STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about debates. You're gonna accept the recommendations of the Debate Commission, three debates, one VP debate? TRUMP: 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, okay? And I don't think we should be against the NFL. I don't know how the dates were picked.
It may seem hard to believe, but the first general-election presidential debate is next month. On Monday, Sept. 26, the major-party candidates -- and any third-party candidate with more than 15% support in national polls -- will meet for the first of three widely anticipated showdowns.
What's unclear is whether or not Donald Trump will agree to participate.
Late Friday, the Republican nominee argued via Twitter that it's "unacceptable" that Hillary Clinton and Democrats are "trying to rig the debates" so that they compete against "major NFL games." A day later, ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked the Republican nominee about his plans in an interview that aired yesterday on "This Week."
Well, a couple of things. First, Trump should probably learn "how the dates were picked" before popping off. In reality, Clinton and Democrats didn't set the schedule; the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates picked the dates last fall.
Second, Trump claims the NFL sent him a letter about this. That doesn't appear to be true: the NFL insisted over the weekend that the league never sent any such letter.
All of which leads to questions about whether the Republican nominee may ultimately balk at the agreed upon schedule.
On "Face the Nation" yesterday, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was asked directly whether the candidate will agree to show up for the scheduled debates. Manafort replied, "He said he wants to participate in it, but just like we discovered in the hack of the DNC, Mrs. Clinton likes low audiences watching her debates." He added, "So, we're going to sit down with the commission in the next week or so and we're going to start talking to them."
In other words, it sounds as if Team Trump sees the existing schedule as the starting point for negotiations -- which may include recommendations for significant changes.
And if those "talks" don't go the way the Trump campaign wants? No one can say for sure exactly what might happen at that point.
Hillary Clinton has already agreed to participate in the three scheduled debates. It's a safe bet that if Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson qualifies, he'll be there, too.
For its part, the commission issued a statement yesterday saying it would be "impossible" to avoid conflicts with sporting events, and commissioners have a point. In late September and October, debate organizers are confronted with professional football games three nights a week, college football games at least one night a week, and major-league baseball playoffs.
This comes up every four years. Everyone involved does their best to work around the schedule.
Remember, while many Americans have come to expect these showdowns as a normal part of every election, Trump doesn't have to participate. In the 1964, 1968, and 1972 election cycles, there were no debates at all. In 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush acted as if he really wanted to get out of the debates, but Bill Clinton's campaign hired a guy to dress up in a chicken suit to mock the incumbent at public events, and Bush eventually relented.
Trump, the first nominee to suggest without proof that the process itself is "rigged," will soon be confronted with a decision: would it be worse to appear cowardly by skipping some or all of the debates, or by showing up and doing poorly?
Or is this some kind of elaborate expectations-setting game, in which Team Trump tries to set the bar for success so low that if the GOP candidate shows up and avoids collapsing, he and his allies will declare him the winner?
Postscript: For the record, here's the list of the scheduled debates, as agreed upon by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.
Sep 26, 2016 (Monday): First presidential debate, Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.
Oct 4, 2016 (Tuesday): Vice presidential debate, Longwood University, Farmville, Va.
Oct 9, 2016 (Sunday): Second presidential debate, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Mo.
Oct 19, 2016 (Wednesday): Third presidential debate, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Nev.