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Trump Could Still Scuttle the Debates
By Philip Elliott
Washington Correspondent, TIME

Two years ago, former President Donald Trump bullied the Republican National Committee into passing a resolution declaring zero cooperation with the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Trump was convinced the group that has run the events since 1988 was stacked against him. He also wanted the debates to start sooner, well before the early-vote window opened. Trump insisted to anyone who would listen that he was far from afraid of sharing a stage with President Joe Biden, and would welcome as many as 20 such encounters.

Well, the double-digit double dates remains a long shot, but it looks like the ex-President is getting much of what he wanted in facing the current one. Wednesday morning, Biden and his campaign issued their own terms for a pair of one-on-one debates, and most of them matched up nicely with Trump’s red-line demands. The Commission on Presidential Debates is left out in the cold, the first session could come as early as next month, and the whole thing would be captured for a national television audience.

Within minutes, Trump responded with a hearty yes, seemingly ending months of will-they-or-won’t-they speculation that, inside political circles, rivaled the Ross and Rachel question. And, not long after, Biden announced that he had accepted an invitation from CNN to debate Trump on June 27. Trump followed in quick order. A September debate hosted by ABC News may also be penciled in by the end of the day.

The comity seemed an easy and mutually useful way to close this sideshow of the ongoing 2024 campaign and a debate over the borders of the battlefield. But here it’s worth remembering this truth: nothing involving Trump is ever this easy, and even when handled an ostensible win, the former President can still find a reason to reopen a victory to extract another petty point of pride. He is a Reality Show President. If there’s drama left on the sidelines, it’s always a good bet that Trump will risk a scoreboard lead to drag an extraneous piece of theater into play.

For instance, even in accepting Biden’s topline terms, Trump was still holding out hopes that there would be an audience, something the Biden proposal explicitly excluded. “I would strongly recommend more than two debates and, for excitement purposes, a very large venue,” Trump wrote on his social media platform, Truth Social. Trump is also likely to raise objections to Biden’s term that would mute a candidate’s microphone when it is not their turn—essentially silencing Trump’s constant interjections that, four years ago, resulted in an exasperated Biden muttering with disdain: “Will you shut up, man?” And no one has yet said where, physically, the TBD host would stage these events, regardless of whether megadonors and hardcore activists are in the room or not.

Later Wednesday, Trump’s top advisers seemed unwilling to take yes for an answer and proposed debates in June, July, August, and September. “We believe there should be more than just two opportunities for the American people to hear from the candidates,” Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles wrote in a memo to the Biden campaign.

Then there is the perennial quibble over the exact moderator or moderators. Biden has said he wants a broadcaster who has done primary debates with both parties that included the two nominees. (The networks that fulfill that quirk include ABC News, CBS News, CNN, and Telemundo.) As Biden campaign chief Jen O’Malley Dillon wrote in a memo released Wednesday, the anchors “should be selected by the broadcast host from among their regular personnel, so as to avoid a ‘ringer’ or partisan.” No doubt Trump would prefer to see Newsmax, OANN, or friendly primetime opinion hosts from Fox News in the mix. Still, working the refs is as much a part of debate prep as any policy discussion. It’s maddening to watch from afar, but there’s always someone in the high command of every campaign who thinks it’s a smart use of time to badger the anchors and those covering them with every crumb of evidence that suggests they’re unfair arbiters who are effectively boosting one side or the other.

So as audience, antenna, and anchor remain points that could derail the negotiations, at least on the surface it seems like Biden and Trump are heading toward a pre-July 4 clash. Advisers to both camps, however, are all too aware of this high-stakes reality: Neither man has actively debated since the final meeting of the 2020 campaign. That’s a long 1,374-day stretch between such tasks, only made more pronounced because Democrats didn’t entertain any primary challengers to Biden as legitimate, and Trump refused to accept that any of his GOP rivals merited his attention.

Finally, there are sobering statistics from the latest New York Times/ Sienna College poll of swing states—the must-win set of seven states—released over the weekend: 30% of voters are dissatisfied with their choice of candidates, 19% of voters said they pay attention to politics only some of the time or none at all, and 9% of voters says they’re not likely to vote at all.

So maybe these made-for-TV events are not the salve that both campaigns think they need. As much as the Biden campaign insists the in-person-audience-free format would be best to help reprogram the evening as more a source of information than entertainment, the market for persuasion may already be infinitesimally small. Most Americans may look at these two sessions—and maybe a third or a fourth if Trump reopens the terms as he liked to do during his real estate days—as justification of their choices rather than any real mover of voting action. This could be a night to give anxious Americans permission to follow their hearts, not to reset their brains. If that’s the case, and if the polling is right, Trump would be wise to take the W, agree to both debates without any additional conditions and refocus on his many, many legal woes.

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