A Donald Trump campaign spokeswoman said Tuesday that the president has agreed to participate in three scheduled debates against Joe Biden organized by an independent commission.
Trump spokeswoman Erin Perrine appeared on Fox News and said the campaign has come to an agreement with the commission. “Yes, we have agreed with the debate commission,” Perrine said in response to a Fox interviewer’s question about whether there was a formal understanding to appear in the three televised confrontations with Biden.
But in follow-up questions to the Trump campaign, officials would not say whether the president would participate in three debates — scheduled for Sept. 29, Oct. 15 and Oct. 22 — if Biden doesn’t acquiesce to the request for an additional debate Trump has been pushing to get on the calendar.
“We want those three and one earlier than the rest,” Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s communications director, told POLITICO.
Murtaugh did not clarify Perrine’s remarks on Tuesday. But he alluded to a recent CNN column by former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart urging Biden not to debate Trump.
“President Trump is looking forward to debating Joe Biden, who is the only one who is being publicly advised to skip debates,” Murtaugh said. “Voters in 16 states will already be casting their early votes before the first debate takes place on September 29th as the schedule stands now. We don’t think it’s too much to ask that Americans get a look at the two candidates side-by-side before voters start voting.”
Trump allies have seized on the Lockhart recommendation and other recent opinion pieces to raise questions about whether Biden would reverse course and sit out the debates. In June, Biden’s campaign in June committed in writing to the three presidential debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
“The Trump campaign and their allies have constructed an entirely fictional storyline to distract from Donald Trump’s failure to protect American lives during a once-in-a-generation pandemic, and now they're evidently confused about which lie they’re supposed to be telling,” Biden spokesman T.J. Ducklo said.
“Unlike Donald Trump, Joe Biden has accepted the commission’s invitation for three debates, and looks forward to holding Donald Trump accountable for the worst failure of presidential leadership in modern history.”
The commission did not respond to a question seeking clarification on whether Trump had formally agreed to the three scheduled debates.
The column by Lockhart, a CNN political analyst with no role in the Biden campaign, and a New York Times opinion piece Monday by the journalist Elizabeth Drew calling for the debates to be scrapped, have provided grist for the issue to take off in conservative circles.
Trump-allied Republicans argue the media is trying to give cover to Biden to pull out of the events. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called the Lockhart piece “Basement strategy, part 2,” a reference to Biden’s low-profile campaign, which he has been conducting even as he is leading Trump by considerable margins in the polls. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel retweeted excerpts from a Wall Street Journal editorial headlined “Will Joe Biden Duck the Debates?” and argued in a Fox Business interview on Tuesday that the Biden campaign is “afraid to put him on a debate stage.”
In addition to adding a debate, Trump campaign officials had previously sought to put conditions on his appearance, reportedly questioning the nonpartisan debate commission and taking issue with its choice of past moderators. On Monday, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien told Fox News that the campaign would continue to apply pressure on Biden to add the earlier debate.