The December conversation between Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, campaign operating officer Michael Glassner and Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, came as the president weighed whether to participate in the trio of debates scheduled for this fall and as he attacked the commission on Twitter.
Privately, the president has discussed with allies a push to remake the board but has not yet taken specific actions, according to people familiar with the conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private encounter.
Parscale complained to Fahrenkopf that so many members of the board of directors were, in his estimation, against the president and that he wanted the commission to choose moderators that were viewed as fair by the president’s team.
According to people familiar with the meeting, Parscale cited at least one past moderator that he deemed as unfair, the people familiar with the meeting said.
“We want to have debates that are fair and are more geared toward informing the American people than to boosting the careers of the moderators,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
He also reiterated the complaint from the president that the microphone did not work during a 2016 debate to the president’s liking. Glassner merely observed, the people familiar said. Campaigns have raised concerns with the commission before, but officials said it had never happened this early in the process.
Debate officials promised to keep in touch with Trump’s team but did not cede control over the board of directors or the choice of moderators. By commission rules, members are not allowed to support or contribute to political candidates. Board members include former Republican senators John Danforth (Mo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine), former Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman and former Time Warner chief executive Richard Parsons.
Since the meeting, Parscale has discussed with other aides trying to stage debates outside the commission, advisers said. Trump has said to advisers privately that because his ratings are so high on television, he can exert more control over the debates, officials said.
Trump’s unhappiness with the debate commission stems from his experience during the 2016 campaign, with at least two factors contributing to his feelings.
One was a complaint that his microphone did not work during the first debate at Hofstra University in New York. Initially, his criticism was dismissed but later commission officials said that the sound level in the debate hall was affected by technical issues related to the microphone. At no time was the audio feed that went out to the national television audience affected, but Trump was still unhappy with what he regarded as mistreatment.
Another issue arose during a town hall debate in St. Louis, which took place a few days after The Washington Post reported the “Access Hollywood” video showing Trump bragging about assaulting women. Trump and his team decided to try to distract attention from his comments on that video by bringing to town four women who had accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.
At one point, they were threatening to seat the women in the box reserved for family members, a plan that even caught some of Trump’s debate negotiators by surprise. Commission officials noted that the Trump campaign had earlier agreed that those two seating areas were only for family, not other guests, and rebuffed the effort after some heated exchanges.
“The agreement was family and family only,” Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said this week.
Trump also has complained about the makeup of the commission as being composed of anti-Trump politicians and citizens, and about concerns that the moderators would be similarly anti-Trump in their leanings.
At the meeting, Parscale mentioned Candy Crowley, a former CNN anchor, as the kind of moderator the campaign would not accept. Crowley moderated a 2012 debate and sided with President Barack Obama over Republican nominee Mitt Romney on a point of contention between the two.
Parscale reiterated the president’s desire to debate his general election opponent, but only if the president believed that he would get a fair shake at a commission-sponsored session. Parscale said the board makeup was troubling to the campaign.
People familiar with the meeting from both sides said it was cordial.
In 2016, Mike McCurry, who was White House press secretary during the Clinton administration, resigned as one of the commissioners because of his desire to engage in partisan activity against Trump.
The commission was established ahead of the 1988 election as an independent, private and nonpartisan organization, not controlled by either party, although the first co-chairs — Fahrenkopf and Paul G. Kirk Jr. — were chairs of their respective parties. The commission gets no funding from the government or the parties.
The commission already has set the dates and locations for three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate for next fall. The presidential events are slated to be held Sept. 29 at the University of Notre Dame, Oct. 15 at the University of Michigan and Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville.
“We pick the dates, we pick the places, without any input from the candidates,” Fahrenkopf said.
The commission has a long-standing practice of choosing the moderators without any input or veto power by the campaigns. “We pick with no consultation whatsoever,” Fahrenkopf said, and campaigns are forbidden from communicating with the moderators ahead of the debates.
Commission officials say they pick individual journalists, primarily those with television experience, not to represent their networks but because of their own professional reputations. “We do not choose a network or a newspaper,” said Janet Brown, the commission’s executive director. “We look at the body of work of the journalist.”
Trump is free not to participate. In 1980, before the commission existed, then-President Jimmy Carter refused to participate in a debate with his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, because he objected to the presence of third-party candidate John B. Anderson, whose poll numbers were strong enough for him to be invited. In that case, Reagan and Anderson debated without Carter.
Were Trump to seek to debate under other auspices that he deemed more friendly, other networks probably would not carry the debate, which is what happens during debates during the primaries that are sponsored by individual networks. In 2000, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush initially said he would debate under commission auspices but on individual networks. He eventually relented and followed the traditional commission schedule.
In the face of Trump’s expressed unhappiness, Fahrenkopf said, “we’re going ahead with our plans as we announced in October.”