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  • Writer's pictureOliver Hall

CCD to CNN, Biden and Trump Campaigns: Planned Presidential Debate Likely Unlawful

Media Inquiries:

Oliver Hall


May 21 2024 (Washington, D.C.): In a certified letter sent to CNN and the presidential campaigns of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, the Center for Competitive Democracy ("CCD") advised that the presidential debate CNN plans to host on June 27, 2024, with Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump's participation, is likely to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act ("FECA") and related regulations, and if so, it could give rise to millions of dollars in prohibited corporate expenditures by CNN and unlawful corporate contributions to the Biden and Trump campaigns.

Under the FECA and related regulations, a broadcaster that wishes to stage candidate debates “must use pre-established objective criteria to determine which candidates may participate....” Where the debate-staging organization is a corporation, like CNN, its failure to establish such criteria, or to adhere to them, would render its expenditures in connection with the debate unlawful. The value of the broadcast likewise would be an unlawful corporate contribution to the participating candidates. The candidates’ acceptance of such a contribution also would be unlawful.

On May 15, 2024, CNN announced that it would host its presidential debate in its Atlanta, GA studios, and that Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump had both "accepted an invitation from CNN" to participate.

At the same time, CNN announced the criteria that candidates must meet to participate in the debate. One such criterion is that candidates "appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidency prior to the eligibility deadline."

But neither Mr. Biden nor Mr. Trump will appear on any state ballots by June 20, 2024 -- the date CNN identified as the eligibility deadline. The major parties do not select their nominees until their national conventions -- August 19-22 for the Democrats and July 15-18 for the Republicans -- and therefore neither Mr. Biden nor Mr. Trump will appear on any state ballot before their respective conventions.

In its letter, CCD states:

Given the near-certainty that Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump will fail to comply with CNN’s stated criteria, CNN’s decision to invite their participation – and the candidates’ acceptance of that invitation – raises serious questions regarding the lawfulness of the scheduled debate. Does CNN intend to waive [the ballot-qualification criterion] as it applies to Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump? If not, how does CNN justify inviting them to participate, when neither candidate’s name will appear on any state ballot as of the June 20, 2024 deadline for determining their eligibility?

These questions are especially troubling, CCD's letter states, because CNN itself reported that the early date selected for its debate “might help weed out third-party candidates that could cause problems for both Trump and Biden.” The deadline for such candidates to qualify for the ballot in many states extends long after the deadline for them to qualify for CNN's debate, making it more difficult for them to comply with CNN's ballot-qualification criterion.

If CNN waives its ballot-qualification criterion as applied to Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, while enforcing it against other candidates, it would be in violation of the requirement that it apply pre-existing, objective criteria to determine candidates' eligibility.

The Washington Post, Axios and others have reported that CNN had given the Biden and Trump campaigns assurances that no other candidates would participate in its debate.

A Biden campaign adviser reportedly told Axios that the Biden campaign's condition for a one-on-one debate with Mr. Trump "was made clear to CNN and they understood our position when we accepted their offer."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that a CNN producer told a Trump campaign official -- after describing CNN's debate criteria -- that "RFK will not be on the stage." (RFK refers to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is running as an independent candidate.)

CCD's letter requests that CNN confirm it will either apply its criteria equally to all candidates, or that it will waive the ballot-qualification criterion not only for Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, but all other candidates.

CCD also notes that CNN has "adopted the same 15 percent polling threshold that the Commission on Presidential Debates employed to exclude all non-major party candidates from the debates it hosted since 1996." It urges CNN to adopt a more reasonable and inclusive polling requirement, equal to the 5 percent requirement candidates must meet to qualify for public funding.

The letter requests a response by May 27, 2024.

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