Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort continued to push back against the prearranged schedule of presidential debates on Sunday, citing a need to "maximize the audience."
Priebus confirmed that the RNC would back Republican nominee Donald Trump if he were to protest or demand changes to the presidential debate schedule as set by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) last year. Trump claimed Friday that the fall debates have been rigged by his opponents to draw a smaller audience by scheduling two of them at the same time as a football game.
"Certainly we're not going to agree with anything that our nominee doesn't agree with and it would be incumbent upon them to communicate with us and others about what they have in mind. We're not going to be having debates on Saturday and Sunday nights, I don't believe," Priebus said Sunday. "It's up to the nominee of both parties to make that decision, but certainly the RNC is going to be involved in supporting our nominee and his position on this."
However, both the NFL and the CPD are rejecting Trump's assertions.
Trump began by making an accusation in a tweet posted Friday night: "As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games. Same as last time w/ Bernie. Unacceptable!"
Trump expanded his conspiracy theory when asked about the debates during an interview for Sunday's "This Week" on ABC: "Well, I'll tell you what I don't like. It's against two NFL games. I got a letter from the NFL saying, 'This is ridiculous. Why are the debates against' — 'cause the NFL doesn't wanna go against the debates. 'Cause the debates are gonna be pretty massive, from what I understand, OK?"
Asked about Trump's assertion, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy tweeted on Saturday: "While we'd obviously wish the Debate Commission could find another night, we did not send a letter to Mr Trump."
The CPD, a nonpartisan, independent presidential debate commission, serves as the event sponsor and sets the participation criteria, dates, sites and formats. The sites and dates for three presidential debates were announced in September 2015.
"The CPD did not consult with any political parties or campaigns in making these decisions," the commission said in a statement issued Saturday.
Two of the three debates will be televised at the same time as an NFL game. On Sept. 26, the night of the first debate, ESPN will carry the Monday night game featuring the Falcons vs. the Saints. On Oct. 9, the second debate will air opposite the Sunday night game featuring the Giants vs. the Packers on NBC.
A Trump aide said Saturday that the Republican candidate "was made aware of the conflicting dates by a source close to the league." The aide was not authorized to speak by name and requested anonymity.
When asked if Trump would participate in the debates, Manafort told CBS: "He said he wants to participate in them."
Manafort also insisted that he did not question the independence of the commission.
"We're just simply saying that our position is going to be, we want the maximum audience participation, that's all," he said.
Like Manafort, Priebus also contended that he wanted to maximize the number of viewers since the debates were of national interest.
"My personal view is that we need to maximize the audience and that's going to be either a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night," Priebus said. "And that's where we stand on the issue."
The Democratic Party was criticized during the primary race for scheduling debates between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders on Saturday nights and holiday weekends, times when viewership is low. The Sanders campaign suggested that was an effort to limit the size of the audience.
Trump told ABC: "You know, Hillary Clinton wants to be against the NFL. She doesn't — maybe like she did with Bernie Sanders, where they were on Saturday nights when nobody's home."
In the ABC interview, Trump said three debates were "fine" and that he'd rather have three than one.
At a Sunday campaign event in Columbus, Ohio, Clinton reiterated that the debates were prearranged last fall by a "non-partisan, independent commission" before either party had its nominee.
"I am going to be there. That is all I have to say," Clinton said when asked about the Trump campaign's assertions about the schedule.
Her campaign chair, John Podesta, tweeted that it was "more Trump debate malarky."
According to the CPD, rescheduling a debate because it coincided with a sporting event has never been done.
"It is impossible to avoid all sporting events, and there have been nights on which debates and games occurred in most election cycles," a statement issued Sunday said. "A debate has never been rescheduled as a result. As a point of reference, in a four-year period, there are four general election debates (three presidential and one vice presidential) and approximately 1,000 NFL games."