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President Biden and Donald Trump have agreed to 2 debates

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Found something that Joe Biden and Donald Trump agree on - presidential debates. The presidential candidates have scheduled two - one in June on CNN, one in September on ABC. One group that does not agree with this is the Commission on Presidential Debates. That's the nonpartisan body that has been managing debates for more than three decades and was cut out of this arrangement. Frank Fahrenkopf co-chairs that commission. Good morning, sir.

FRANK FAHRENKOPF: Good morning, Steve. How are you?

INSKEEP: OK, thanks. What do you think of this announcement?

FAHRENKOPF: Well, you know, it's interesting; let me put it that way. You know, we were founded in 1987, because the need was for a neutral debate sponsor to avoid the haggling over key issues like the number of debates, schedule, format and moderators. You know, the debates belong to the American public, not to the campaign or the parties. And our job was to do what we could to make sure that we put on debates that went to the widest group of people through broadcasts, television and so forth, so what happened yesterday was interesting.

I mean, out of nowhere, we're going to do debates in June, at a time where they're going to limit, as I understand it. For example, CNN has indicated the signal that comes out with that debate will not be transferred to other television stations. You know, we - our debates - usually, when you count C-SPAN and online participants, we get 120 million people. Here, it's just going to be those people who tune into CNN. So, you know, it's going to be interesting, but it's not over. They've agreed that they're going to do it, but now they've got to get down to the details, which always prevented campaigns way back in the '80s and '90s to be able to agree on things. Now, when they get down to how long is it going to be, who's going to ask the first question, are microphones going to be muted and so forth...

INSKEEP: Oh.

FAHRENKOPF: ...So we'll have to see whether they reach agreement.

INSKEEP: Interesting you've got some doubts as to whether they've finalized everything, but they have talked about one rule, one innovation - each candidate's microphone is cut off while the other speaks, which brings to mind one of your debates in 2020, when we heard this. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Vote and let your senators know...

DONALD TRUMP: Are you going to pack the court?

BIDEN: ...How strongly you feel. Let - vote now.

TRUMP: Are you going to pack the court?

BIDEN: Make sure you, in fact, let people know...

TRUMP: He doesn't want to answer that question.

BIDEN: ...Your senators. I'm not going to answer the question because...

TRUMP: Why wouldn't you answer that question?

BIDEN: ...The question is...

TRUMP: You want to put a lot of new Supreme Court justices - radical left.

BIDEN: Will you shut up, man?

TRUMP: Who is your - listen. Who is on your list, Joe?

INSKEEP: OK, this time, one mic at a time. Is that a good reform?

FAHRENKOPF: Yes, it is, and, in fact, that reform was what we put into the final debate last time. We indicated to the - both candidates that if they spoke out when they were not supposed to under the agreement that there would be an interruption, we would have a mute button, and we would mute their microphone. Now, once they knew we had the mute button, the final debate four years ago, we never had a problem - never. No one spoke over the other. But this reminds me a lot, Steve, in the year 2000, Bush v. Gore, the original plan that came out of the campaigns were that they were going to do three debates - one with the commission, one on "Meet The Press" with Tim Russert on NBC television and one with Larry King on CNN. We told them we didn't think that was going to work, and about 10 days after they announced it, they came back and did the commission debate.

INSKEEP: Ah.

FAHRENKOPF: So there's a long way here. A lot of things have to be done in order to see what happens. And there's another thing that - what they proposed yesterday, at least the White House proposed...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

FAHRENKOPF: ...Is that the only people who would be invited to these debates were people who were on enough ballots to conceivably get 270 electorate votes. Well, the interesting thing is the date of June 27 that they settled, only seven states of the 50 will have finished their finalized ballots as to determine who's on those ballots.

INSKEEP: So this keeps RFK Jr. off the debate stage.

FAHRENKOPF: That's right. Now, whether that was the intention or not, it could be the result.

INSKEEP: We've got a few seconds here. You have given some reasons why you would feel that a commission should be overseeing this to make sure that it's in everybody's interests and as widely distributed as possible. But I'd like to ask - with that granted, is there something small-D democratic about this innovation? People - a lot of people - have been dreading this campaign, and suddenly it seems fresh and interesting.

FAHRENKOPF: Well, I think what's been done here by both candidates is trying to change the subject matter that you folks in the media cover. S, you know, we'll just have to see. Well, our hope is that we're still going to have debates. You know, if they're able to do this - if they can work out the details and present to the American people two or three debates that are done fairly to inform the American public on the issues that they're concerned with, so be it, and we'll be happy with that, 'cause our goal is nothing more than to make sure those debates take place.

INSKEEP: Frank Fahrenkopf of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Thanks so much.

FAHRENKOPF: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And I should note here that NPR News and MORNING EDITION also petitioned to host a presidential debate. Michel Martin and I would moderate. So, campaigns, if you're listening, come on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.