The Debate Commission Chief Thinks Trump Blew It


Despite all the talk that Joe Biden killed the Commission on Presidential Debates this week, there’s at least one objection.

“We ain’t dead yet,” says Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr.

He’s the co-founder and co-chair of the commission, and he sat down for an interview withthe Playbook Deep Dive podcast this week to discuss whether this really is the end of his organization’s 36-year run producing 33 general election debates.

Fahrenkopf had harsh words for senior members of the Biden campaign, which stunned the commission on Wednesday morning with a letter declaring the president would not participate in the commission’s fall debates. The Biden team described the commission’s debates as “noisy spectacles” that occur too late in the process to accommodate early voting, and which were too easy for Donald Trump to hijack in 2020 by breaking rules that went unenforced.

Fahrenkopf called the Biden campaign’s allegations “false” and said the campaign “didn’t do their homework” on early voting. He blamed the blowup on Biden advisers Anita Dunn and Ron Klain’s hostility to the commission.

“Anita hates us and always has,” Fahrenkopf said.

There will still be debates, of course, assuming neither Biden nor Trump pulls out of the CNN and ABC faceoffs currently scheduled. And Fahrenkopf — the chair of the Republican National Committee in the Reagan era — told me he thought the Biden campaign rolled the Trump campaign by seeming to get everything it wanted in the debate over the terms of the debates. “It was a pretty spectacular job by the Biden people,” he said.

Oh, and he also said he thinks maybe Robert F. Kennedy Jr. should sue CNN to try to get on the debate stage.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full Playbook Deep Dive podcast interview here: 

Frank, let’s talk about this letter that the Biden campaign sent you and give you an opportunity to respond to the criticisms they made of the Commission on Presidential Debates.  

There’s a lot of misstatements.

They list several reasons for why they’re pulling out of CPD’s debates. The first one is about early voting.

The Biden campaign writes that, “The Commission’s schedule has debates that begin after the American people have a chance to cast their vote early, and doesn’t conclude until after tens of millions of Americans will have already voted. The Commission’s failure, yet again, to schedule debates that will be meaningful to all voters — not just those who cast their ballots late in the fall or on Election Day — underscores the serious limitations of its outdated approach.”

Do you want to respond to that? 

They didn’t do their homework. And I know where all this is coming from. This is Anita Dunn. This is her plan. She was against the commission for years and years and years and was part of a commission — and I think Ron Klain was on it also.

The Annenberg report, right? So do you think this is coming from Ron and Anita?
 
Oh, there’s no question.

Have you talked to Ron Klain? 

I haven’t talked to Ron in a while.

He has been your liaison to the past five Democratic campaigns, right? 

About the time he left the White House, I think he sent me an email or I asked him, “If the president debates, will you be advising him as you’ve done?” And he said, “Yes.”

So that’s the only thing I’ve got. Now, I saw him on television a week or so ago where he said the same thing.

When you were working on this stuff with him, as liaison to the Democratic presidential campaigns, was he generally expressing dissatisfaction with CPD?

No. We had a great relationship.

Let’s go back to No. 1 then: the early voting issue.

They really didn’t do their homework, because we did our homework. This all started when, I assume, former President Trump got the RNC — because he controlled the RNC — to say they were withdrawing from the Commission on Presidential Debates, which I found very interesting. How can you withdraw from something you never belonged to?

We have no contact with the parties. We only deal with those people who are the nominees of parties that are on enough ballots to get the 270 votes. We don’t deal with the parties. And so that was put up and said it’s because you haven’t moved the dates.

Well, you got to go back to 2020. We were in the middle of a little disease problem. And many states, because of that, changed their laws to allow early registration so there could be voting. And they’re correct — there were a lot of votes cast prior to the first debate. We had set the dates a year before —

Way before the states had changed their rules. 

That’s correct. So what we have done going into this cycle is we’ve checked the laws of every single state as to when we should go forward. And there’s a very key date. It’s the 6th of September. The 6th of September is the final date when a number of states declare who’s going to be on their ballot presidentially.

