In a surprise announcement Wednesday morning, President Joe Biden challenged former President Donald Trump to a pair of debates, the first in June. Trump quickly agreed.

That’s bad news for Utah: the Oct. 9 debate scheduled for the University of Utah now seems extremely unlikely.

Trump and Biden plan to spurn the Commission on Presidential Debates — the organizing body that has hosted all presidential debates since the 1980s — and organize their own events. The debate commission has been working with the University of Utah for over a year to prepare for the October presidential debate; Biden and Trump’s unprecedented agreement seems to be an effective cancellation of that event.

“We’re disappointed,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “We have worked so hard to get ready for this debate. But this came as a surprise to everyone, including the Commission on Presidential Debates.”

Perry said he spoke to officials from the debate commission on Wednesday morning, shortly after the news broke. They had not received any advanced notification.

For months, Biden has demurred when asked if he will debate Trump. But on Wednesday, Biden released a short video that changed course, challenging Trump to “pick the dates” for a pair of debates.

Will Biden and Trump debate?

“Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020, and since then he hasn’t shown up for a debate,” Biden said in the video. “Now he is acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal. I’ll even do it twice.”

Trump quickly responded with a post on Truth Social. “I am Ready and Willing to Debate Crooked Joe at the two proposed times in June and September,” Trump wrote. “I would strongly recommend more than two debates and, for excitement purposes, a very large venue, although Biden is supposedly afraid of crowds.”

The Biden campaign also sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates, calling for direct negotiations between the two campaigns, allowing them — and not the debate commission — to select the rules, network hosts and moderators, The Washington Post reported. The Biden campaign also proposed a vice presidential debate in July, scheduled between the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

In the letter, Biden campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon cited the CPD’s inability to host “good debates” and avoid interruptions as a key factor in their decision.

“The Commission’s model of building huge spectacles with large audiences at great expense simply isn’t necessary or conducive to good debates,” O’Malley Dillon wrote. “The debates should be conducted for the benefit of the American voters, watching on television and at home — not as entertainment for an in-person audience with raucous or disruptive partisans and donors, who consume valuable debate time with noisy spectacles of approval or jeering.”

Trump and Biden agreed to three debates during the 2020 cycle. The first one devolved into chaos when Trump and Biden repeatedly yelled over each other. The second debate was canceled after Trump contracted COVID-19 and declined to participate in a virtual format. And in the third debate, the debate commission installed “tools to maintain order,” like a mute button on the microphones to prevent interruptions.

Trump refused to participate in any of the four Republican primary debates this cycle.

CNN announced Wednesday it would host the first 2024 presidential debate on June 27 in Atlanta. There will be no audience present. The second debate is scheduled for September 10, hosted by ABC News. No location has been announced.

Perry said Utah hosting the September debate is “something that could happen,” though the campaigns — and not the debate commission — will make the decision. “(The CPD) reached out to the campaigns this morning and is trying to work through the possibilities with them,” Perry said. “We have not been told that Utah is not in play. This is just a collision between campaigns that remains to play out.”

Conversations between the University of Utah and the debate commission accelerated after the 2020 vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, hosted at the U.’s Kingsbury Hall. In January 2023, the debate commission began vetting potential sites, whittling down a list of hundreds of colleges of universities to those with the proper event space, light and audio configurations, security capabilities and local infrastructure, like hotels. In November 2023, the University of Utah was announced as a host, alongside Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, and Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia. The vice presidential debate was scheduled for Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Utah to host a presidential debate in October

The debate at Virginia State University was slated to become the first presidential debate ever hosted by a Historically Black College or University.

The University of Utah has spent over a year preparing to host the event. “We have teams working on security, on the facilities, on the IT, on the fencing itself,” Perry said. “This is a miniature Olympics that you’re putting on, on a worldwide stage. And all the things you would expect going with that we have been working through.”

On a call hosted by No Labels on Tuesday, debate commission co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. emphasized the difficulty of scheduling debates. “In (late summer), you’ve got the Democratic National Convention, the ending of the Olympics, you’ve got Jewish holidays, you’ve got football every Thursday night,” said Fahrenkopf. “And we work the calendar as best we can, to see where we’re going to be able to put a debate.”

Aaron Kall, the Lee H. Hess Director of Debate at the University of Michigan and co-author of “Debating the Donald,” said the campaigns should be able to overcome the logistical hurdles, though the first debate is scheduled for next month. “Both campaigns have incentives, it seems, to do it,” Kall said. “As long as they’re both on board, any of the details that can be laborious can be worked out, as long as it’s in the interests of both campaigns politically.”

Kall noted that the candidates’ efforts to host their own debates is “unprecedented.” In 1960, the Nixon-Kennedy debates were hosted by major networks. The next several election cycles saw debates hosted by independent groups, like the League of Women Voters. Since 1988, each presidential general election debate has been hosted by the debate commission.

Hosting debates earlier in the cycle could be beneficial for voters, Kall noted. The debate commission’s debates were scheduled for September and October, while millions of voters could already be voting via absentee ballot or early-voting practices.

“I think both campaigns felt that debating earlier was better, just because so many voters now vote early,” Kall said. “Having the debates early, before a lot of them start the process, I think, will be informative for everybody.”

Scott Howell, a Biden-Harris 2024 surrogate in Utah, expressed hope that the candidates would stick to that precedence.

“I would be hopeful they would honor the long tradition of the Commission on Presidential Debates, and hold the debate at the University of Utah,” Howell said.