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RNC suspends partnership with NBC in fallout over chaotic CNBC debate

How the candidates jousted with the CNBC moderators (Video: Victoria M. Walker/The Washington Post)

The Republican National Committee announced Friday that it was suspending its partnership with NBC News for an upcoming presidential debate in February, moving fast as anger at CNBC's handling of Wednesday night's Republican forum boiled over.

In a letter to NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said that their relationship for the debate, scheduled for Feb. 26 at the University of Houston, was on hold "pending further discussion."

The RNC has faced increasingly vocal -- and active -- dissatisfaction with the debate process from presidential contenders in the wake of Wednesday night's face-off, with candidates and their campaigns complaining that CNBC conducted the debate in "bad faith" and asked questions in an attempt to spark infighting. "We simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns," Priebus wrote Friday.

In a statement, NBC News called the RNC's decision "disappointing."

"However, along with our debate broadcast partners at Telemundo we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party," the network said.

[The debate over CNBC’s moderators]

Priebus noted that a debate would still be held on that day and that the RNC would continue to work with another partner in the event, the National Review. But he did not say whether Telemundo, the only Spanish-language media organization hosting a debate in the Republican primary, would remain a part of the partnership.

The decision was generally praised by Republican campaigns, most of which have complained about the way the primary debates have been handled so far. Donald Trump even used his closing statement on Wednesday to take credit for negotiating a shorter debate time, so the candidates could "get the hell out of here." Like several other barbs aimed at the CNBC moderators, it earned loud applause.

"The campaign supports the RNC’s decision to suspend the debate on February 26th due to the total lack of substance and respect exhibited during Wednesday’s night’s debate," Trump's spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Friday. "We look forward to pursuing alternatives along with the RNC to ensure candidates are given ample opportunity to outline their vision for the future of our country."

A spokesman for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sergio Gor, also praised the RNC's move. "We hope networks and future moderators realize that what happened in Colorado should never have occurred," said Gor, whose candidate complained Wednesday night about a lack of speaking time.

Ben Carson's campaign, which was uneasy with Priebus's letter, had been working on its own effort to change upcoming debates. As far back as May, Carson had sent letters to the RNC chairman, warning that the candidate's large and diverse field was ill-served by the debate rules.

"The rules may be good for me personally, but they are not good for the process," he wrote then. "We are blessed to have many qualified candidates running for President. More than a typical debate format can handle. Surely we can find a format that allows every voice to be heard."

Since Wednesday, Carson had directed his team to work with rival campaigns on debate reform. A meeting of campaign staffers was set for Washington on Sunday -- and the RNC was not invited.

The Republican National Committee dumps NBC News from sponsoring a Feb. 26 debate of GOP presidential candidates, after a debate conducted by media partner CNBC was roundly criticized by the candidates. Jillian Kitchener reports. (Video: Reuters)

"After the past few debate debacles, the campaigns are having constant conversations with each other about how to get this back on track," said Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. "How can we have a real debate when moderators are more interested in promoting themselves than in getting answers from the candidates? That's the cardinal sin of journalism, and everyone's sick and tired of it."

The meeting Sunday will also include aides for campaigns that have grown frustrated at their relegation to short "undercard" debates, with low ratings, based on national poll numbers that differ somewhat from the strength of candidates in key early-voting states.

"Central planning never works," said Kyle Plotkin, a spokesman for Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.). "Debates are a crucial part of the democratic process; we should have more, not less. The notion of limiting the number of debates was, and is, a bad idea. The RNC debate gambit was said to involve forcing the media partners to hold substantive debates rather than just a shooting gallery of nasty and unserious questions. It’s time to admit that did not work."

Early on, the choice of CNBC as a debate host had seemed like a victory for Priebus's avowed strategy of protecting Republican candidates from a "circus." Priebus, who is presiding over his second presidential cycle as RNC chairman, had claimed that biased moderators from networks like MSNBC would skew their questions and insult Republican voters. "[We're] creating a debate environment that would bring honor to the Republican Party," Priebus told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt this year, "not a debate environment spurred on by nefarious actors like Chris Matthews and others."

[GOP candidates tangle with one another — and CNBC — in a chaotic debate]

On Wednesday night, former Florida governor Jeb Bush's campaign manager, Danny Diaz, voiced his concerns to CNBC directly while the debate was still in progress. Diaz worried that CNBC's format and management of the debate disadvantaged Bush, who by the end had less speaking time than nearly any other candidate.