So you can’t know if third party candidates qualify until Sept. 6th. 

That’s correct. The funny thing is the date that they picked, June 27th, at that time, there are only seven states who have concluded their work on who can be on their ballot in the fall. A hundred and ten total Electoral College votes.

So RFK Jr. has absolutely no chance of getting on the ballot for that debate?

On that debate, yeah. Now, the only thing that would be interesting is — aren’t the libertarians having a convention in the next week or two? And they don’t have a candidate yet.

Right. And he’s going to be speaking there. 

He’s going to be speaking. I think he challenged Trump to debate there. Or maybe he challenged Biden…

So this is an intriguing possibility here. 

There are four parties that, because of the past years and their involvement, will automatically be on the ballot in all states. That’s Republican, that’s Democrat, that’s the Green Party and the Libertarians.

So if they were to nominate him, he may already be at the place where he could be on enough ballots to be 270, right?

Right. If he gets the Libertarian line across the country, then he would still have to hit the 15 percent polling threshold to make the CNN debate in late June. 

I saw a recent poll. He was at 16 [percent]. I didn’t balance and average them.

He’s averaging less than the 15 percent threshold. Do you think that the Biden campaign was partly driven by making sure there’s no chance RFK Jr. is on that stage? 

Yeah. From everything that I’ve heard. You know, I’ve got a lot of friends who are still Democrats involved in the Democratic Party. Some of them are in the White House. They don’t want Kennedy in there.

Now, I’ve seen a number of polls. Some say it hurts Trump. Some say it hurts Biden. But Biden’s in such deep trouble in the numbers, why take a chance?

This is kind of funny, because one of the things that CPD has been accused of is keeping the third parties out, that it’s a cartel for the two big parties. But you actually have straightforward criteria for the third parties. Whereas now the Biden and Trump campaigns, going straight to the media, seem to have boxed out third parties. 

Under the Federal Election Commission rules, if you’re going to sponsor a debate, you have to put out an objective standard of what the requirements are.

That goes for the media organizations? 

Yeah. We have been sued starting in — I think it started in ‘88 — in almost every single cycle.

I often jokingly told my partners on the commission that I made a bad decision in 1987 when we created the commission and I became chairman. I should have taken on the general counsel because of the amount of millions of dollars we paid in attorney fees over the years. Legal challenges — [Ralph] Nader. [Ross] Perot when he didn’t get on the second time. [Pat] Buchanan. I mean, on and on. We’ve been sued in every cycle. One case has gone all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. We’ve won every single one in the federal courts. It’s primarily the 15 percent rule that they’re attacking.

That’s de facto eliminating them — third parties?

That’s right. And we won every single time.

A lot of the criticism of the CPD is now, I think fairly, going to be leveled at — or at least questions will be asked about — the media organizations. 

And so I want to go through some of them.

What you’re saying, and I didn’t know this, is that the FEC requires that a presidential debate sponsor have eligibility requirements for third parties. 

It says that there must be objective standards for who’s included. I believe that that also includes networks because the only people who can do it right now are us and the networks.

So this is an interesting question. The Biden campaign is basically saying there’s no chance that they would have agreed to do any debate where RFK Jr. is on stage. 

In fact, I think they had CNN promise that they wouldn’t let him in regardless.

So could that potentially violate the FEC rule here? 

It could, but my lawyering days are over. I’ll leave that to the lawyers on both sides. But it’s an issue certainly to raise. I’m surprised. When this thing went down yesterday I said, “Boy, I bet Kennedy is going to file some lawsuit somewhere.”

If you were him now, would that be the first place you’d look?  

Yeah. What do you got to lose? Give it a shot and attack it.

Let’s go back to the early voting. How did you guys try to address this? 

So we went to every single state. We looked at the calendar. We looked at August. What do you got? You’ve got the DNC convention. You’ve got the end of the Olympics. So August was pretty bad. Then you get to September. You get Labor Day, NFL football every Thursday, and that’s when we knew the important date of the sixth [of September].

