Fresh Trump-Biden debates are on track, but in 2020 they went off the rails

The pair previously faced off in two debates during the 2020 election cycle. Here are some of the highlights.
Trump and Biden

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump this week agreed to participate in two debates independent of the Commission of Presidential Debates (CPD), marking a departure from decades of the  group’s organization of such matchups.

In issuing the challenge, Biden declared that “Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020. Since then, he hasn’t shown up for a debate. Now he’s acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal.”

Trump promptly replied, “Anywhere. Anytime. Any place. Let's see if Joe can make it to the stand-up podium.”

The first such debate will be hosted by CNN and take place in Atlanta, Ga., without a live audience. The network’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash have been tapped as moderators. The second, meanwhile, will be hosted by ABC News on Sept. 10. Tapper's ability to manage a clean debate has been under scrutiny because of his long history of editorializing, rather than reporting about Trump.

While Trump has long criticized the CPD, the group’s co-chair, Frank Fahrenkopf, on Wednesday attributed the change to the Biden campaign’s refusal to agree to a presidential advisor.

“I know where all this is coming [from] — this is ANITA DUNN. This is her plan. I know. She’s fought — she was against the commission for years and years and years,” he told Politico. “Anita hates us and always has,” Fahrenkopf said. 

But the departure from 36 years of CPD control on presidential debates also comes with the first presidential rematch since the beginning of televised debates and the public has already seen Trump-Biden matchups under CPD direction.

The pair previously faced off in two debates during the 2020 election cycle. Here are some of the highlights.

Debate one: Nobody was talking to Chris Wallace

The first presidential debate between Biden and Trump in 2020 initially began with the pair discussing the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump defending his response to the pandemic.

It quickly descended, however, into a string of interruptions and back and forth exchanges of insults while a hapless Chris Wallace was generally unable to rein in the pair. 

A particularly noteworthy exchange came as Trump attempted to interrupt Biden, prompting Wallace to himself interrupt and appeal to the national interest in hearing both candidates speak.

“I think that the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you sir, to do that,” Wallace told Trump.

“Well, and him too,” Trump retorted, in apparent reference to Biden. 

“Well, frankly you’ve been doing more interruptions,” Wallace said, as Trump interrupted, saying “that’s alright but he does plenty.”

“Well less than, sir, less than you have,” came the reply.

Debate two: The sullying of Steve Scully

C-SPAN’s Steve Scully was initially set to moderate a second 2020 debate, though Trump had publicly suggested he would not be an even-handed moderator.

Scully attracted scrutiny with a public post sent to former White House official Anthony Scaramucci and falsely claimed that the post was the result of his account being hacked.

“@Scaramucci should I respond to trump," the Tweet read. The post drew headlines at the time and had political pundits questioning Scully’s intended meaning.

"For several weeks, I was subjected to relentless criticism on social media and in conservative news outlets regarding my role as moderator for the second presidential debate, including attacks aimed directly at my family," Scully said at the time. “This culminated on Thursday, October 8th, when I heard President Trump go on national television twice and falsely attack me by name.”

“Out of frustration, I sent a brief tweet addressed to Anthony Scaramucci,” he continued. “The next morning when I saw that this tweet had created a new controversy, I falsely claimed that my Twitter account had been hacked. These were both errors in judgment for which I am totally responsible. I apologize." 

Scully was subsequently suspended from the network and later left in July 2021 to join the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The second debate never took place, due largely to an attempted shift to a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump opposed that change.

The former president took Scully’s admission as validation of his prior criticisms, tweeting that “I was right again! Steve Scully just admitted he was lying about his Twitter being hacked. The Debate was Rigged! He was suspended from [CSPAN] indefinitely. The Trump Campaign was not treated fairly by the “Commission”. Did I show good instincts in being the first to know?”

Debate three: Moderator mic drop

The third debate was decidedly less chaotic, which was primarily the result of a change in format. The Commission on Presidential Debates, ahead of the debate, announced that it would mute the microphones of candidates to prevent interruptions. The change came largely as a response to the developments at the Chris Wallace debate.

NBC’s Kristen Welker moderated the final Trump-Biden showdown and earned accolades, even from its participants, for her stewardship of the event.

Trump, for his part, interrupted his own comments while on stage to compliment Welker, saying “[b]y the way, so far. I respect very much the way you’re handling this. I have to say.”

Multiple media outlets subsequently ran headlines declaring Welker herself the “clear winner” of the final debate.

Ben Whedon is an editor and reporter for Just the News. Follow him on X.