Kennedy Complaint Rips CNN, Calls Pending Debate ‘Prohibited’ Contribution

May 29, 2024 by Dan McCue
Kennedy Complaint Rips CNN, Calls Pending Debate ‘Prohibited’ Contribution
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. during a campaign event. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The Robert F. Kennedy Jr. presidential campaign filed a Federal Election Commission complaint on Wednesday, accusing CNN, President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and their respective campaigns of “flagrant violations” of federal campaign finance laws.

At the heart of the filing, team Kennedy claims that CNN, which is hosting a debate between Biden and Trump from its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, is “illegally demanding” that Kennedy meet different criteria to participate than the other candidates.

As a result, the campaign asserts, the television and livestreaming event will effectively be a large and prohibited contribution to both Biden and Trump.

The Kennedy campaign maintains that federal election law requires media broadcasters to use “pre-established” and “objective” criteria to determine which candidates are admitted to a debate. 

“Broadcasters like CNN are not permitted to pre-select the candidates who may participate. Debate hosts are also not allowed to use nomination by a particular political party as the sole objective criterion to determine whether to include a candidate in a debate,” the campaign says in a written statement.

The provision of the law the Kennedy campaign is referring to can be read here.

In regard to the criteria for candidate selection, it specifically states, “For all debates, staging organization(s) must use pre-established objective criteria to determine which candidates may participate in a debate. 

“For general election debates, staging organizations(s) shall not use nomination by a particular political party as the sole objective criterion to determine whether to include a candidate in a debate,” it continues. 

“For debates held prior to a primary election, caucus or convention, staging organizations may restrict candidate participation to candidates seeking the nomination of one party, and need not stage a debate for candidates seeking the nomination of any other political party or independent candidates,” it says.

According to the Kennedy campaign complaint, the named parties engaged in blatant violations of the FECA when “CNN colluded with the Biden committee and the Trump committee to schedule and did schedule a debate with criteria that were designed to result in the selection of certain pre-chosen participants, namely Biden and Trump, in a clear breach of federal campaign finance law.” 

The Kennedy campaign goes on to assert that the Biden camp demanded that Kennedy be excluded from the debates. 

It also points to a May 15 report in The Washington Post which states “A Trump campaign official said a CNN producer had given assurances in a call Wednesday morning that ‘RFK will not be on the stage,’ after describing the criteria for the event.”

As a result, the Kennedy campaign’s complaint says, “CNN is making prohibited corporate contributions to both campaigns and the Biden committee and the Trump committee have accepted these prohibited corporate contributions.”

Kennedy is asking that the FEC enjoin the parties from holding debate until they come into compliance with the Federal Election Campaign Act.

According to CNN’s qualification criteria, “candidates must fulfill the requirements outlined in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States; file a Statement of Candidacy with the Federal Election Commission; have their name appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidency prior to the eligibility deadline [of June 20]; and agree to accept the rules and format of the debate.”

In addition, debate hopefuls must receive at least 15% in four separate national polls of registered or likely voters that meet CNN’s standards for reporting in order to qualify for a spot on the stage.

Polls that meet CNN editorial standards and will be considered qualifying polls include those sponsored by: CNN, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, Marquette University Law School, Monmouth University, NBC News, the New York Times/Siena College, NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College, Quinnipiac University, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

The polling window to determine eligibility for the debate opened March 13, 2024, and closes seven days before the date of the debate.

To date, the Kennedy campaign says it has submitted the necessary signatures to the respective secretary of state offices in nine states — California, Delaware, Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah — which, if the signatures are deemed valid, would put him in contention, currently, for just 171 electoral votes.

And that number, the Kennedy campaign says, “increases weekly.”

In the same Washington Post article cited in its complaint, Kennedy campaign manager Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, says “we’re thrilled Presidents Biden and Trump have finally agreed to a debate!” 

She adds: “We anticipate Mr. Kennedy will fulfill all participation criteria by June 20 and look forward to offering American voters the three-way debate they deserve.”

The filing of the FEC complaint suggests that the campaign is now at least hedging its bets. Though it still claims its “aggressive ballot access plan will ensure the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket is on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” it doesn’t predict when it will reach that goal. 

Instead, it contends that since Biden and Trump have not yet been officially nominated by their parties or had their ballot access certified by any state, they are currently eligible for “zero electoral votes.”

“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 Kennedy campaign claims. “That violates the requirement that debate criteria be ‘pre-established’ and ‘objective.’”

In an email to The Well News, a CNN spokesperson said the law in virtually every state provides that the nominee of a state-recognized political party will be allowed ballot access without petitioning. 

“As the presumptive nominees of their parties both Biden and Trump will satisfy this requirement,” the spokesperson said. “As an independent candidate, under applicable laws RFK, Jr. does not. 

“The mere application for ballot access does not guarantee that he will appear on the ballot in any state. In addition, RFK, Jr. does not currently meet our polling criteria, which, like the other objective criteria, were set before issuing invitations to the debate,” the spokesperson said.

It should be noted that under the ground rules set forth by CNN when it announced the debate, the eligibility window hasn’t closed and therefore Kennedy, or anyone else who meets the eligibility requirements, could still qualify. 

Kennedy is currently closer to meeting the debate’s polling performance requirement than he is its ballot appearance rules.

To date, his campaign says, he has three of the four national polls needed to satisfy CNN’s rules for its upcoming debate in Atlanta, Georgia. Last week, a Marquette Law School Poll of registered voters put RFK Jr. at 17%. 

Kennedy already had two qualifying polls in April, a CNN poll at 16% and a Quinnipiac poll at 16%.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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  • CNN
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