RNC spokesman Sean Spicer Fowler's account of events, and added in a comment to Buzzfeed's Rosie Gray that "a debate moderator can't have a predisposition." That leaves CNN, Salem Radio, and Telemundo as the co-sponsors of the planned February 25 forum in Houston.
The idea of bringing conservative media into the debates had actually come from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who has repeatedly blamed a loose, easily-exploited approach to the media for a "circus" that hurt eventual 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
"I mean, there's a lot of good people out there that can actually understand the base of the Republican Party, the primary voters," Priebus told Fox News in an August 2013 interview. "There are some people in our party that think that — you know, on immigration, have different views. On the issue of tactics, on the funding of Obamacare — I mean you can very easily parse that out in a way that actually provides some substance to the Republican primary voters and what they actually want to talk about and understand."
Yet a clash of egos and interest has now stymied several attempts to bring conservative media into the debates. While Salem Radio's Hugh Hewitt, considered one of the best interviewers on the right, has made two appearances as a CNN debate co-panelist, a forum co-hosted by the Washington Times and Liberty University never got past the planning stage.
In an interview early Friday morning, National Review's editor-in-chief Rich Lowry said that the magazine knew it was risking a debate snub when work on the Trump package began. "We priced it in," he said, describing an editorial process that began shortly after the Christmas holiday. "We wanted to push back against this notion that it was just the establishment that was opposed to Trump, so we assembled this group of people who nobody can accuse of being the establishment. We actually wanted this to be the first issue of the year, but we held it. That timing just turned out to be fortuitous, with the establishment parts of the party suddenly bending his way."
In a tweet, symposium contributor and Commentary editor-in-chief John Podhoretz confirmed Lowry's account.
National Review, founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley, has frequently policed the conservative movement and warned against the influence of populist movements. In 1962, Buckley devoted 5000 words to the John Birch Society, attempting to write it out of the movement and calling its founder Robert Welch "far removed from common sense." Twenty-nine years later, Buckley wrote 40,000 words — an entire issue of the magazine — to condemn what he saw as anti-Semitism festering on the right, personified in Pat Buchanan, who was then mounting the first of three unsuccessful presidential bids.
Those essays, if not often read again in full, are often viewed with nostalgia. In 2012, after Romney's defeat, the former RNC research director David Welch bemoaned the lack of strong conservative voices who could police the movement.
"We need 'the Establishment,'" he wrote in a piece for the New York Times. "We need officials like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey."
Trump, who now leads both of those men in primary polls, had praised Buckley as recently as last week. "Conservatives actually do come out of Manhattan — including William F. Buckley," said Trump at the Republican presidential debate in Charleston, after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) derided the "New York values" of liberalism.
On Thursday night, in a series of characteristically impassioned tweets, Trump suggested that Lowry's National Review had lost the spirit of Buckley.