You’ve got that circled on your calendar. 

And that’s when we started. They say on here “millions” of people will vote before the first debate. About 900,000 voted four years ago before the first debate, because of the coronavirus and so forth. Now there’s only one place where votes could be cast. In North Carolina, if you want to vote by mail, you can apply for a ballot, and receive it on Sept. 6th.

And every other state is later.

So your first debate would be scheduled for the 16th. 

Yes. So it’s only those people in North Carolina who went in early enough and cared to get their ballot and vote.

There’s been some debate about this among political strategists. Do you think that the Trump campaign, just from a campaign strategy, missed a bit of an opportunity here in acceding to all of Biden’s requests this week so quickly? 

Uh, yeah. Did you see [Mark] Halperin this morning?:

“The Biden campaign took advantage of Trump’s prowess, a willingness to debate on any terms to win a slew of process advantages that are materially in Biden’s favor and which allowed him to play Mar-A-Lago like a fiddle. No live audience, no audio mud wrestling, probably no live awkward walk out onto the stage on camera. No RFK. Four moderators who are, shall we say, unlikely in the extreme to perform their duties in a manner that will work to Trump’s benefit. That last point might be the most important key. We’ve all seen the gigantic role of the moderators’ choice of topics and opportunities have played in the past presidential debates. Depending on how this all ends up, ceding those debate-about-debate process points to the Biden campaign could end up being one of the great blunders of the entire election cycle.”

Do you agree with that? 

I do. Someone called me this morning and said it was political malpractice, calling on the staff of the Trump campaign.

But, you know, I looked at it and I thought back at what happened in 2020. Donald makes decisions like this and I’m not sure he listens to the staff. And I don’t think he ever saw all of the details that were in there. And that is a pretty spectacular job by the Biden people.

The other part of a debate about debates and setting things up is the expectations game. And Trump keeps saying that Biden— 

Is the worst in the world.

Yes, and that’s not usually the winning strategy, is it? 

You usually say, “God, they’re good. I don’t know how I’m going to keep up with this when I get my turn.”

Let’s go back to the Biden campaign’s letter. Do you guys take this stuff personally? That letter was pretty tough. 

No, I don’t. You’re familiar with the Annenberg thing. We knew what they were doing. And knowing that Anita was there and that Anita hates us and always has — I don’t take it personally. We’re in politics, for God’s sake.

So, Anita Dunn, or really it’s Jen O’Malley Dillon who signed this letter, says, “The Commission’s model of building huge spectacles with large audiences at great expense simply isn’t necessary or conducive to good debates.”

Well, they’re getting mixed up with the primary debates and the general election debates.

… The talk about “noisy spectacles of approval or jeering.” 

When you come in the hall and you have your ticket, it says you’re not to make any noise or disturb or you’ll be escorted out. I’ve done 33 of these things and there were only two times that the audience ever disrupted and clapped. Now, sometimes they laugh if something funny happens on stage. But there’s no booing, there’s no yelling. It’s not like the primary debates. If you go to the primary, the networks who do it want that — they do advertising and all the rest of it. We’re 90 minutes without a break.

So when they describe your debates as “entertainment for an in-person audience with raucous or disruptive partisans and donors, who consume valuable debate time with noisy spectacles of approval or jeering …”

That is false, and they know it’s false. I mean, they were there last time. There’s no cheering that goes on.

Now, one example and it had a very, very negative effect on the moderator: We tell the moderators that this is different than if you’re interviewing a candidate that comes on your show, or if you want to interview them for your magazine, and you ask them a question, and they give you an answer which is different from an answer that they said publicly a week ago. Then naturally you say, “Well, wait a minute now, senator,” or whatever it is, “You’re changing your position …”

That’s not your job. It’s not Meet the Press. And so your job is to be a facilitator. And if one of the candidates is changing their position on something — they’re debating! The other debater should say, “Wait a minute, what are you talking about?”

So the most you should do is turn it over to the opponent. 

It’s not the job to fact check.

