The 2016 major party presidential candidates squared off one-on-one for the first time on 26 September at Hofstra University in New York in the first of three debates. While voters mulled over what Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had said about the issues (and each other), Internet conspiracy theorists and fake news web sites honed in on the implausible notion that Clinton had been provided with the debate questions ahead of time, giving her an unfair advantage over her opponent.
For instance, the clickbait web site MadWorldNews.com, which is dedicated to spreading Islamophobic stories and other bizarre yarns with headlines such as “U.N. Sides with U.S. Black Lives Matter, Orders Whites Do Sick Thing for Blacks” shared a story claiming that a man seen in television footage taking a papers off Clinton’s lectern just after the conclusion of the first debate was a “cleaner,” or a Clinton operative, who was tasked with removing evidence of some illicit activity:
It’s just a few seconds of video, but it is a few seconds that changes everything. A Hillary staffer, who is called the “Cleaner,” swooped in after she walked away from her podium, and he took all the papers that were on her podium. He put her notes in a file and carried them under his arm as he looked over at moderator Lester Holt.
The Cleaner then walked to the side of the stage, not sure of where to go. He waited for a moment until Holt got up, and then the “Cleaner” started to walk toward Holt. They met at mid-stage as the “Cleaner” looked intently at Holt.
Holt’s face cannot be seen in the clip, but as they brushed past each other, the “Cleaner” seemed like he wanted to hand over the notes to Holt, but then he just nods. Again, it’s just a few seconds, but when you watch it from the time the “Cleaner” swoops in and clears Hillary’s podium to when he walks over to Holt, it is evident that something fishy is going on.
A bespectacled, white-haired man can be seen entering the frame at the end of the debate, but what can also be seen in the same camera angle is that both Clinton and Trump had papers on their lecterns, most likely notes they were taking during the debate. At the 1:35:20 mark in the below shown video, papers are visible on both Clinton’s and Trump’s lecterns:
The “cleaner” can be seen collecting the contents of Clinton’s lectern (which look like a notepad) then walking in the direction of Trump’s:
At that point the camera cut away to focus on the candidates interacting with their families, so if the man in question removed similar items from Trump’s lectern, that activity was not caught on camera.
Note-taking during a presidential debate is far from uncommon. In 2012, President Barack Obama was criticized for taking copious notes while his opponent, Mitt Romney, was speaking. Debate rules typically don’t allow candidates to bring any notes or props with them, but they are allowed to take notes during the course of the debate on blank sheets of paper provided by the Commission on Presidential Debates. This practice has been codified in the debate rules since at least as far back as Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale duked it out in in 1984, according to Slate:
The rules concerning note-taking have become more and more detailed. By the Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale duels of 1984, debate rules stated that “No prepared notes or prompting devices of any kind may be brought into the debate,” though they went on to declare that “during the debate, however, notes may be taken.” For the next round of debates, between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, rules specified that each candidate could scribble “on the size, color and type of paper each prefers.” Rules were a bit stricter in 1996, when Bob Dole and Bill Clinton were each required by contract to submit their own chosen stationery and pens or pencils to the debate commission beforehand; the commission’s staff were the only people authorized to place those papers and writing utensils on the candidates’ lecterns. The town hall debate that year at the University of San Diego faced potentially jeopardizing last-minute negotiations when the Dole campaign requested that the candidates stand behind lecterns so that Dole could still organize his thoughts on paper. The campaign cited the candidate’s war wounds, which left him in paralyzed in one arm, but the Clinton campaign insisted that “no substantive changes [would] be acceptable.”
This year’s debate rules, which were obtained and leaked by Time magazine, are more detailed than ever when it comes to scribbles. Under Section 5c, the agreement says that “No props, notes, charts, diagrams, or other writings or other tangible things may be brought into the debate by any candidate, including portable electronic devices.” It goes on to specify that “prior to the beginning of the debate, the Commission will verify as appropriate that the candidates have complied with this subsection.” The penalty for violation is simple: “If a candidate uses a prop, note, or other writing or other tangible thing during a debate, the moderator must interrupt” to explain the violation. Still, as long they don’t write on them beforehand, each candidate is still allowed “the size, color, and type of blank paper each prefers” and “the type of pen or pencil that each prefers.”
We have yet to hear back from the Commission on this year’s rules, but the most likely explanation for the man glimpsed clearing off items off Clinton’s (and possibly Trump’s) lectern is that he was simply picking up notes they took during the debate along with any unused sheets of paper. Additionally, it defies logic that if Hillary Clinton had flagrantly cheated during the debate by bringing prepared material along with her in defiance of the rules, she would have left the evidence of her misdeed behind and depended upon someone else to remove it — all openly broadcast on live network television.