What Donald Trump really means when he says the debates are 'rigged'

Donald Trump
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Donald Trump

This article originally appeared in Commentary Magazine.

As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates, so 2 are up against major NFL games," Donald Trump declared in a Tweet on Friday, seemingly out of the blue. "Same as last time w/ Bernie. Unacceptable!"

Though Trump later said he thought three debates were sufficient and that it was not his intention to boycott any of them, he expressed dismay over their scheduling. "I'll tell you what I don't like. It's against two NFL games," Trump told ABC host George Stephanopoulos in an interview recorded on Friday. "I got a letter from the NFL saying, 'This is ridiculous.'" The NFL later said no such thing ever occurred, but that did not stop the Republican National Committee from backing up their nominee.

"The entire system needs to be re-looked at," said RNC spokesman Sean Spicer. "We're not going to agree with anything our nominee doesn't agree with," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus concurred. "Certainly, the RNC is going to be involved in supporting our nominee and his position on this."

That's absurd. The way in which the debate dates were selected was not some shadowy, unknowable process. The bipartisan commission that selected the dates released its decision in September last year. It had to struggle to avoid conflicts with religious holidays while spacing out the three presidential and one vice presidential debate out over the course of four weeks in autum. The result was that on presidential debate and one vice presidential debate conflict with Sunday and Monday night football. The RNC's position is now that all debates must take place on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday nights to avoid conflicts with live broadcast NFL games.

If the Trump campaign wins schedule changes, he can declare victory, revel in his own clout, and tout it as an example of his ability to negotiate "good deals." If no changes to the calendar are forthcoming, it will allow the Trump campaign to declare the process was "rigged." In essence, they will be working the referees, setting the tone of coverage of the debates well before they occur to take into account the notion that Hillary Clinton enjoyed an undue advantage. And after the first debate at Hofstra University on September 26, Trump will have all the cause he likes to back out of the two remaining presidential debates. It wouldn't be the first time that his campaign has abandoned a debate after unsuccessfully seeking to compel the contest's host to change the format.

If the Trump campaign is settling on the "rigged" narrative to soften the blow from a lackluster debate showing, it is a risk. From Trump's perspective, there's already a lot that's rigged. The economy that made him a multi-millionaire is "rigged." The political process that made him but not Bernie Sanders a major party's presidential nominee is "rigged." The American justice system that did not prosecute Hillary Clinton is "rigged." At some point, the charge loses its sting. That point may have been reached long before the two candidates meet on Long Island for the first debate.

The Trump campaign and their allies at the RNC have rested their objections on the notion that not enough viewers in states like Georgia and Wisconsin will be watching those debates scheduled opposite football games held by their respective home teams. These complaints were not made to the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates but in public, over Twitter and on television. The inescapable conclusion is that the GOP nominee is seeking leverage.

Commentary by Noah Rothman, assitant online editor for Commentary Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @NoahCRothman.

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