Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Monday called for a debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton without a moderator.
Analysts saw this as Trump’s pre-emptive attempt to “soften up” NBC’s Lester Holt, who will moderate the first presidential debate Sept. 26 on Long Island, as well as future moderators.
“I would think that’s not a serious idea he was having, but a sort of the pre-game, staking out your position,” said Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff. “It’s a way to say: ‘Don’t come hard at me.’ Or ‘Let me first put a condition on the debate.’”
Trump, talking to CNBC Monday, made the claim that a debate with a moderator would be “rigged” and “unfair” to him. This comes a week after NBC’s Matt Lauer, host of “Commanders in Chief” forum with the candidates, was widely seen as being harder on Clinton than on Trump.
The Republican nominee asserted that the debate moderator (NBC’s Holt, though Trump didn’t name him) would want to make up for Lauer, although he offered no specific evidence.
“I think, maybe, we should have no moderator,” Trump said on CNBC. “Let Hillary and I sit there and just debate. I think the system is being rigged, so it’s going to be a very unfair debate. And I can see it happening right now. Everyone’s saying that was soft on Trump. Well now, the new person’s going to try and be really hard on Trump just to show the establishment what he can do.”
His rhetoric isn’t unlike a baseball manager popping out from the dugout to complain about a call, analysts said. Or a basketball coach badgering a ref about foul calls — putting subtle pressure on the official to make the next call in your favor.
“Clearly, it’s playing the ref,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College.
But there were other things at work in Trump’s strategy of complaining about the debate format, Muzzio said.
Trump could be making a demand that turns out to be a serious point of contention, that turns the discussion into a debate about debates. It’s not the first time Trump has sought to complain about moderators before the debates are held. Amid the Republican primary skirmishes, Trump skipped one forum when he claimed it was going to be rigged against him.
Another objective could be just simply dominating a news cycle, Muzzio said.
The likelihood of having no moderator at the Hofstra debate and others is nearly zero, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra. The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates already has set up the events and assigned the moderators.
“While it would be great to have the candidates ask more questions of each other, it might devolve into a free-for-all where no one would get to hear what anyone would have to say,” Levy said.
By floating out the idea just two weeks away from the Hofstra debate, Trump’s engaging in a bit of gamesmanship, Levy said.
“This may be the most watched television show in history and both candidates are trying to maneuver their way to the best possible position to get the most out of it,” he said. “So whatever gamesmanship we’re used to seeing, you can multiple it by ten.”
Meanwhile Monday, Trump made a lunchtime stop at a Baltimore-area diner — the Boulevard Diner — after giving a speech to the National Guard Association’s annual conference, according to the Associated Press.
His arrival was greeted by cheers and chants of “Trump!” and the Republican presidential nominee made a lap of the eatery shaking hands and posing for selfies. Trump also signed several autographs, including some patrons’ shirts.