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2020 Trump Biden Debate
Donald Trump skipped every debate in this year’s GOP primary and the last one in the 2020 general election. Morry Gash/AP

What’s Behind Biden’s Plan for a June Debate

The president is looking for ways to get voters to “tune into the choice” facing them in November.

The presidential race was shot full of adrenaline Wednesday morning after President Joe Biden’s surprise announcement that he was ready to debate former President Donald Trump in two network television-produced bouts.

But even those in Biden’s orbit are questioning whether this is real.

“I don’t think it’s actually going to happen,” Cornell Belcher, the Democratic pollster and strategist, told NOTUS Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t. I really don’t.”

Biden spoke directly to Trump in a campaign video calling for two debates: “Make my day, pal,” the president said. “I hear you’re free on Wednesdays,” he poked, referencing the day Trump’s New York criminal trial is typically in recess.

Trump agreed to debate quickly Wednesday morning. “Just tell me when, I’ll be there,” he posted. “‘Let’s get ready to Rumble!!!’”

CNN made the back-and-forth real, announcing that the first debate would be held at its studios in Atlanta, and in June.

By the afternoon, though, the Biden campaign had put out a statement attacking Trump for “continuing to play games with presidential debates” despite the apparent agreement to participate. It was a kind of take-it-or-leave-it offer to the former president. “We’ll see Donald Trump on June 27th in Atlanta — if he shows up,” it read.

Trump famously skipped every debate in this year’s GOP primary and skipped the last one in the 2020 general election after organizers changed it to a virtual format because Trump had tested positive for COVID-19.

So with the fever subsiding by day’s end, the conversation turned to what the Biden campaign was up to with its call for a debate several months and many news cycles before the first vote is cast in the presidential race.

Biden supporters and allies, who privately once doubted whether there would be debates at all, found the move savvy.

“The issue that the president is trying to address here is getting people to tune into the choice and have it be front and center,” said a former Biden official.

From the very beginning, Biden allies have pointed to polling showing voters are not very engaged with the election and, therefore, not engaged with a central message of Biden’s campaign: that Trump could be president again if voters don’t stop it. Public polls have continued to show Biden lagging in swing states and in a close race nationally.

Meanwhile, Trump has been on trial in New York for most of May — a topic the Biden campaign has only mentioned in passing for fear of giving Trump and his supporters more cause to politicize the criminal case. Early indications are that the trial has not captured the American imagination so far, leaving voters without the steady stream of Trump moments to re-center the public around the stakes of the election as the Biden campaign sees them.

An early debate would shake up that status quo, people whom NOTUS spoke with said, and give voters a high-profile reason to tune in much earlier than before. One source familiar with discussions said the Biden team has been talking internally for weeks on the most effective way to have a debate — namely, what makes sense for Biden.

Belcher was surprised by the suggested June date but said it may meet the truly strange moment in presidential politics by once again making things about Biden vs. Trump. The Biden campaign has spoken often about how early it has begun spending resources on trying to rebuild the anti-Trump coalition it rode to victory in 2020.

“My speculation would be that they think a longer campaign run of issues and contrast works for them better than a shorter one,” he said. “And from that perspective, I think they’re right because there’s so many positions of contrast here that need a longer runway.”

The question of whether the debates will actually happen is now the one to be answered. Biden asked for specific conditions for the debates he asked for. Network hosts must cut the mics of the candidate who goes over the allotted time or speaks out of turn — a clear reference to the chaotic first 2020 debate between Biden and Trump. The Biden campaign said no audiences should be allowed. In 2016, Trump filled some of his allotted audience slots with Bill Clinton’s accusers when he took the stage with Hillary Clinton.

The suggested Biden rules would try and prevent similar stunts.

“They’re all really basically about the same thing, which is limiting the ability of Donald Trump to eviscerate more norms, be undignified and debase a presidential debate,” the former official said. “It’s kind of like taking his toys away and forcing him to actually speak to the American people. And that’s not what Donald Trump wants to do. Obviously, he wants to distract.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Jasmine Wright are reporters at NOTUS.