This is an important point. And this is going to make some people mad at you. You don’t think the moderator should fact check these candidates at the debate?

Nope. They’re a facilitator. And where it happened was with Candy Crowley in 2012, when the former governor of Massachusetts, [Mitt] Romney, accused [Barack] Obama of not condemning the [Benghazi] bombers as terrorists. And Obama said he did.

[Romney] said, “Now you did. You had a chance to say it, but you didn’t call them terrorists.” And suddenly Candy Crowley said, “Oh, yes, he did. Oh, yes he did.” And Obama was very quick. He turned to Candy and said, “Say it again.” And she did.

He recruited the moderator to his side.

I looked and Mrs. Obama — when that happened, she turned around to where all the Democrats sat in the audience — and she started clapping, and they all clapped.

And the Romney campaign was very angry after that debate about that. 

I don’t blame them. That’s not the job of the moderator.

Let’s go to No. 3 in the letter from the Biden team, saying the commission includes rules that candidates were called upon to follow, and yet it was unable or unwilling to enforce the rules in 2020.

There are two things. We divide the 90 minutes into six 15-minute sections, and under the rules — which they’ve agreed to — the moderator will ask candidate No. 1 a question about taxes or whatever it may be. Candidate No. 1, under the rules, has two minutes without interruption to state his or her position. And then it’s the turn — without interruption — for candidate No. 2 to give their position without interruption.

Well, Donald Trump broke the rule right from [moment] one.

And the moderator was Chris Wallace. 

And Chris did such a great job in the last debate between Hillary and Trump four years before. I mean, poor guy. I felt sorry for him. What were we going to do? Was I going to jump up on the stage? I don’t know what we could have done.

And this gets to the next part of our conversation here with this Biden letter, which is the list of demands. They say that they’ll participate in two media-sponsored debates, and they lay out the demands. It had to be a media organization that hosted both a GOP primary debate in 2016 and a Democratic primary debate in 2020, so it essentially rules out Fox News and MSNBC. They want only Biden and Trump to be qualified. They’re demanding a firm time limit for answers. And they want the candidate’s microphone to be active only when it is his turn to speak.

I had to sell the commission on supporting me on this. Last time after the first debate, I said, we should have a mute button and if candidate one or candidate two breaks the rule as to when he’s supposed to speak or not speak, we mute his microphone. So we put that in, and everyone obeyed. No one broke it. Both of them performed perfectly well.

So you didn’t need the mute button in the end?

We didn’t. Now, in one of his statements, Trump said we muted his mic. We did not. We never muted.

For the 2020 Biden-Trump debates, Rudy Giuliani was the Ron Klain on the other side. You talked to him after the election and he told you something very interesting.

He called me and we chatted because he was my regular contact. I talked to him like once a week. And, he called me, he says, “You know, Mr. Chairman, I believe if Donald had behaved in the first debate like he behaved in the last debate, he might very well be president-elect right now.” And I said, “Rudy, you may be right. But I was told you were one of the people who told him to break the rule.” He said, “Well, yeah, I was one of them.”

I want to ask you a few questions about CNN and ABC. We don’t know all the details, but there’s always great intrigue around the memorandum of understanding, this document that is negotiated between the two campaigns — the little stuff like room temperature and all that stuff that you guys have handled since 2000.

Yeah. Al Gore was a sweater. He wanted it cool. You’ve been in the halls. The hall is really cold. I tell women who are coming, bring a pashmina because with the cameras and the lights, it is cold in there. But Al was a sweater. I think it was 65 degrees. He wanted it down to 50. We can’t do 50. So we’ll make modifications like that.

Now one year, we specifically said that one of the presidential debates would be done seated at a table. And, Obama and — I can’t remember which race it was — and his opponent were more comfortable having the podiums, and we didn’t argue with them. I still think that the nature and tenor of discourse changes when you’ve got people sitting at a table with a moderator in between. The podiums tend to be like walls.

Now, I could be wrong, but I’ve heard that CNN has said that they will not share the [program] — it won’t be a simulcast [elsewhere]. It’s big news.

