Mike Johnson is declaring the CNN debate rigged before it even happens

Speaker Mike Johnson, the highest-ranking Republican in government, has been leaning hard into former President donald trump‘s embrace lately. Naturally, that boosting extends to blatant spin ahead of Thursday’s presidential debate.

“I expect everyone will be watching,” Johnson told Tony Perkins, president of the archconservative Family Research Council, on the latter’s new show, “This Week on the Hill.” (Johnson appears on every episode of the recently launched show.) “I also expect that CNN is going to rig it as much as possible and make it as favorable as they possibly can for President (Joe) Biden, but I don’t think “it’s going to work.” As obvious as that spin is, it also suggests a lack of confidence in the GOP’s standard-bearer.

There is a micron-worth of truth in Johnson’s swipe at CNN: The cable network does have much more leeway than debate hosts had for the past 30 years under the Commission on Presidential Debates. The nonpartisan group has acted as an intermediary between presidential campaigns since 1987, organizing the format, location and moderator for the onstage showdowns. The CPD already announced the selected dates of this fall’s debates, months before the Biden campaign announced that it and the Trump camp would be working directly with CNN and ABC News this year.

But the CNN’s rules have been public for weeks. There will be no live audience, no use of props or written notes onstage, and the candidates’ microphones will be muted except when it’s time for them to speak. Both camps have already agreed to these rules, although it’s easy to imagine Trump afterward claiming he was unfairly silenced. The two sides even decided via coin-flip that Biden will stand at the lectern on the right of the screen while Trump will get to deliver his closing statement second, having the last word.

In suggesting otherwise, Johnson is doing several things at once. First, he’s feeding into the GOP’s current dogma that Trump is the victim of a constant, coordinated effort to bring him down by any means necessary. The scaremongering about CNN is in the same category as the false claims that Democrats stole the 2020 election and that the multiple indictments and lawsuits against Trump are simply political prosecutions. Johnson has supported both false narratives, appearing with Trump at Mar-a-Lago to boost the myth that noncitizens are voting in elections and visiting New York during his Manhattan criminal trial.

Johnson is also suggesting that any poor performance on Trump’s part at the debate will be merely due to CNN’s trickery, not a reflection of his own lack of knowledge or preparedness. It’s traditional for surrogates to lower expectations for their candidates ahead of debates, to facilitate them surpassing them during the current clash. But there’s a huge question mark hovering over how well Trump will manage to hold his own this time around against Biden.

It’s become obvious that Trump’s appearances on the stump are off compared to his 2020 campaign against Biden, let alone his 2016 race against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His speeches have gotten more rambling than before, full of weird cul-de-sacs that even supporters have trouble following. He’s begun misspeaking and forgetting names even when sticking to teleprompter for a change. Many in a roomful of high-powered CEOs reportedly came away feeling shaken after watching him speak in New York earlier this month.

In attempting to pre-blame CNN for a poor Trump performance, Johnson is providing the talking point that we should expect to hear from all corners of the GOP by Friday morning. Much like the conspiracy theory that Biden was wearing a hidden earpiece in the 2020 debate, there will be no evidence of misconduct from the network. But it apparently seems much easier to convince Republican voters that skullduggery is at work than to admit that their candidate, who if elected will be the oldest person to hold the presidency by the end of this term, has lost a step or seven.

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