Donald Trump and his advisers have decided to work directly with television executives and take a lead role in negotiating the format and content of primary debates, which have become highly watched and crucial events in the 2016 race, according to Republicans familiar with their plans.
Trump plans to reject a joint letter to television network hosts regarding upcoming primary debates drafted Sunday at a private gathering of operatives from at least 11 presidential campaigns, the Republicans said.
The move by Trump, coming just hours after more than a dozen Republican strategists huddled in the Washington suburbs to craft a list of possible demands, effectively throttles an effort by the campaigns and the letter’s drafter, longtime GOP attorney Ben Ginsberg, to find consensus and work collectively to negotiate terms.
Why wasn’t the forthcoming joint campaign letter good enough for Trump? WaPo doesn’t say, and there’s no reason why Trump’s campaign would have agreed to attend the meeting to draft it in the first place if he intended to bigfoot the other campaigns all along. Last night’s story about the meeting noted that his campaign manager objected to the idea of a Telemundo debate, which makes sense. It makes less sense that “Several campaigns, including Trump’s, were … interested in reducing the number of candidates on the stage.” Trump should want more candidates onstage, not less. The more people there are, the less speaking time formidable rivals like Cruz and Rubio have to impress the viewers. Unless Trump’s beginning to believe his own BS that he can’t possibly lose a debate, he’s better off playing a prevent defense and limiting everyone’s speaking time as much as possible. The only reason he might want to limit the number of candidates is to deny a podium to marginal contenders like Jindal and Graham, who’d seize the opportunity to tear into him in order to get some attention. But that problem is easily solved: Just hold the number of candidates onstage steady at 10. Jindal and Graham won’t make the cut.
Trump being Trump, maybe this is just an alpha-male stunt designed to show his fans that the networks, like everyone else, will bow to him if he demands it. Before he singlehandedly makes America great again, he’s going to singlehandedly make the debates great again. It’s good for his “outsider” image too. He’s not going to play nice with the RNC and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. He’ll do things his way. He’s taking a risk, though, by pulling this after the CNBC debate drew the smallest audience yet for any of the three debates — 14 million people, a bit more than half of what the first debate got. His presence onstage isn’t worth quite what it was in August. If the networks agree to the demands in the joint letter but not to Trump’s, he’ll have to decide whether to boycott the debates. If he decides not to boycott, the networks have successfully called his bluff, which is not supposed to happen to a Jedi negotiator. If he boycotts, he’s ceding the stage to Rubio, Carson, and Cruz at a moment when they’d welcome the chance to shine without standing in Trump’s shadow. And you never know how a boycott would play outside of Trump’s own fan base. His supporters will defend anything he does, but what about Iowans who are trying to choose between him and Carson or New Hampshirites who are trying to choose between him and Rubio? If he comes off like the spoiled rich kid who didn’t want to play because he couldn’t set the rules, it’ll backfire.
By the way, please do recall that the RNC shrunk the number of debates this cycle because it didn’t want chaos from the process and thought that a shorter schedule would benefit establishment candidates. In reality, it’s Trump and Carson who are benefiting from fewer opportunities for mainstreamers like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio to gain a foothold. And now it’s Trump, as well as Carson via the joint committee, who are threatening to run away with the whole process. Why the RNC even makes a pretense of authority over the nomination at this point, I don’t know. Here’s Reince Priebus assuring ABC, a la Chip Diller, that all is well.