Nielsen says, well, the first debate last time was 78, 80 million. They don’t count C-SPAN. They don’t count things that are online. And we work with all the platforms. And those people aren’t counted. It’s just those people who are watching on television networks.

Where does that line it up in terms of most-watched television events in a normal year?

Really, it depends. The worst was Dole-Clinton. There’s no question that Hillary and Donald, that first debate, was very big. And I think the first debate [in 2020] was very big. The Super Bowl is probably the biggest competitor.

If it’s just CNN — which I understand is in 80 million households out of 130 million households in the U.S. — what does that mean?

It limits very much the number of people who are going to see it. ABC, I think, has said they will share. I don’t know whether they are going to be on all the platforms that we use.

So you have two questions: What will they share and will everyone take it? So even though ABC is going to simulcast it, Fox News may not want an ABC-branded event on it.

Well, let me tell you what happened in 2000. One of Gov. [George W.] Bush’s people came to town. We had proposed three presidential debates and one vice presidential. They said, “Well, we’ve decided the governor is going to go out in front of the governor’s mansion in Austin and announce he’s going to do three debates. The first debate will be with the commission. The second debate will be on Meet the Press with Tim Russert, and the third debate will be on Larry King’s show on CNN.”

And I said, “Are you out of your fucking mind? Do you really believe the other networks are going to cover something that’s on Meet the Press, or vice versa? It’s a presidential debate, and I think you’re making a big mistake.”

They came back 10 days later with their tail between their legs because conservative, liberal, moderate newspapers, everything was saying “This is idiotic. Don’t do it.” And they ended up doing our debates, even though they said they weren’t going to. It reminds me a little bit of this.

Everyone says the Commission on Presidential Debates is dead. 

We ain’t dead yet!

How do you get it back?

Well, I look at it this way. We were created for one purpose and one purpose only. All of us on this commission from day one were not compensated in any way. No one’s paid, but our staff is paid. And we want to make sure in every presidential election cycle that the man or woman who wants to be president or vice president of the United States debates their opponents. That’s our purpose.

Now, if the Biden and Trump campaigns can reach some agreement and go forward with two debates, and that happens and they do a good job? That’s the only thing we exist for. I don’t get anything out of this in any other way. What happens to the debate commission thereafter, I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.

The town hall meeting, which is usually the second debate, the Biden campaign has ruled out. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the research over the years has shown that’s the most popular.

It’s a real pain for us, to be very candid with you. Because we would have 100 people being chosen by the Gallup organization who say they’re undecided. And we bring them in the morning and we have to feed them. Most of them have never in their life ever held a microphone in their hand. I forget what year it was, a woman we gave the microphone to hold in her hand. She was shaking and I said, “What’s your name?” She couldn’t talk. She was so terrified. So for the average person, it is really a tragedy.

I don’t remember that. I’m always struck by how impressive those people are with having never done that before.

Something happened at the University of San Diego. I think it was Dole and Clinton where three people in a row were chosen by the moderator and they asked the same question. So what we did since then is that we have them together. They all have a pad and pencil and we say, “If you want to ask a question of the candidates today, write your question out and give it to the moderator.” The only one who sees those pieces of paper is the moderator, and he or she will go through to make sure there’s no duplication and decides which question they’ll be asked so that we avoid having the same question asked more than one time.

And you guys are never involved with the question selection?

We’re not involved. We’re never involved in question selection. That would be interfering with journalistic integrity. We don’t do that.

Did you ever have any concern that the campaigns had inappropriately contacted the moderators or got a heads up about questions?

Of course we know what happened in the Democratic primaries, where Hillary did get the hint of the questions.

The Donna Brazile thing. 

Our moderators, what we do is we monitor them. We get a short list. We come up with maybe 10 reporters.

How do you build your initial list for the moderators?

It’s a small group of us on the board, the executive committee and the board. And we have our director who’s very experienced in television, and we get a little group together and then we start watching them.

