It would not be unreasonable for the upcoming debates’ moderators to hear Trump’s allusion to Crowley and conclude that if they challenge him on the facts, they can expect to be subjected to days and days of rage and abuse from his surrogates and supporters, just as she was. After all, as he put it, “a lot of people” (i.e., his supporters) will see such conduct as “succumbing” to pressure from Clinton supporters, and they’re “watching” for that.
It’s true, as Trump argues, that Clinton and her supporters went hard after Matt Lauer after the recent town hall, because they were unhappy with his soft questioning of Trump, and that many went on to cite the Lauer failure as a cautionary tale for the debate moderators to avoid. This, as Trump notes, is also a form of pressure and ref-gaming.
But the careful observer will note an important difference here. Many of those who criticized Lauer’s performance faulted him for failing to challenge Trump’s well documented falsehoods in real time (in particular, his claim that he opposed the Iraq War). By contrast, Trump is telegraphing that his supporters will hammer the moderators if they do challenge his well documented falsehoods in real time.
In other words, one side wants the moderators to hold the candidates accountable, and the other doesn’t. We can argue endlessly over whether those in the former camp are trying to game the debates so that Trump faces tougher questioning than Clinton does. But the bottom line is that, given that it is simply true that Trump lies a lot more frequently, audaciously, and egregiously than Clinton does, and that it took many months before this was widely acknowledged in the press, most Clinton supporters would probably be just fine with equivalent treatment of both of their assertions at the debate, and if they aren’t, they should be.
Some have argued that when it comes to how the moderators conduct the debates, there is an important difference between fact-checking the candidates and subjecting them to persistent follow-up questions, and that moderators should focus on the latter. But in a way, the distinction isn’t really that important here. Trump essentially stated outright on Fox above that the moderators’ proper role should be to get out of the way entirely and let the candidates go at it with one another — a free-for-all format that he probably expects to dominate, given his reality TV experience.
In other words, Trump is putting the moderators on notice that they have no business playing an aggressive role in trying to inform the public about whether what the candidates are saying is true or not. It’s hard to imagine that any self-respecting journalist would willingly submit to Trump’s directive.