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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Renews Unfounded Claim on Debate Mic

President Donald Trump wrongly claimed the Commission on Presidential Debates was “forced to publicly apologize for modulating” his microphone in the first 2016 general election debate. The bipartisan commission did not apologize for any willful tampering, but acknowledged “there were issues regarding Donald Trump’s audio that affected the sound level in the debate hall.”

Trump’s wariness about the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit entity that sponsors the events, goes back to the first presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in September 2016, when Trump raised issues about what he said was a “defective mic” and suggested it may have been deliberate trickery. He also labeled the debate “rigged” because the “head guy used to work for Bill Clinton.” As we wrote then, the commission was co-chaired by a former Clinton aide and a former Republican National Committee chairman.

The CPD currently has three co-chairs: Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., who was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1983 to 1989; Dorothy Ridings, formerly a newspaper journalist, president of the League of Women Voters and president and chief executive officer of the charitable Council on Foundations; and Kenneth Wollack, a former president of the National Democratic Institute who once served on the national staff of Democrat George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972.

The New York Times reported on Dec. 12 that Trump and his advisers were discussing the possibility of opting out of the general election debates in 2020 due to Trump’s concerns about the commission.

Trump responded to that news report in a series of tweets on Dec. 16.

In the spin room after the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2016, at Hofstra University, Trump complained that “they gave me a defective mic” and questioned whether that was done “on purpose.”

Four days after the debate, the CPD released a terse statement saying there was a technical glitch with Trump’s microphone that affected his volume in the debate room, but did not affect the audio for the 84 million people who watched the debate on television.

Commission on Presidential Debates, Sept. 30, 2016: Regarding the first debate, there were issues regarding Donald Trump’s audio that affected the sound level in the debate hall.

We reached out to the commission seeking clarification about what, specifically, the technical issue was and why it affected Trump’s microphone and not Clinton’s. We’ll update this story if we get a response.

According to the New York Times, Trump said after the debate that “the changing volume had distracted him and alleged again that someone had created the problem deliberately.”

”They had somebody modulating the microphone, so when I was speaking, the mike would go up and down,” Trump said. ”I spent 50 percent of my thought process working the mike.”

The Times noted that there was “no evidence of sabotage.”

We note that CPD did not “apologize” as Trump said, nor did it admit to “modulating” his microphone, which suggests intentional meddling. But the CPD did acknowledge there had been a technological malfunction that affected Trump’s audio in the debate room.

In a CNN op-ed in February pushing back against criticism that it shuts out third-party candidates from debates, the two CPD co-chairs at the time stated: “The CPD is run by an independent board made up of independents, Republicans and Democrats. It receives no party or government funding, and no major party official serves in any capacity with the CPD.”

The CPD, which has sponsored all of the presidential debates since 1988, released a statement on Dec. 16 saying, “Our record is one of fairness, balance and non-partisanship.” The commission has issued a schedule of three general election debates, starting with one on Sept. 29, 2020, at the University of Notre Dame, as well as a vice presidential debate on Oct. 7.