The debate over the debates reaches a strange, new level

A non-partisan commission has scheduled three presidential debates for the fall. Trump and his team have begun lobbying for significant changes to the plan
Image: Democratic Presidential Candidates Attend First Debates Of 2020 Election
The stage is set for the first Democratic presidential primary debate for the 2020 election at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, June 26, 2019 in Miami.Drew Angerer / Getty Images
By Steve Benen

On the surface, the process surrounding presidential debates is supposed to be structured in a way that makes lobbying unnecessary. There's a non-partisan commission responsible for organizing the events, and its members spend months choosing the dates and venues.

But in 2020, things are a little different. Part of the problem is that the United States is struggling with a deadly viral pandemic, and two of the sites chosen to host debates have already withdrawn, fearing health hazards.

Complicating matters, Donald Trump and his team have decided they don't like the plan crafted by the non-partisan commission -- and yesterday, the Republican operation formally started seeking changes.

President Donald Trump's campaign Wednesday asked the Commission on Presidential Debates for a fourth debate to be added earlier than the first CPD-sanctioned one scheduled for Sept. 29. In a letter to the CPD, the Trump campaign argued an earlier date is needed between the president and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden before early voting in any states started.

The letter, which Team Trump published to its website, was signed by Rudy Giuliani. It included a list of moderators who'd meet with the Trump campaign's approval -- including a series of media figures who've done softball interviews with the president. (Among them is David Brody, a correspondent for radical TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, who wrote a book about Trump's alleged religiosity.)

And while the list of possible moderators appeared to be more of a suggestion, the president's operation made a more direct either/or pitch about the schedule: Team Trump wants the Commission on Presidential Debates to either add a fourth debate or move one of the scheduled debates up so it would take place before early voting begins in some states.

Joe Biden and his campaign, meanwhile, have repeatedly said that the former vice president will honor the CPD's schedule and participate in each of the events.

As for what's behind Team Trump's efforts, there are multiple possibilities. Maybe the president's operation is sincere; maybe it's looking for an excuse to reject the existing gameplan; maybe this is part of a clumsy scheme to manage expectations.

Whatever the motivation, it is unusual, at least in recent decades, to see an incumbent president --- who's track record in debates is poor -- pushing so aggressively to add to the existing schedule.

During his Fox News interview yesterday morning, Trump added that Biden's aides are "trying to get" out of participating in the debates, which isn't true. The president added that the Commission on Presidential Debates is "a very left-leaning commission," which also isn't true.

Trump went on to say he's "not happy" with the CPD, and he considers the existing schedule "ridiculous."

Postscript: At least for now, this is the plan for the fall:

Sep 29, 2020: First presidential debate, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, OH

Oct 7, 2020: Vice presidential debate, The University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

Oct 15, 2020: Second presidential debate, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami, FL

Oct 22, 2020: Third presidential debate, Belmont University, Nashville, TN