I don’t know if you can ever get someone right down the middle anymore. That’s our goal to find someone down the middle. So we do our best to find someone who is closest to the middle as possible. When we talk to them and ask them whether they would consider it with the understanding that they’re not going to take sides in the debates, that’s how we wind up doing it.

Have you ever picked someone who said, no, I don’t want to do it?

Yes. I had one person. And it was not for them not wanting to do it. Diane Sawyer. I called Diane and asked her to do one. And she said “Frank, I’d love to do it” and then she started crying. Her husband was in the hospital. He was in the hospital for a year before he died. And she says, “I spend every day at the hospital with him.” So she was the only one that I’ve ever contacted who said no.

Why should your group of unelected Washington officials get to decide who the moderators are, when the debates are, where they are? Why should it be you guys, through a process that some people would say is not that transparent? 

Who else would do them? Who’s going to agree [on moderators]? So we’re down the middle, we’re nonpartisan, we’re neutral, and we’re trying to make decisions on who should be the moderator based not on whether it’s going to help my side or the other side, but who’s going to do the best job of getting these candidates to tell the American people where they stand on issues?

I’ve always looked at it as two things happening. If a debate is a good debate, No. 1, you’ve informed the American people where the candidates stand on issues that are important to them in their daily lives and so forth. The other was they get a feeling for the people, who are these candidates? What’s their personality? Do they obey the rules? Is their courtesy there? It’s very, very important.

I’ve been asked a lot of times, “Frank, what have you learned after doing 33 debates?” I’ve learned that the American people would really like to like their president. So I think that they’re not only making decisions based upon the answers that are given, but how they handle themselves. I always felt Al Gore hurt himself with what he did. And I don’t know if you remember, the first debate in that round in Boston.

The sighing debate.

Uh huh. He came out with all this red rouge on. They’d hired this girl who was excellent with colors and so forth.

The brown suits. I know what you’re talking about.

Paul Kirk was saying,“Holy mackerel! What the hell’s the matter with him?” I think Al hurt himself, and there’s no question that Trump really hurt himself in the first debate last time. So I think that they’re getting a perception of the human being that’s up there, as well as learning where that person is and where they stand on the issues.

If you don’t get to a 34th debate and the CPD is gone, what do you think we will have lost?

Well, I think we’ll have lost a lot.

I say that because unfortunately, I am really worried for my grandkids and what kind of country we’re going to have. So many traditions, so much respect for other people. Freedom to speak what your mind is without worrying whether someone is going to call you “woke” online. The people are afraid to take positions because of that. Harvard and Columbia and some of these schools are never going to be the same with what’s happening. There’s a difference between peaceful and non-peaceful protest. Where we’re going as a country, people don’t respect each other.

The last question on the show is always proposed by our last guest. That happens to have been Speaker Mike Johnson. His question is, “What makes you proud to be an American?”

It’s a very good question. That’s one of the things I’m concerned about with the younger generation. I came from nothing. My dad was an automobile mechanic working in a gas station. He kidnapped my sister and I when I was nine years old. And in those days —

Your father kidnapped you and your sister?

Yeah. In those days, you can only get a divorce in one place in the United States. This is 1949, and that was in Nevada. And he and my mom had not been getting along. They eventually got divorced later. We went out to Reno and for the first six months, we lived in a bus that didn’t have wheels on, with an outside bathroom. And we started from scratch.

I worked my way through college. I went into the Army right after high school. There was a draft on. I served at Fort Ord in California and then came back to the University of Nevada, Reno, and I worked a couple of places. I worked at the YMCA, and then I worked in the post office. I collected mail from all the mailboxes and threw it in at night. My wife, who I’ve been married to for 62 years, came from nothing also. She worked and put me through law school at the University of California, Berkeley. And then I went back to Reno and I started as a lawyer at $500 a month.

Then I got involved in politics. I served my country, and in a way, I’ve looked at the debate commission and my time and effort in all these years as part of my responsibility for my country, because I think having those debates is so important for democracy and freedom and that’s why I do it. So I believe in our system, and I believe the future will be great, but I’m just worried about where we are.



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