situations is one of his primary goals.

Yet Trump’s current standing has given him little leverage to force any changes to the traditional format of the debates. In addition to the three meetings of the presidential candidates, including one with a town hall format, there will be one debate between the vice presidential contenders. The moderators will be selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates, an independent body made up of officials from both parties.

Trump’s efforts to affect the staging of the debates date to December, long before the pandemic shook the country, when he discussed with his advisers the possibility of forcing changes to the board that oversees the commission. In a subsequent call with Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., a former Republican Party chairman who co-chairs the commission, senior Trump campaign officials warned that the president might not participate in the debates if he did not find the arrangements “fair.”

“The problem is that the so-called Commission on Presidential Debates is stacked with Trump Haters & Never Trumpers,” Trump tweeted that month. “. . . As President, the debates are up to me, and there are many options, including doing them directly & avoiding the nasty politics of this very biased Commission.”

The commission was unmoved by the threats or the subsequent demands of the Trump campaign. The Trump team called in June for a fourth debate and argued that the campaigns should have sway over the moderators. Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, reiterated that request in a letter to the commission this week and asked that the first debate be moved up to early September if no new meeting was added.

Giuliani argued that since early voting is available in 16 states in September, voters deserve a chance to see the candidates in action sooner. He also provided a list of 24 campaign-approved moderators, including journalists whom Trump aides consider relatively sympathetic, like Maria Bartiromo and Charles Payne of Fox Business Network.

Biden advisers dismissed the request out of hand. “Based on his statements about vote-by-mail, Trump’s position is we need to move the first debate up for the benefit of people who are going to commit voter fraud,” joked one Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the campaign’s internal perspective. “About as consistent as everything else on their campaign.”

Commission leaders also rejected the request, saying they would independently pick “qualified and fair” moderators “with great care.”

“Any voter who wishes to watch one or more debates before voting will be well aware of that opportunity,” the commissioners wrote.

Giuliani responded Thursday with a letter that confirmed Trump’s commitment to the scheduled debates, and requested that any pandemic contingencies allow both candidates to “appear onstage, in person” and not through “online transmissions where Mr. Biden could rely on notes, teleprompter or handlers.”

“We aim to continue to put public pressure on Mr. Biden to agree that Americans must see an in-person comparison of the records, visions, and vitality of the two candidates for president before voting begins,” Giuliani wrote.

The commission’s current plan calls for all debates to be in person, with reduced numbers of audience members attending. The town hall format is still planned, with audience members selected by Gallup and allowances to ensure the health of all involved. (The final Democratic primary debate was conducted in March in a Washington television studio, with no audience in attendance.)

An official familiar with the planning said that the debate commission was likely to announce moderators in early September, without input or control from the campaigns, and that the debate places and times are unlikely to move.

This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Thursday that Giuliani had not talked with the commission since a call this summer that included Brad Parscale, then the campaign manager, during which they pushed for a fourth debate and control over the moderators. Biden’s camp has not shown interest in adding a fourth debate, moving up the timeline or demanding specific moderators, the official said.

In the meantime, both campaigns have been moving forward with preparations under veils of secrecy. Several campaign advisers said that Trump has begun discussing how to approach the debate and that Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who led debate preparations in 2016, is likely to play a key role.

Miller, the Trump adviser, has been studying Biden’s past debate performances.

“Joe Biden is actually a very good debater. He doesn’t have as many gaffes as he does in his everyday interviews,” Miller said, a characterization that runs counter to his rationale for why the former vice president would refuse to debate. “I would make the argument that Joe Biden would even be the favorite in the debates since he’s been doing them for 47 years.”

In Biden’s inner circle, debate prep details are considered akin to a quote from the 1999 movie “Fight Club”: a subject verboten outside the confines of the campaign.

“The first rule of debate prep is that nobody talks about debate prep,” said a person involved in the Biden preparations, who requested anonymity to tell others not to speak publicly.

Both Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn and Ron Klain, a former chief of staff for Biden who has long coached Democratic candidates for debates, have been involved in past efforts to prepare Biden for debates.

Brett O’Donnell, a debate coach who has worked for former president George W. Bush, as well as Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney, said the 2016 debates showed the challenge of facing off with Trump, who has extensive experience with televised rhetorical combat.

“This is not really a debating competition. If it was a debating competition, others might outperform the president,” O’Donnell said of Trump’s debates with Clinton. “But it is about message and moments. And under those rules, the president performed pretty well against her.”