"I'm going to be treated very, very unfairly by the moderators," he said, adding: "I think we should have a debate with no moderators — just Hillary and I sitting there, talking."
The problem? Trump already agreed to take part in the debates and gave the existing moderators — Fox News's Chris Wallace, NBC's Lester Holt, ABC's Martha Raddatz and CNN's Anderson Cooper — a thumbs-up.
"I like them," Trump said last week in a Q&A with reporters aboard his plane. "I respect the moderators. I do respect them."
So what's the cause of this change of heart?
Apparently it has nothing to do with the actual moderators. As The Fix's Callum Borchers reported last week, Trump has clashed with some of the moderators who were selected to host the debates, but not as much as he has with other TV news hosts such as Fox News's Megyn Kelly.
Instead, Trump cited his town hall last week in which the moderator — NBC's Matt Lauer — was criticized as being too easy on Trump and too tough on Hillary Clinton. And Trump claims, because of this, the media will force the debate moderators to be unnecessarily tough on him.
"It's going to be a very unfair debate," Trump told CNBC. "And I can see it happening right now because everyone's saying that he was soft on Trump. Well now, the new person is going to be really hard on Trump just to show the establishment what he can do."
But really, this is nothing new. Trump's debate participation from the primaries on has been an almost-endless series of him feuding with moderators, complaining about their questions and threatening to boycott future debates. Why should the general election be any different?
This isn't even the first time he's suggested the general election debates were being rigged to work against him. Before committing to them last week, he suggested that he needed to have various concerns addressed, and he complained, in particular, that they would be matched up against NFL games.
What Trump is doing here is "working the refs" — i.e. complaining enough that it plants a seed in the moderators' minds that if they're too tough on him, he's going to call them out. In his CNBC interview, Trump even used that very metaphor to describe what the media was doing to him. He cited former Indiana University basketball coach (and Trump supporter) Bobby Knight, who was known for yelling at referees.
“Bobby would do numbers on the referee and toward the end of the game, they would just sort of, you know, very sub — maybe subconsciously, they'd give him the calls," Trump said. "And, you know, he was a master at it."
Except in this metaphor, Bobby Knight isn't the media; it's Trump himself. At least, that's what Trump hopes.