A Trump–Biden Face-Off Is Yet Another Uncertainty in a Turbulent Election Year

Later in the afternoon, the Trump campaign asked the commission to move up the first debate to the first week of September, continued its pitch for a fourth debate, and also proposed moderators who’d presumably be sympathetic to Trump, like Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, and New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin, along with more conventional network stars like ABC News’s David Muir and CBS News’s Norah O’Donnell. (Hewitt, who recently wrote a case for Trump in the Washington Post, said he was “honored” to be on the list).

In assessing which candidate is really trying to skirt the debates, it is probably more useful to consider what the respective campaigns have actually said, rather than the “public advice” of newspaper columnists and cable-news pundits. In December, Trump lashed out at the commission on Twitter, saying it was stacked with “Trump Haters” and “Never Trumpers.” Days later, Trump campaign advisers met with the commission, a bipartisan nonprofit group that has sponsored every debate since 1988, raising the possibility that the president may seek a forum organized by a different firm. Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chairman of the commission and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told me in an interview that the group would consider a fourth debate if both campaigns agreed, but he acknowledged that it was unlikely, given Biden’s adherence to the original plan. “They know it’s not going anywhere with us,” Fahrenkopf said. “We’ve said very clearly that we’re sticking with our original plan that was proposed last year.”

Whether Trump sticks to that plan remains an elusive question. Murtaugh did not respond directly to my inquiries on whether the president will participate in the three established debates regardless of whether there is a fourth, or whether the selection of moderators will have any bearing on his decision. Fahrenkopf said the commission will likely announce which news anchors will moderate the debates in the first week of September. Could the inclusion of someone from CNN, NBC, or any of the other outlets Trump repeatedly maligns as “fake news” be enough to keep him off stage? “You know, I think that’s a possibility,” former CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer told me in an interview this week. Schieffer, who moderated presidential debates in 2004, 2008, and 2012, said that Trump’s ever-shifting positions make it difficult to predict one way or another. “My guess is we’ll see him threaten not to take part some place along the way, but whether he will or not, I think we’ll find out the night they have the debate,” Schieffer said.

There is, of course, the possibility that this is all political theater, and that the debates will unfold as planned. We have seen this movie before, after all. It was around this time four years ago when Trump accused Hillary Clinton and the Democrats of “trying to rig the debates,” complaining that they would air at the same time as NFL games (the Trump campaign has also objected to having debates compete for viewers with football this time around).

Steve Scully, the political editor of C-SPAN, told me it would be “enormously difficult” for either candidate to bypass the debates, which he said have become a seminal part of American politics. “It’s the final big moment in this campaign, and there is so much at stake right now, with the economy, coronavirus, and Black Lives Matter,” Scully said. “I cannot imagine any scenario that either campaign would say, ‘We’re going to skip these debates.’ The pressure is just too enormous, and I think the American people are going to want that. They’re going to demand that.”

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