Trump: I may charge CNN $5 million to appear in the debate

Don’t take this too seriously as a demand, but it’s still an excellent bit of media trolling from Donald Trump — for now, anyway. He complained before the previous CNN debate about the profit the media outlet would make from his presence on stage, thanks to the sky-high ad rates it charged when it became apparent that audiences flocked to the dial for the debates. At that time, Trump tried to get CNN to contribute to veterans’ causes, but this time he wants to make himself the middleman:

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump suggested to a Georgia crowd Monday night that he may charge CNN $5 million to appear at the next GOP primary debate, money he said could go to wounded warriors or veterans.

Looking ahead to the next Republican debate, to be hosted by the network on December 15, Trump said: “How about we do this with CNN? I won’t do the debate unless they pay me $5 million and the money goes to wounded warriors or vets.”

Trump justified his price tag by saying that he has been a big ratings draw for those networks that have hosted the Republican primary debates.

The problem with that approach is that it would constitute a political contribution, or at least the FEC would be likely to conclude that. Trump later offered a slightly different solution, one that matched his earlier demand:

Trump then posed a question to the audience: “So, should I tell CNN that I’m not doing the debate because they treat me really unfairly, and say: But I will do it if you give $5 million to the vets?”

He did wonder whether that might make it look like he’s looking for an excuse to no-show the Vegas debate:

“So, with CNN, here’s what they’ll say: ‘Trump’s chicken. He’s afraid to debate. He’s afraid to debate,'” Trump said. “Now: If you’re not leading and you’re going nowhere, you have nothing to lose. But wouldn’t it be bad: I’m leading the polls, I don’t do it, I play cute — because you’re playing cute, right? — it gets out I’m chicken, which I’m not. One thing I’m not is chicken.” …

“Should I do it or not?” Trump said. “I don’t know if I want to take the chance. I don’t know.”

Let’s play this out as if it’s serious, which seems unlikely. Say for a moment that Trump insisted on this demand, and got rejected, as CNN is certain to do. At that point he’d almost have to pull out of the debate, no? His dealmaking prowess is his hole card in this cycle, thanks to widespread dissatisfaction among Republicans with the congressional majorities who haven’t scored many victories and Barack Obama’s awful deal with Iran. If he can’t bend CNN to his will, he’d have to find a way to punish them. Showing up on stage after failing to make the deal would be an admission of defeat, and that might be a lot more costly to his standing with current supporters than a refusal to attend. But pulling out after this kind of stunt would almost certainly alienate any other voters who have not yet flocked to Trump’s banner — and worse yet, a substantive debate without Trump might have some of his softer supporters wondering whether they should still take him seriously.

CNN refused to respond to Trump’s remarks, and they’ll likely play it cool as long as Trump doesn’t actually deliver an ultimatum. Most of those outcomes being bad, Trump is a good enough businessman to keep from putting himself into that kind of corner. The longer he trolls CNN on the issue, though, the higher Trump will set expectations for that ultimatum, and that might trigger some of the negative consequences even without a showdown.