Biden wants to talk abortion, Trump immigration in CNN debate

By Thomson Reuters May 31, 2024 | 5:07 AM

By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The presidential campaigns of Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump know what they want to talk about in their high-stakes television debate next month, and now they’re trying to convince news network CNN to play ball.

President Biden and former President Trump, his predecessor in office, meet in Atlanta on June 27 for the first of two debates they have agreed to, a showcase that will draw millions of viewers and could cement many voters’ preferences in a closely fought election on Nov. 5.

Biden has three preferred topics, according to a campaign memo viewed by Reuters: abortion rights, the state of democracy and the economy.

Trump’s team has pointed to immigration, public safety and inflation as key issues ahead of the debate. Trump on Thursday became the first U.S. president to be convicted of a crime when a New York jury found him guilty of falsifying documents to cover up a payment to silence a porn star ahead of the 2016 election.

Each campaign team, not surprisingly, has picked topics they think play to the candidates’ own perceived areas of strength in the debate and signaled them publicly, including to the network.

This is not new. Campaigns in the past have lobbied debate hosts about rules, topics and other specifics.

However, this election cycle presents an nearly unprecedented situation – not since 1960 ushered in the era of televised presidential debates has a news organization been fully in control of the terms and parameters of two debates between the top two candidates. Most recently, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has sponsored them.

The commission was created in 1987 to settle differences between the two major political parties in a bipartisan forum. Some previous debates had been organized by the League of Women Voters, a civic group, but the Democratic and Republican Parties wanted more control.

Whether CNN, Warner Bros Discovery’s news network, will honor the candidates’ wishes on topics remains to be seen. CNN declined to comment.

Besides topics, CNN and later news network ABC, which is hosting a September debate, control who is in the room, how long candidates have for replies, what other news media can share footage of the debates and how the Biden campaign’s proposed muting system for microphones would work.

Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the commission, said networks previously avoided sponsoring their own debates because of the conflicts between staging a news event and covering it, as well as the headache of creating a fair forum amid lobbying from both sides.

“I don’t think it’ll work, but let’s watch it and see what happens,” he said.

Moderators for prior debates run by the commission disclosed broad themes in advance, but so far there’s no sign that CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, plan to do so. ABC, a part of the Walt Disney Co, will host a second debate between the candidates on Sept. 10.


Biden’s team thinks they can overcome voter ennui about their own candidate by painting Trump as a threat to democracy and individual freedoms.

Trump’s team feels voters will look past the ex-president’s legal trials and choose him on pocketbook issues and other policies of concern under Biden.

Shared in common between the two candidates is a focus on the economy, which voters rank top of their list of concerns in public opinion polls, though immigration and democracy also feature.

Trump said in a radio interview last week that the candidates would be seated during the debate, to his chagrin, at the request of the Biden campaign. A Biden adviser said that is not true.

Independent U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who previously said he expected to meet the criteria to participate, on Tuesday filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission for being excluded.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, the Biden campaign chair, said in a strategy memo viewed by Reuters that Biden wants to discuss Trump’s role in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 reversal of the Roe v. Wade ruling that guaranteed a right to abortion, as well as “how Trump attacks our democracy” and how his economic plan “would make him and his friends richer.”

Karoline Leavitt, a Trump campaign spokesperson, said that “voters want a president who will stop Biden’s Bloodbath at the southern border, enforce law and order in our crime-ridden cities, lower prices on housing, gas, and groceries, and put America first.”

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)