“I expressed my concerns with the amount of time that we’ve had. I think that’s pretty clear,” Diaz told The Washington Post then.

On stage, the candidates themselves were voicing their own complaints, at times scolding hosts over their approach, as the debate devolved often into cross talk and bickering between moderators and candidates.

Almost immediately after the event began, Donald Trump accused CNBC's moderator John Harwood of asking a mean-spirited question.

"Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?" Harwood had asked.

Later in the debate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) seized the opportunity to excoriate the network.

"The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," Cruz said, to massive applause. "This is not a cage match."

Campaigns protested loudly that CNBC had conducted a frivolous, biased event. Strategists for several candidates mocked the "algorithm" that they had been promised would be in use to make sure candidates got equal time. One strategist said that the candidates, going forward, would not agree to any future debates unless they vetted the rules first, a statement of mistrust in media outlets that have worked out the rules after candidates had already accepted.

"I think the moderators should be people who are clearly interested in getting answers, not in a political agenda," Ben Carson told The Washington Post. "Look, for example, at the Democrats. When they have debates, they don't have a bunch of conservatives to moderate it. That's only logical. We should be logical, too."

Even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), widely perceived as the winner of the debate, joined the pile-on. "I thought it was a wasted opportunity, and, quite frankly, that’s what made it unfair, not just to the candidates but to the American people,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Thursday morning, adding that a network dedicated to business should have asked more questions about economic issues.

Wednesday's aftermath turned CNBC's hosts, including John Harwood and Becky Quick, into figures of conservative infamy. Some progressives were stunned by the backlash's speed. "CNBC is a business network, where the monologue that launched the Tea Party happened," said a flabbergasted Chris Hayes, the host of MSNBC's prime time show All In, in a Friday tweet.

But Carson is not the first presidential candidate to demand more sympathetic moderators, and Priebus -- who signaled quickly Wednesday evening that he was unhappy with CNBC's handling of the debate -- is not the first party leader to cut out a network. In 2007, before Fox News could hold any Democratic debates, progressive activists urged that cycle's campaigns to boycott the network. One by one, the candidates agreed to it. In a surprise move, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) joined Nevada's Democratic Party in a statement canceling the debate that Fox News had scheduled for the state.

On Friday, Democrats did not seem eager to take credit for the precedent. David Axelrod, one of the 2008 Barack Obama campaign strategists who nixed the debate, said that candidates now lived in "an era when some outlets have consciously marketed their point of view," and that the situation was a complicated one.

"In the context of a party primary, it was not a mistake, given the strong feelings toward Fox among our supporters," Axelrod told the Washington Post. "As we saw the other day, you can't go wrong with media bashing of any kind among the Republican base. After all, CNBC is not exactly a bastion of liberalism, and yet the candidates scored with their attacks."

Priebus's full letter:

Mr. Andrew Lack
Chairman, NBC News
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, New York 10112


Dear Mr. Lack,
I write to inform you that pending further discussion between the Republican National Committee (RNC) and our presidential campaigns, we are suspending the partnership with NBC News for the Republican primary debate at the University of Houston on February 26, 2016. The RNC’s sole role in the primary debate process is to ensure that our candidates are given a full and fair opportunity to lay out their vision for America’s future. We simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns.
The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith. We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach. However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance.
CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on “the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.” That was not the case. Before the debate, the candidates were promised an opening question on economic or financial matters. That was not the case. Candidates were promised that speaking time would be carefully monitored to ensure fairness. That was not the case. Questions were inaccurate or downright offensive. The first question directed to one of our candidates asked if he was running a comic book version of a presidential campaign, hardly in the spirit of how the debate was billed.
While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of “gotcha” questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.
I have tremendous respect for the First Amendment and freedom of the press. However, I also expect the media to host a substantive debate on consequential issues important to Americans. CNBC did not.
While we are suspending our partnership with NBC News and its properties, we still fully intend to have a debate on that day, and will ensure that National Review remains part of it.
I will be working with our candidates to discuss how to move forward and will be in touch.


Reince Priebus

Chairman, Republican National Committee

Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report. 


They're not happy. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)