One of the unfortunate features of the first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was the president’s well-known habit of constantly interrupting anyone who is not complimenting him in a clear and enthusiastic manner. To help fix this concern — which has been obvious since the first Republican primary contests in 2015 — the Commission on Presidential Debates has changed the rules of Thursday’s matchup to provide for a more orderly 90 minutes of television.
The final debate will feature six 15-minute segments, with a two-minute period at the beginning of each segment for both candidates to provide uninterrupted statements. During this two-minute period, the Commission on Presidential Debates will cut off the microphone of the candidate who is not supposed to be speaking. The open discussion portion, which counts for the other 11 minutes of each segment, will not feature a mic-muting option, though the commission noted that “time taken up during any interruptions will be returned to the other candidate.”
In a pre-Trump election year, such a development would most likely be welcomed by both candidates as a reasonable measure that would encourage a robust policy exchange. But considering that the president rejected the idea of a virtual debate after contracting COVID-19 in part because “they cut you off whenever they want,” it’s unclear how Trump’s response to the measure will change in the coming week. While the commission stated on Monday that both campaigns agreed to the rule, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien had previously described such a proposal as a drag on his candidate’s debate prospects. “It is completely unacceptable for anyone to wield such power, and a decision to proceed with that change amounts to turning further editorial control of the debate over to the Commission which has already demonstrated its partiality to Biden,” Stepien wrote in a statement earlier on Monday. Later, he added that Trump is “committed” to the debate “regardless of last minute rule changes from the biased commission.” For a candidate who is down by two digits in the polling average, such a commitment is probably a sound idea, since the number of opportunities to swing the election in his favor are waning.
Even if the Trump campaign has reluctantly agreed to the measure, several questions remain with just three days left before the final debate. How often will Biden get cut off? How much more effective will moderator Kristen Welker be than Chris Wallace, who “never dreamt” that the debate he hosted last month “would go off the tracks the way it did.” Perhaps most importantly, will the TV audience be able to hear Trump’s objections about a rigged system from the microphone clipped onto Joe Biden?
Regardless of how the two-minute muting will turn out, the fact that Trump will have 11 minutes in each segment to make his usual interruptions suggests the tone of Thursday’s contest will largely remain the same, despite the commission’s polite expectations for a more civil event: “During the times dedicated for open discussion, it is the hope of the Commission that the candidates will be respectful of each other’s time.”
This post has been updated to reflect that the Commission on Presidential Debates, not moderator Kristen Welker, will mute the microphones of the candidates.