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Biden, Trump ice out the debate commission, leaving hosts like Utah on the outside

FILE - President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden both speak during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Patrick Semansky
AP, file
FILE - President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden both speak during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.

The University of Utah was gearing up for the prestige of hosting the last of three presidential debates this year. But plans have since changed.

Instead, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump quickly agreed to just two televised debates hosted by CNN and ABC — June 27 and Sept. 10, respectively. The pivot came after the Biden campaign announced Wednesday morning it was going to sidestep the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

The decision comes as a blow to Utah as work was already underway at The University of Utah for the Oct. 9 debate.

“We were disappointed with the announcement, without question, of course,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and leader of the debate organization efforts. “Even so, no one has come to us and said ‘Hey yours is off, we’re absolutely not doing it.’ There’s still a lot of time between now and then.”

The university has been “operating as if this was going to happen,” Perry said, and already spent around $2.6 million on security measures and other debate host bid costs. He added the money spent thus far “are not tuition dollars” nor taxpayer dollars.

“We've been really prudent about our expenditures. And we'll be very mindful of that considering the dynamics that are going on right now,” he said.

The work done by organizers was upended after Biden campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates to say that Biden’s campaign objected to the fall dates selected by the commission, which come after some Americans begin to vote, repeating a complaint also voiced by the Trump campaign.

Biden’s campaign has long held a grudge against the nonpartisan commission for failing to evenly apply its rules during the 2020 Biden-Trump matchups — most notably when it didn’t enforce its COVID-19 testing rules on Trump and his entourage. O’Malley Dillon’s letter voiced frustrations over the rule violations and the commission's insistence on holding the debates before a live audience.

“The debates should be conducted for the benefit of the American voters, watching on television and at home — not as entertainment for an in-person audience with raucous or disruptive partisans and donors," she said. ”As was the case with the original televised debates in 1960, a television studio with just the candidates and moderators is a better, more cost-efficient way to proceed: focused solely on the interests of voters."

There was little love lost for the commission as well from Trump, who objected to technical issues at his first debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 and was upset after a debate with Biden was canceled in 2020 after the Republican came down with COVID-19. The Republican National Committee had already promised not to work with commission on the 2024 contests.

The Trump campaign issued a statement on May 1 that objected to the scheduled debates by the commission, saying that the schedule “begins AFTER early voting” and that “this is unacceptable” because voters deserve to hear from the candidates before ballots are cast.

A statement from the commission said “the American public deserves substantive debates from the leading candidates for president and vice president,” adding that its mission is “to ensure that such debates reliably take place and reach the widest television, radio and streaming audience.”

Beyond the costs already incurred by The University of Utah, it had also asked the Legislature for an allocation of $2.5 million from the general fund during the 2024 legislative session. As part of Utah’s record $29.4 billion budget, the Executive Appropriations Committee said the Utah Division of Finance “shall not apportion or release any of the $2.5 million General Fund appropriation for Presidential Debate” until the university provided the committee with “the uses of this money” and the committee approved it.

While Perry has not submitted a report, he said the money is “being held still by the Legislature” as they await the outcome of the debate. The extra state money would be used for IT, infrastructure and “particularly the law enforcement effort that will be required for an event like this.”

When the university hosted the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate, Perry said it cost around $6.5 million and he expected it to cost “close to the same” for the presidential debate. Still, the plan was to use some of the same infrastructure in place from the VP debate, so “we're even more ready now at a lower cost.”

Alexa Mussleman, a director of communications for the Utah House of Representatives, said the $2.5 million “was set aside with intention to appropriate if all the chips fell into place,” but if the debate doesn’t happen, as Biden has indicated, the money will stay put in the state’s general fund. The reason why the money wasn’t just handed over during the session was because “there are a lot of unknowns” with these events, so lawmakers wanted to ensure a debate was confirmed.

Even though Biden’s campaign letter and the announcement of TV dates would appear to be final, Perry said it’s “not uncommon” for hiccups like this to occur “early in the process.” He still believes a debate is on the table.

“It's not something that's over right now. We're going to continue to work with the Commission on Presidential Debates. They will continue to work with these campaigns, and we'll have more clarity in the coming days and weeks.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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