Robert F. Kennedy Jr. files FEC complaint over presidential debate exclusion

Washington DC - Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has complained to the Federal Election Commission that cable news network CNN colluded with President Joe Biden and Donald Trump to exclude him from the first televised presidential debate, his campaign said Wednesday.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has complained to the Federal Election Commission over his exclusion from the upcoming televised presidential debate.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has complained to the Federal Election Commission over his exclusion from the upcoming televised presidential debate.  © JOSH EDELSON / AFP

The independent candidate accuses CNN of demanding that he meet different qualification standards for the June 27 showdown than the Democratic leader and his Republican rival, making the debate an illegal campaign contribution to both.

Kennedy – the scion of America's most famous political family – likely has no chance of winning in November, but Democrats and Republicans worry that so-called wildcard candidates could sway close contests in key swing states.

In a filing Tuesday to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), his attorneys said the Biden team had openly demanded that he be left out of the debate and noted media reports that Trump "received assurances from CNN that Kennedy would be excluded."

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Kennedy's complaint asks the FEC to prohibit the frontrunners from "holding the presidential debate... until the parties have come into compliance with the Federal Election Campaign Act."

Biden and Trump agreed this month to take part in the CNN debate – their first on-stage meeting in nearly four years – and another hosted by ABC on September 10.

Both candidates shunned the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has run the events since 1988 and had proposed three debates from September to October.

At the heart of the complaint is a requirement by CNN that candidates' names have appeared on enough ballots by June 20 to be in with a chance of winning the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the White House.

Why did CNN exclude Robert F. Kennedy from their televised debate?

Robert F. Kennedy accuses CNN of demanding that he meet different qualification standards for the June 27 showdown than his competitors Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Robert F. Kennedy accuses CNN of demanding that he meet different qualification standards for the June 27 showdown than his competitors Donald Trump and Joe Biden.  © Unsplash/ifood ijourney

Kennedy is currently on the ballot in seven states, meaning he is not yet close to that benchmark.

But he points out that nominations for Trump and Biden won't happen until their party conventions in July and August respectively.

The Democrats have announced that they will stage a virtual roll call at some point before the convention to meet Ohio's August 7 filing deadline.

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But Kennedy's lawyers argue that before any of this happens, neither candidate's name would officially appear on any ballot.

The Commission on Presidential Debates – which staged the events for 36 years – had similar criteria, but its first match-up typically came in September, giving candidates much longer to meet the criteria.

"CNN is admitting presidents Biden and Trump to the debate without requiring that they satisfy the electoral vote criteria while insisting Kennedy must satisfy it," the Independent’s campaign said in a statement. "That violates the requirement that debate criteria be 'pre-established' and 'objective.'"

CNN did not immediately respond to a request for comment but NBC reported a statement from the network pointing out that Kennedy does not meet the polling criteria, either.

CNN is requiring candidates to poll above 15% in four approved polls by June 20, but Kennedy has only met the benchmark in three polls.

Earlier this month, Trump claimed Biden did not want Kennedy included in the debates because he is "sharper and far more intelligent" than the president but noted that the independent's polling numbers weren't strong enough to warrant his inclusion anyway.

Cover photo: JOSH EDELSON / AFP

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