Republican nominee Donald Trump, who tirelessly boasts about his deal-making abilities, suggested Tuesday that he could renegotiate long-established plans for the upcoming presidential debates and had the power to sign off on moderators.
He may be in for a surprise.
“The bottom line is that the Commission does whatever the hell it wants,” said Republican consultant Stuart Stevens, who was involved with George W. Bush’s debates in 2000 and 2004 and with Mitt Romney’s in 2012.
The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has overseen the process since 1987, announced the presidential and vice presidential schedules and formats nearly a year ago. The commission is expected to pick moderators in the coming weeks, with the first match-up between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton ― and any third party candidate who might clear the 15 percent polling threshold ― set for Sept. 26 in Hempstead, New York.
Trump, who very publicly skipped a Republican primary debate in January and decided not to appear at another scheduled debate in March, has already fueled speculation that he might sit out the fall presidential contests.
Last month on ABC’s “This Week,” Trump falsely claimed to have received a letter from the NFL saying it was “ridiculous” that two of the three presidential debates were scheduled against evening football games. He also tweeted that a debate schedule competing with two NFL games was “rigged” to benefit Clinton, a baseless claim he’s been throwing around a lot these days.
It’s hard to avoid all conflicts when setting times for the fall debates. NFL games run on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights, and debate viewership would be expected to drop on Friday or Saturday nights ― not to mention high school and college football games are played then. Tuesday and Wednesday nights may compete with Major League Baseball playoffs, similar to previous election cycles. And this year the commission also had to contend with the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur falling on a Wednesday.
The final Obama-Romney debate aired against both Game 7 of a National League Championship Series and “Monday Night Football” ― and still drew more than three times as many viewers as the sporting events combined.
Clinton agreed to the commission’s debate schedule on Monday night, with campaign chairman John Podesta pointedly wondering if Trump is “trying to avoid debates, or merely toying with the press to create more drama.” On Tuesday morning, Politico reported that “Republican and Democratic sources, senior media executives and anchors in New York and Washington are casting serious doubt about whether Trump will agree to participate in the primetime events.”
In a Tuesday afternoon interview with Time magazine, Trump said he would debate Clinton ― but there was a catch. He noted how he’d successfully advocated for format changes in the Republican primary debates, a more fluid process, and suggested he could similarly make demands when it comes to presidential debates, including signing off on “fair moderators.”
“I’ll have to see who the moderators are,” Trump told Time. “Yeah, I would say that certain moderators would be unacceptable, absolutely.”
In recent election cycles, conservative outlets like The Drudge Report have claimed that moderators were biased in favor of the Democrats. Controversy erupted four years ago when then-CNN anchor Candy Crowley injected herself into a disagreement between President Barack Obama and Romney by fact-checking the latter’s on-stage comment about the former’s remarks in the wake of the Benghazi terrorist attack.
Given that 2012 episode, coupled with Trump’s persistent attacks on the news media, there will inevitably be significant scrutiny of whoever is selected. Yet there’s little transparency in the choosing of the moderators.
What’s known about the process comes largely from the commission’s website, which lists three general criteria: “familiarity with the candidates and the major issues of the presidential campaign,” “extensive experience in live television broadcast news,” and “an understanding that the debate should focus maximum time and attention on the candidates and their views.”
A spokesperson for the commission did not respond Tuesday on the matter of Trump’s desired input.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller also did not respond to questions about the moderator issue. However, Miller recently said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” that the Trump campaign wanted “fair and balanced” moderators ― a description that, whether intentional or not, mirrored the tagline of the conservative Fox News network.
Presidential campaigns played a larger role in moderator selection before the Commission on Presidential Debates took over in the mid-1980s, according to a source who has been involved in the debate process stretching back decades. The Republican and Democratic campaigns would exchange lists of proposed moderators, perhaps several times. The journalists that both campaigns agreed upon would usually serve on panels posing questions to the candidates. (In 1992, the commission shifted from a panel of journalists to a single moderator format.)
But more recently, campaigns haven’t been urged to provide lists of journalists or been able to exercise veto power over the commission’s choices.
“They go through a process sort of like jury selection where they ask a campaign if there is anyone who might be likely that the campaign absolutely insists should not be the moderator,” Stevens said in an email to HuffPost prior to Trump’s Tuesday remarks. “Which is nice but there is no commitment that a name submitted won’t be selected. Campaigns have only one bit of power: the threat of not showing up, which is not really much of a threat.”
Stevens recently suggested that the candidates try going around the commission’s plans, perhaps debating each week this fall.
Anita Dunn, a veteran Democratic strategist who was involved in the debate process for Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, told HuffPost that they “were surprised” to have so little input.
“The commission made it clear they would pick the moderators,” she said.
Following the 2012 election, Stevens and Dunn were part of a 16-person bipartisan group that looked at reforming the presidential debate process. The group ― created by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania ― published a report last year offering a number of recommendations, including on the selection of moderators and their roles.
For starters, the group suggested looking beyond the pool of TV anchors and consider print journalists, university presidents, historians and retired judges as potential moderators. (In 2012, the commission brought back PBS’s Jim Lehrer for his 12th debate, for which he received less than stellar reviews.)
The Annenberg group recommended that moderators sign the debate-related memorandum of understanding agreed upon by the campaigns, allow the candidates to question one another more and solicit more input on topics for questions. “A moderator’s control of content and pursuit of ‘follow-up’ can create an interview or Sunday show dynamic in which the candidate is engaged with the moderator, as opposed to the other candidate,” they wrote.
They also suggested that a designated group “potentially made up of presidential library heads and board members” should develop an initial list of possible moderators from which the campaigns would pick.
The Commission on Presidential Debates doesn’t appear to have taken up the group’s recommendations.