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Trump revives threat of skipping GOP presidential debates

The ex-president has been complaining about the Republican National Committee debates suggesting this week in interviews and social media posts his poll numbers are so high he has no reason to compete with the rest of the field

Former President Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at the South Carolina Statehouse on Jan. 28, 2023, in Columbia, S.C.Alex Brandon (AP)

Donald Trump is again threatening to skip a presidential debate.

The Republican former president has privately said that a debate in August would be too early and he would not participate, according to two people familiar with his concerns who insisted on anonymity to detail private discussions. He also has stepped up his public complaints this week, suggesting in interviews and social media posts that his poll numbers are so high he has no reason to compete with the rest of the field.

“I see that everybody is talking about the Republican Debates, but nobody got my approval, or the approval of the Trump Campaign, before announcing them,” Trump said in a Tuesday post on his social media network.

The emerging spat is a preview of the potential tension that could lie ahead as the Republican National Committee works to oversee an open, competitive primary process while Trump aims to establish himself as the undisputed leader of the party who doesn’t need to engage in such traditions. It’s an echo of his previous campaigns when he often dangled the potential of skipping debates — and sometimes followed through with the threat. In the process, he kept the spotlight on himself and turned the GOP establishment and the news media into a foil that resonated with the party base.

For now, the RNC is moving forward with the debate, which is slated to be held in Milwaukee and broadcast on Fox News, a network that has an up-and-down relationship with Trump. In a Wednesday interview on Fox, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel was asked about Trump’s public’s complaints regarding the RNC’s debate plans and whether she had spoken to him about his concerns.

“I talk to President Trump all the time,” McDaniel said. “We’ve talked to all the potential candidates. We’ve let them know the schedule. We’ve announced the debates.”

“But every campaign and every candidate is going to have to make a decision,” she continued. “He’s going to have to make that decision. I think he’ll do it.”

Trump, whose political arc has been defined by unprecedented behavior and shunning norms he disagrees with, has skipped debates before. In 2016, Trump didn’t attend the final GOP presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses and held his own campaign event instead. In 2020, Trump pulled out of the second general election debate against Joe Biden after the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates sought to make it a virtual event because of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Each time Trump skipped a debate, he participated in another event that aimed to draw away viewing audiences, a playbook he would likely follow again this year.

“When you’re leading by seemingly insurmountable numbers, and you have hostile Networks with angry, TRUMP & MAGA hating anchors asking the ‘questions,’ why subject yourself to being libeled and abused?” he wrote on his social media platform this week.

While many Fox News hosts have boosted Trump over the years, the network drew the ire of him and his supporters when in 2020 it accurately called Biden, a Democrat, as the winner of the race in Arizona, an early sign that Trump would go on to lose the election. The network began focusing less on the former president in 2022 and didn’t carry his full speech in November announcing he was once again running for the White House. In what was deemed a “soft ban” by the network, Fox News had no on-air interviews with Trump from late September 2022 until late March 2023.

Private text messages revealed as part of an elections technology company’s defamation lawsuit against Fox showed host Tucker Carlson, who was let go on Monday, disparaging Trump. The relationship appeared to improve, at least publicly, as Carlson interviewed Trump earlier this month. Trump told the conservative outlet Newsmax this week that he was “shocked” by Carlson’s departure.

In an interview Wednesday with WABC radio in New York, Trump said many people ask him why he’d do a debate when Republican primary polls show him with a massive lead over his nearest potential challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“People don’t debate when they have these massive leads,” he said.

Trump has also complained about the choice of venue for the second debate, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Though the library has hosted Republican presidential debates before, including a 2015 debate that Trump participated in, the former president is complaining that Fred Ryan, the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, is the chairman of the foundation’s board of trustees.

The RNC is currently considering whether to require debate participants to meet new thresholds showing broad support among donors and in polling to make the stage, along with signing a pledge to support the GOP’s presidential nominee.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who formally launched his campaign on Wednesday and has called for Trump to exit the race to address his legal problems, has said he has concerns about a loyalty pledge and is discussing it with the RNC.

GOP debate participants may also be asked to sign a pledge to avoid participating in any general election debate hosted by the Commission for Presidential Debates, which has hosted general election debates for more than three decades but which Republicans have viewed as biased against them.

Trump has hinted he may ignore that pledge as well, saying in his radio interview Wednesday that when it comes to a general election debate, “You have, really, an obligation to do that.”

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