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Commission denies Trump's request to move up presidential debates

"Any voter who wishes to watch one or more debates before voting will be well aware of that opportunity," the organization in charge of the debates said.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a signing ceremony for "The Great American Outdoors Act," in the East Room of the White House, on Aug. 4, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP

The organization that runs the presidential debates on Thursday denied requests from President Donald Trump and his campaign to move the debates earlier to account for mail-in voting.

"How can voters be sending in Ballots starting, in some cases, one month before the First Presidential Debate,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “Move the First Debate up. A debate, to me, is a Public Service. Joe Biden and I owe it to the American People!"

His tweet came a day after Rudy Giuliani, a personal attorney for Trump, wrote a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates requesting a fourth, earlier debate.

On Thursday, the CPD responded, publishing a direct reply to Giuliani on its website that declined the request.

"In your letter, you express the Trump campaign’s interest in a presidential debate in early September. You state that such a debate is necessary because some states begin sending out mail-in ballots before the first scheduled debate," CPD wrote. "There is a difference between ballots having been issued by a state and those ballots having been cast by voters, who are under no compulsion to return their ballots before the debates. In 2016, when the debate schedule was similar, only .0069% of the electorate had voted at the time of the first debate."

"While more people will likely vote by mail in 2020, the debate schedule has been and will be highly publicized. Any voter who wishes to watch one or more debates before voting will be well aware of that opportunity," the group added.

The group also said that if both Trump and Biden wished to add a debate to the schedule, they would consider the request.

The Trump campaign said in a statement it was dismayed by the CPD’s response.

“We are disappointed in your response, but appreciate your openness to a fourth, or earlier, debate ‘[i]f the candidates were to agree that they wished to add to that schedule[,]'" Giuliani wrote in a letter as a representative of the Trump campaign.

“Your reply makes it clear that the idea of an earlier debate is, in effect, locked away in the basement, alone and diminished. We continue to believe that the American people deserve to see their candidates for president compare their records and visions for the United States before actual voting begins.”

He added, however, that the campaign insists on debates in which "the two candidates will definitely appear on stage, in person."

But a spokesman for the Biden campaign said Thursday that the campaign was "glad" Trump had accepted the commission's invitation to the three debates and slammed the requests from the Trump campaign as a "transparent attempt to distract from his disastrous response to the virus."

The Commission on Presidential Debates has scheduled three debates this fall: Sept. 29 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio; Oct. 15 at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami; and Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Two of the debate venues have already had to change due to the coronavirus pandemic. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana withdrew from hosting the first debate, and the University of Michigan dropped out of hosting the second debate.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many states have expanded their use of mail-in voting — a measure intended to keep people from congregating at the polls and risking further spreading the virus. The moves have created an extended voting season that could have political ramifications for a president who is currently trailing in the polls.

The first ballots of the 2020 general election will be on their way to voters by early September. North Carolina, a battleground state, begins mailing absentee ballots to registered voters who requested them on Sept. 4, 60 days before the Nov. 3 election. Pennsylvania and Kentucky will send out requested mail ballots as early as Sept. 14, with several other key states following the same week, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In his Wednesday letter to the CPD, Giuliani, in addition to arguing that an earlier debate date was needed before early voting in any states started, also requested that one of the currently scheduled debates be moved earlier if the CPD wouldn't add an additional debate. He also included a list of journalists and commentators that Trump would like to moderate the debates.

In its response Thursday, CPD officials said the group "will adhere to our longstanding procedure of selecting the debate moderators" and "will do so with great care, as always, to ensure that the selected moderators are qualified and fair."

Biden campaign officials on Wednesday repeatedly rejected the request to move the debate.

"We have said all along, including in a letter to the commission in June, that Joe Biden will appear on the dates that the commission selected and in the locations they chose. Donald Trump has not, continually trying to insert his choice of friendly moderators, now including one who just published an op-ed offering 'the case' for Trump's re-election,” Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said in response to the Trump campaign.

Biden campaign senior adviser Symone Sanders reiterated the point during a virtual fundraiser later Wednesday.

"Let me be very clear. The Presidential Commission on Debates has set... three debates this year. Vice President Biden has already committed to all three of those debates," she said. "It is the Trump campaign that has yet to fully commit to the debate."