WASHINGTON — For 90 uninterrupted minutes, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden interrupted each other.
At times all three -- Trump, Biden and Chris Wallace, Fox News Host and moderator of the first presidential debate -- all spoke over each other. The display had many people online craving a mute feature.
"Has it ever been done, or could it be done that the debate moderator has control over the debater's microphones?" a viewer asked in an email to the Verify team. "For example, when Donald Trump is asked a question, Joe Biden’s microphone would be muted, and vice-versa."
Online, the candidates' microphones, became a key takeaway.
Our Verify team looked into who decides the rules behind presidential debates and what it would take for a 'mute button.'
Who is the Commission on Presidential Debates?
The group is a non-partisan, nonprofit corporation that has sponsored the presidential debate since 1988.
"The CPD’s primary mission is to ensure, for the benefit of the American electorate, that general election debates are held every four years between and among the leading candidates for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States," the organization writes online.
The commission, which is run by a board of directors, was created on February 19, 1987.
"The CPD receives no funding from the government or any political party, political action committee or candidate," they write. "The CPD obtains the funds required to produce its debates every four years and to support its ongoing voter education activities from the communities that host the debates and, to a lesser extent, from corporate, foundation and private donors. Donors have no input into the management of any of the CPD’s activities and have no input into the process by which the CPD selects debate participants."
Previous National Debate Sponsors are viewable here.
Who decides the rules of the debate? What would it take to add a 'mute button?'
Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace laid out the rules set by both candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates right at the beginning.
“The commission has designed the format, six roughly 15-minute segments, with two-minute answers from each candidate to the first question then open discussion for the rest of each segment," Wallace said. "Both campaigns have agreed to these rules”
So, muting for interrupting, wasn’t part of the original rules.
To get a better understanding of how the rules get set, our Verify researchers contacted political experts, Daron Shaw a professor at The University of Texas at Austin and Thomas Patterson a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School.
They say both sides would have to agree to a muting option for the moderator to use.
"[The rules] are negotiated by the campaigns after the basics (time, date, and place) are accepted/agreed to," Shaw said. "Could the agreement include a muting option for the moderator? Sure, if both sides say 'yes.' Would they? I’m not sure why they would."
“As of the moment, the moderator does not have muting power," Patterson said. "I think the moderator's capacity to rein in two candidates that don’t necessarily want to be reined in, is very limited.”
Are changes anticipated for upcoming debates?
SOURCE: A Commission on Presidential Debates statement released in the afternoon on September 30:
"The Commission on Presidential Debates sponsors televised debates for the benefit of the American electorate. Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues. The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly. The Commission is grateful to Chris Wallace for the professionalism and skill he brought to last night’s debate and intends to ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates."
CBS Evening News Host Nora O'Donnell tweeted two hours later that upcoming changes include, "cutting off a candidate's microphone if they violate the rules."
The president's campaign issued a statement in response to the commission's potential rule changes.
"They’re only doing this because their guy got pummeled last night," Trump 2020 communications director Tim Murtaugh said. "President Trump was the dominant force and now Joe Biden is trying to work the refs. They shouldn’t be moving the goalposts and changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
The Verify team has reached out to Joe Biden's campaign for a response to the commission's statement.
Patterson said if the commission moves forward on a change, they'll try to work with both campaigns. It's possible, he says, for Trump, Biden or both of them to withdraw from the debates.
"You know, it looks like we're in new territory here," Patterson said. "So if this was normal times, the rules that have been set for the debates would be set in stone before the first debate, but maybe we're not in normal times, and a change is justified."