Debunking Donald Trump's Debate Complaint

by Morgan Brinlee

Republican nominee Donald Trump is unhappy about the presidential debate schedule and I'm having déjà vu. Trump denounced the general election debate schedule as "unacceptable" and accused Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton of "trying to rig the debates" in a tweet that kicked off a weekend of continued complaints reminiscent of Trump's frequent grievances to the GOP's presidential primary debates.

"As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games... Unacceptable!" Trump tweeted Friday. He continued to bemoan the fall presidential debate schedule in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Saturday, implying the debates had been arranged to purposefully conflict with NFL games in an effort to keep voters from tuning in. "Hillary Clinton wants to be against the NFL," Trump said.

Like many conspiracy theories, there is some truth to Trump's claim. He's right in that two of the 2016 presidential debates are indeed scheduled to take place at the same time as NFL games — the first debate falls during a game between the Falcons and the Saints, while the second conflicts with a matchup between the Giants and the Packers. Beyond that, however, his accusation becomes questionable.

There are a lot of holes in Trump's claim that Democrats are trying to "rig" the fall debates by scheduling them on days that conflict with NFL games. First, it should be noted that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a nonpartisan group composed of both Republicans and Democrats. Secondly, while the NFL puts together its game schedule in the spring before football season, the times and locations of the three presidential debates were publicly announced in September 2015. Meaning any blame — if blame really needs to be placed — for scheduling conflicts would fall on the NFL.

While speaking with Stephanopoulos, Trump attempted to spin his call to reschedule the fall debates as a concern for professional American football, saying he'd "got a letter from the NFL saying 'This is ridiculous. Why are the debates against us?'" But the NFL is pushing back against Trump's claim that it is the league who's distraught over the scheduling conflict. "While we'd obviously wish the Debate Commission could find another night, we did not send a letter to Mr. Trump," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy tweeted Saturday.

Trump's campaign continued to call for the debates to be rescheduled Sunday with Senior Trump Communications Adviser Jason Miller telling CNN's Reliable Sources they planned to discuss changes to the fall debate lineup during negotiations with the commission. "We would like the debates to not be head-to-head against major NFL games," Miller said. "We think it's only right that as many people are able to watch the debates as possible."

But the CPD seems firmly against the idea of having to reschedule the three presidential debates and the one vice-presidential debate around the 256 games scheduled for this year's NFL season. "The [CPD] started working more than 18 months ago to identify religious and federal holidays, baseball league playoff games, NFL games, and other events in order to select the best nights for the 2016 debates," a statement released Sunday by the CPD said.

It is impossible to avoid all sporting events, and there have been nights on which debates and games occurred in most election cycles. A debate has never been rescheduled as a result. The CPD selects the debate dates a year in advance in order for the television networks to have maximum lead time and predictability in scheduling these extremely important civic education forums.

This isn't the first time general election debates have fallen during sporting events. All four of the 2012 general election debates conflicted with either MLB or NFL games. In 1996, Sen. Bob Dole debated President Bill Clinton as the Braves and the Cardinals played with Dole kind enough to give viewers an update on the score.

If presidential debates have occurred at the same time as sporting events before and the commission behind the debate schedule is co-chaired by a Republican and a Democrat, how is this year's conflict Hillary Clinton's attempt to "hide" from the viewers? And why complain about the dates now, nearly a year after they were announced? Trump's debate grievances are much ado about nothing.