Donald Trump said Thursday that he is unexcited about the upcoming primary debate and irritated by CNN’s coverage of his campaign, but he 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 the Virginia suburbs west of Washington. “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 the lack of compensation he has received for being a ratings boon for hosts of primary-season debates.
Over the weekend at a rally in Macon, Ga., he suggested that CNN should pay $5 million for him to appear.
CNN “doesn’t treat me properly,” Trump told the crowd there — and 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 the network’s ratings would probably 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 shrugged off the importance of debates in general, calling them unnecessary for his campaign, which has drawn heavy media coverage.
“Some people said, ‘Oh, I think you’ll do all right’ ” if he does not appear in Las Vegas, Trump said. “Well, that may be.”
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Trump’s decision does not mean his frustrations with the media have abated.
“There are some real concerns about biased media,” Lewandowski said.
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 Thursday at a breakfast with reporters in New York.
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.
CNN’s Republican primary debate is the fifth so far this year and will be co-hosted by Salem Radio. According to CNN, candidates must meet a polling threshold of at least 3.5 percent nationally to earn a spot on the main stage.
Later Thursday, the billionaire mogul spoke at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s gathering in Washington, which was attended by most 2016 Republican candidates.
Trump drew scattered boos toward the end of his appearance after refusing to say that Jerusalem should be the undivided and recognized capital of Israel.
“You know what I want to do? I want to wait until I meet with Bibi,” Trump said, referencing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “You know, I’m leaving for Israel in a very short while.”
Trump then turned to a heckler near the front of the Ronald Reagan Building’s ballroom.
“Who’s the wise guy?” Trump asked. “Just relax. You’ll like me very much, believe me.”
Trump went on to praise the acumen of Jewish businessmen — a constant refrain in his extemporaneous remarks.
After stating that the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., might have been carried out by “radical Islamic” terrorists, Trump bemoaned that “we have a president that refuses to use the term.”
“He refuses to say it,” Trump said. “There’s something going on with him that we don’t know about.”
Trump has previously flirted with “birtherism” and cast doubt on President Obama’s credentials and love of country.
After the speech, longtime conservative activist Gary Bauer said Trump lost momentum by the end.
“When it started, they were skeptical, and you could feel the room warming to him,” Bauer said.
“I think he turned a lot of people. And then he lost them because he couldn’t just say, ‘Of course, Jerusalem is the capital. We won’t negotiate on that.’ ”