Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump continued his effort to manipulate the upcoming presidential debates, claiming on Fox News that they are “a rigged system” and thus debate moderators will be unfairly hard on him to avoid being “hammered” with criticism. Trump is attempting to ensure that either debate moderators fail to hold him accountable for his lies, bigotry, and conflicts of interest, or that if they do he can attack them as biased during or after the debates.
On September 18, Trump phoned into Fox’s Sunday morning media criticism show, MediaBuzz, and complained to host Howard Kurtz that the debates are “a rigged system,” pointing to recent criticism of NBC’s Matt Lauer, who moderated the September 7 Commander-In-Chief Forum. Lauer was widely panned for his fact-challenged effort, in which he failed to challenge Trump on his lie about his position on the Iraq war. Trump told Kurtz that “they hammered Lauer” to “game the system” so that the presidential debate moderators will “go after Trump.” Trump’s solution, he told Kurtz, is to “not even have a host.” Asked by Kurtz if debate moderators Lester Holt of NBC News, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, Anderson Cooper of CNN, and Chris Wallace of Fox News are currently being “pressured into not being fair” to him, Trump replied “sure.”
This is a textbook example of what The Washington Post’s Callum Borchers has explained as Trump “working the refs.” Trump previously went after Cooper in a September 15 interview with The Washington Post, accusing him of bias and saying “I don’t think he should be a moderator. CNN is the Clinton News Network and Anderson Cooper, I don’t think he can be fair.” Borchers explained that this is a deliberate strategy by Trump: by criticizing Cooper, Trump is trying to prevent tough questioning from the moderators:
To understand why Donald Trump took a shot at Anderson Cooper in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday, you have to go back to something he said three days earlier. Reflecting on last week's Commander-in-Chief Forum, moderated by NBC's Matt Lauer, Trump said Monday on CNBC that “everyone's saying that [Lauer] was soft on Trump” — which is pretty much true.
Trump then explained what he thinks criticism of Lauer means for the upcoming presidential debates: “Now the new person is going to be really hard on Trump just to show the establishment what he can do.”
Clearly the Republican nominee is worried about the political equivalent of a make-up call in sports. He knows many journalists believe Lauer blew the call, so to speak, by failing to whistle Trump for claiming falsely that he opposed the invasion of Iraq. And he thinks Cooper and the other debate moderators — Lester Holt, Martha Raddatz and Chris Wallace — will overcompensate by being extra tough.
Trump wants to prevent that from happening. So he's working the refs.
Trump appears to have already managed to influence the Commission on Presidential Debates’ selection of moderators. The commission reportedly struggled to choose journalists because of Trump’s “aggressive attacks on the media and complaints about unfair treatment.” According to network news executives, NBC’s Holt and Fox’s Wallace -- who faces a massive conflict of interest due to his close relationship to Trump adviser Roger Ailes -- were chosen to “appease” Trump.
Wallace has already announced he has no intention of calling out candidates if they lie during the debate. Trump, who expressed his support for Wallace’s decision not to do his job, is now trying to manipulate the other debate moderators into following Wallace’s lead.