Donald Trump said Thursday that he is unexcited about the upcoming primary debate and irritated by CNN’s coverage of his campaign, but confirmed that he will appear at the network’s GOP forum scheduled for Dec. 15 in Las Vegas.
“When you’re leading in the polls, I think it’s too big of a risk to not do the debate,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va. “I don’t think I have the kind of leverage I’d like to have in a deal and I don’t want to take the chance of hurting my campaign. So I’ll do the debate.”
The Republican front-runner’s decision comes after days of hedging and complaints over his lack of compensation for being a ratings boon for media hosts of GOP primary debates. Over the weekend at a rally in Macon, Ga., he suggested that CNN should pay $5 million for him to appear.
After saying that CNN “doesn’t treat me properly,” Trump told the crowd there that he might not “do the debate unless they pay me.”
“I’ve been talking to them,” Trump said Thursday. “CNN is going to make a fortune because of me. I would love to say, ‘Give $5 million to Wounded Warriors,’” a veterans group. “I still hope they do.”
But Trump acknowledged that his ability to force CNN’s hand is limited. He said that the network’s ratings would likely suffer if he did not appear — and he would be criticized.
“If I don’t do ‘em, the problem will be, ‘Oh, he’s chicken, he’s using that as an excuse,’” Trump said. “Every single person doing the debate would knock the hell out of me and say I’m afraid to be there. The one thing I’m not in life is a chicken.”
Over a plate of eggs at his clubhouse overlooking the Potomac River, Trump then shrugged off the importance of debates in general, calling them unnecessary for his campaign, which has drawn heavy media coverage.
Meanwhile, at a Thursday breakfast with reporters in New York, CNN president Jeff Zucker defended his network’s reporting on Trump. “It’s not our role to build up a campaign or take down a campaign,” he said.
When asked about Trump’s musing about a fee, Zucker said he would not entertain the idea. “We do not pay candidates to appear at debates,” he said.