These Are the Rules of the CNN Presidential Debate

4 minute read

When President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump meet on the debate stage on June 27, they will do so under a new set of rules designed to avoid the chaotic scenes and frequent interruptions that marked their debates during the last election.

The new rules, introduced by CNN ahead of this year’s first presidential debate, include measures such as muted microphones to ensure each candidate's uninterrupted speaking time and the absence of a live audience to minimize external disruptions, a departure from the traditional framework governed by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

The rule changes were proposed as a way to prevent a repeat of the first debate of the 2020 presidential cycle, during which the candidates regularly attacked each other’s character. Trump repeatedly interrupted and heckled Biden, prompting Biden’s memorable retort, “Will you shut up, man?” The moderator often failed to get the discussion back on track.

Both Biden and Trump have endorsed the new rules and committed to participate in the televised debate. Here are the biggest changes.

Commercial breaks

For the first time in recent history, the debate will feature two commercial breaks during the 90-minute broadcast, a departure from past commission-hosted events which did not include corporate advertisements. (This year’s debates are not being overseen by the commission.) However, campaign staff will be prohibited from interacting with their respective candidates during these intermissions, denying them the opportunity for strategic consultations or to touch up the candidates’ appearance.

No opening statements

Unlike previous debates, there will be no opening statements. Instead, each candidate will deliver a two-minute closing statement at the conclusion of the debate. The debate will begin with a question, with candidates each allotted two minutes to respond. This will be followed by one-minute rebuttals and responses to the rebuttals, along with additional time at the moderators' discretion. Visual cues, such as flashing red lights, will alert candidates to their remaining speaking time.

Muted microphones, no notes

Both Biden and Trump will stand at identical lecterns, with their positions on stage determined by a coin toss administered by CNN. Microphones will be muted throughout the proceedings except when it is the candidate's turn to speak, a measure aimed at curtailing interruptions that have marred previous debates. CNN has said that moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash  “will use all tools at their disposal to enforce timing and ensure a civilized discussion.”

Each candidate will be provided with a pen, notepad, and a bottle of water on stage; however, no props or written notes will be allowed. 

No live audience 

In a departure from tradition, there will be no studio audience in an attempt to minimize disruptions during the debate. Typically, audience members are instructed to remain quiet while the candidates are speaking, but that rule has not always been followed.

No White House pool reporters

The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) President Kelly O’Donnell said in a statement on Thursday that CNN has rejected “repeated requests to include the White House travel pool inside the studio” for the Biden-Trump debate. The press pool includes journalists from many major news organizations that accompany the president on trips, usually having access to any public event he appears at.

O’Donnell said WHCA had been informed that one print reporter will be allowed in the studio during a commercial break “to briefly observe the setting,” but insisted that was “not sufficient” and “diminishes a core principle of presidential coverage.”

“The pool is there for the ‘what ifs?’ in a world where the unexpected does happen,” O’Donnell said.“A pool reporter is present to provide context and insight by direct observation and not through the lens of the television production. A pool reporter is an independent observer whose duties are separate from the production of the debate as a news event.”

CNN responded to the WHCA’s concerns in a statement, saying that while it respects the role of the association, the debate “is being held without an audience in a CNN studio and is closed to press.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Nik Popli at