One of the 10 or 15,000 Donald Trump subdramas heading into the fall is the question of whether the Republican presidential nominee will participate in all three scheduled debates. It’s usually taken for granted that major-party candidates will agree to the Commission on Presidential Debates’ schedule, but there’s no law requiring it, and Trump has never seen a political norm he hasn’t considered razing and building something gaudy over. And over the past couple of weeks, he’s laid the groundwork for not participating in the debates by suggesting that they are, in some nebulous way, a trap he can’t agree to until he’s carefully combed through the conditions.
Don’t be fooled. He’s going to do them. Well, at least he’ll do one of them, and see how much he likes it. What he first needs is some face-saving adjustment to the schedule, the debate rules, the debate hall, or whatever. It doesn’t matter what it is, and it doesn’t even have to be an alteration that’s tactically advantageous. The whole point of his debate moaning is just to act as another dominance play to demonstrate his ability to wield leverage in negotiating a deal.
Trump feels that various facets of the primary and general election are “rigged,” or at least he finds political profit in saying so. And so he has—or had, for at least one news cycle—arrived at the lamentable conclusion that this autumn’s scheduled debate is among the rigged election components. Late last month, he tweeted that “Hillary & the Dems” were behind this particular rigging.
Maybe the Commission on Presidential Debates would have done better if it had found available autumn nights that weren’t Sundays or Mondays, so alluring will be the prospect of watching, for example, the Atlanta Falcons do battle with the New Orleans Saints. But the CPD is a split panel made of both Democrats and Republicans, and it released the schedule last September. There was plenty of time to get gripes in prior to that, and if Hillary & the Dems were trying to rig it now, they’d be a year too late. (In a side-lie, Trump claimed that he “got a letter from the N.F.L. saying, ‘This is ridiculous.’ ” The N.F.L. sent no letter to Donald Trump.)
The Clinton campaign has been attempting to goad Trump into making a definitive commitment to the debates as-is. In a statement on Monday saying Clinton would accept the commission’s invitation, campaign chair John Podesta noted how it’s “concerning that the Trump campaign is already engaged in shenanigans around these debates. It is not clear if he is trying to avoid debates, or merely toying with the press to create more drama.” Podesta added that “the only issue now is whether Donald Trump is going to show up to the debate at the date, times, places and formats set by the commission last year through a bipartisan process.”
Trump told Time on Tuesday that he would “absolutely do three debates” and that he “wants to debate very badly.” But first, he said, “I have to see the conditions.” It’s an amateur move from the supposed greatest negotiator in history to first say, on the record, “I will absolutely do three debates,” before saying that he needs to see the conditions before agreeing to anything. If he were to skip now—and he will go back and forth about what he’s thinking publicly several times before this is over—he would look like he’s broken a commitment. Not that anyone, even his supporters, expects his word to carry much weight.
Either way, these “shenanigans” should be moot by the first scheduled debate on Sept. 26. Unless Trump pulls off some extraordinary reversal in the polls over the next 47 days, he will need to participate in that debate, because he will be losing the presidential race. When he skipped the final primary debate before the Iowa caucuses earlier this year, he chalked it up to a sarcastic press release Fox News had issued. More realistically, though, he was looking at the slim polling lead he was carrying into Iowa and was trying to run out the clock. (As it turned out, the polls in Iowa were off, and the superior, organized Cruz campaign took the state.)
All he wants now is some concession from the CPD so he can say he won a concession from the CPD. He alludes to this in his Time interview. “I renegotiated the debates in the primaries, remember?” he recalled fondly. “They were making a fortune on them and they had us in for three and a half hours and I said that’s ridiculous.” It was three hours moved down to two, and it’s not clear that Trump was the motivating force behind the change—or just CNBC recognizing that this length was ridiculous. But this is the sort of marginal logistical item he may try to barter over, for the sole purpose of saying that he was able to negotiate a better deal.
And if he can’t negotiate one of his masterful deals, he has a ready-made excuse for a poor performance when he participates anyway: It was rigged all along, just like the whole election is.