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Debate commission promise changes after chaotic Trump-Biden faceoff

NBC News logo NBC News 9/30/2020 Lauren Egan and Peter Alexander
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WASHINGTON — The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Wednesday that it is considering format changes for remaining debates after President Donald Trump repeatedly disregarded the rules, resulting in a chaotic debate that lacked in substantive policy conversation.

"Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues," the CPD said in a statement. "The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly."

The CPD works with both candidates ahead of the debates to arrive at an agreed-upon set of rules. Changing the structure of the debates at the last minute is highly unusual and a testament to just how out of control Tuesday night's event was.

The rules specified that the candidates would generally get two uninterrupted minutes to answer most questions, but from the beginning, Trump began interrupting and hectoring Biden during his responses, and the debate quickly deteriorated.

It is unclear exactly what changes the CPD will propose, but a source close to the commission said it was considering the ability to cut off a candidate’s microphone when the rules are violated.

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Immediately following Tuesday's debate — which was described by one TV host as "a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck" — critics of the process began to discuss whether it was even worth it for either candidate to participate in future debates. On social media and cable television, there were many suggestions that the only way to have a productive debate would be to cut off the mics of the candidates when they step out of line.

Moments before the commission released its statement, Democratic nominee Joe Biden told reporters at a campaign stop in Ohio that he hoped the future debates would be organized differently.

"Well, you know, he not only attacked me constantly and my family, but he attacked the moderator," Biden said of Trump.

"I just hope there's a way in which the debate commission can control the ability of us to answer the question without interruption. I'm not going to speculate on what happens in the second or third debate."

"They shouldn’t be moving the goalposts and changing the rules in the middle of the game," Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign communications director, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

Tuesday's moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace, was criticized by some for struggling to rein in the pandemonium, but the commission acknowledged the difficult task he had been handed.

"The Commission is grateful to Chris Wallace for the professionalism and skill he brought to last night’s debate and intends to ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates," they said.

Trump in a tweet on Wednesday afternoon retorted that the debates should try "getting a new Anchor and a smarter Democrat candidate!"

The commission divided the first debate into six 15-minute segments, each touching on a different topic. Wallace began each segment with an opening question and the candidates were given two minutes to answer with the opportunity to then respond to each other.

Trump frequently cut into Biden's two minutes, derailing the debate and causing an incensed Biden to ask the president, "Will you shut up, man?"

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As is tradition with the presidential debates, Wallace was not supposed to act as a fact-checker. That proved to be challenging after Trump used the debate platform to spread misinformation about a wide range of topics, including voting and election security.

Members of Trump's family were also criticized for ignoring health rules that required debate attendees to keep a face mask on during the entirety of the event due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Although many of the president's family members entered the debate hall wearing a face mask, Eric, Tiffany, Ivanka, Melania and Donald Trump, Jr. removed their face coverings once inside and sat maskless throughout the 90-minute event.

The Cleveland Clinic, a co-host of the debate and a health advisor to the commission, said it did not know yet whether its recommendations would be adjusted for the remaining debates.

Ahead of the first debate, some Democrats and media watchers warned that the traditional moderating methods might not be sufficient given Trump’s penchant for spreading misinformation.

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., co-chair of the commission, pushed back on the idea that the commission would need to rethink its structure.

"The Commission's function is to put on television before the people of the United States with the two candidates. They will act as they’re going to act. We have no control over that. And it is for [voters] to make judgment based upon what they have seen," Fahrenkopf said.

The CPD is a nonpartisan organization founded in 1987 tasked with running general election presidential and vice presidential debates. Tuesday marked the 31st debate the commission has hosted.

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., will meet next Wednesday for the only vice presidential debate of the election cycle.

The next presidential debate between Trump and Biden is on Oct. 15 in Miami, and it is currently supposed to be a town hall format. They are scheduled to go head to head in the final presidential debate on Oct. 22 in Nashville.

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