Biden and Trump agree to presidential debates in June, September — but with some big changes

The candidates have agreed to a June 27 debate on CNN, with a second to follow Sept. 10 on ABC.

Donald Trump, left, wearing a red tie, and Joe Biden, wearing a blue tie, during the Oct. 22, 2020, presidential debate in Nashville.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the Oct. 22, 2020, presidential debate in Nashville. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Patrick Semansky/AP, Julio Cortez/AP)

The last time either President Biden or former President Donald Trump participated in a presidential debate was nearly four years ago, when they tangled in Tennessee at the height COVID-19 pandemic. Now Biden and Trump are finally set to meet again. Here’s what will be different this time — and why it matters.

On Wednesday, Biden posted a video on social media challenging Trump to “make my day, pal” and debate him “twice” before the November election. “So let’s pick the dates, Donald,” the president said, adding that “I hear you’re free on Wednesdays — the only time Trump is not required to be in court for his hush money trial.

Trump immediately responded on his Truth Social network, calling Biden “the WORST debater I have ever faced.” “Just tell me when,” Trump wrote. “I’ll be there.”

Within hours, Biden and Trump had tentatively agreed to two debates: one on June 27 in Atlanta, hosted by CNN, and one on Sept. 10, hosted by ABC News. Dates and details will be finalized after further negotiations.

In a letter released Wednesday morning, Biden’s campaign chair laid out her boss’s terms for debating — which, for now, all parties seem to have accepted. They include several big breaks with tradition:

  • Biden declined to take part in the usual schedule of three general election clashes sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which had already been penciled in for Sept. 16, Oct. 1 and Oct. 9, and instead proposed that the candidates negotiate directly with each other and “news organizations” to plan two debates of their own.

  • Biden said the debates should start sooner than usual, in June, because the commission’s timetable was too late to influence the growing number of Americans who participate in early voting.

  • And Biden insisted that the debates occur inside “a television studio with just the candidates and moderators” — and microphones that cut off when a candidate's allotted time is up — rather than with an “in-person audience [of] raucous or disruptive partisans and donors.”

The Biden campaign's official position is that it has upended debate tradition simply because the “Presidential Commission model … is out of step with changes in the structure of our elections and the interests of voters.” But early voters are particularly important for Democrats — and the further the debates are from Election Day, the more time Biden might have to recover from any missteps onstage.

At first, Trump quibbled with Biden’s conditions, writing on Truth Social that he “​would strongly recommend more than two debates and, for excitement purposes, a very large venue.” But Trump staffers have also been complaining about the commission for months, calling for earlier, independent debates — and they unanimously believe that “Mr. Biden has declined significantly since 2020 and would be exposed in a debate against Mr. Trump,” according to the New York Times.

One reason for circumventing the commission is that even if independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reaches 15% in the national polls — one of the usual thresholds to qualify — Biden and Trump can potentially block him from appearing. “They are trying to exclude me from their debate because they are afraid I would win,” Kennedy said in a statement. “Keeping viable candidates off the debate stage undermines democracy.”

Both candidates are likely to be rusty when they take the stage in June. Trump skipped all five 2024 GOP primary debates; as president, Biden has done far fewer interviews than his predecessors. But by setting expectations for Biden so low — “He can’t put two sentences together!” Trump said Wednesday — the former president could be setting himself up for a repeat of 2020, when voters seemed to prefer Biden’s steady demeanor to Trump’s constant interruptions. Biden, in turn, hopes that by controlling the terms of the debate he can assuage concerns about his age and leadership — while reminding voters why they rejected Trump in 2020.