The format and content of upcoming Republican debates became increasingly uncertain on Monday after Donald Trump’s campaign said the real estate mogul would negotiate his terms directly with television executives instead of as part of a joint effort with his rivals.
The move by Trump, coming just hours after his and other campaigns huddled in a Washington suburb to craft a three-page letter of possible demands, thwarts an effort to find consensus after what most candidates agreed was a debacle hosted by CNBC last week.
As a celebrity billionaire who has been a leading factor in drawing record ratings, Trump has little interest in working to promote the wishes of his opponents, his allies said.
The maneuvering by Trump and the other Republican candidates was met with annoyance by network executives, who said they have little interest in altering a process they believe was settled months ago.
“We agreed to this and now you’re saying you’re not agreeing?” said one executive who was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly.
“Do you want Ben Carson deciding who your moderators are? The answer is no,” said another. “Do you want Bobby Jindal’s campaign dictating how the debates will be run when Bobby Jindal may not even be in the race much longer?”
The consternation marked the latest turn in a debate process that has grown more problematic by the day. Officials with the Republican National Committee took control of the process for the 2016 presidential election after a long and eventful debate season that many in the party thought hurt its chances in 2012.
But the campaigns have been quietly irritated by the rigid process all year and broke into open revolt last week. The RNC responded by suspending NBC from hosting its Feb. 26 event, and it put a new staffer in charge of managing the debates.
RNC spokesman Sean Spicer, who had been overseeing the deliberations before being replaced last week, said he supports Trump and others as they negotiate directly with television executives. “These debates have always been about the candidates,” Spicer said. “The candidates will be and always should be determining the best format for them.”
All of the major commercial broadcast and cable news networks are scheduled to televise Republican debates through early March. The next debate, to be hosted by Fox Business Network on Nov. 10, is scheduled to go on as planned.
By negotiating on his own, Trump will aim to mold the debates to his liking, though it is unclear exactly what terms he will demand. One likely desire will be to limit the debates to two hours — following a three-hour CNN debate in September, Trump and Carson pushed CNBC to limit its forum to two hours.
Politically, Trump’s go-it-alone approach continues his pattern of casting himself as a master negotiator and the one contender who can take charge of a party that has lost its way.
“I am very confident in Mr. Trump’s ability to negotiate the best deals with the networks, which will ultimately help all of the candidates in the race,” Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, said in an interview. “He’s the best negotiator in the field, by a wide margin, and we’ve seen that time and time again.”
After Trump’s decision, the campaigns of Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) and Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J) confirmed that they would not sign on to the group endeavor.
“Stop complaining,” Christie said Monday morning on “Fox & Friends.” “Set up a stage, put podiums up there, and let’s just go.”
In an interview, Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett played down Trump’s break from the pack and said it would not alter the course of the multi-candidate negotiations with the networks. Bennett said Carson’s campaign was reviewing the letter, which was drafted by longtime GOP attorney Ben Ginsberg, and would offer edits within 48 hours.
“If they want to send their own letter, that’s fine — a letter’s a letter,” Bennett said. “The Trump folks were clear about what they wanted, and the Carson campaign agrees with them 90 percent of the time. We’re getting opening and closing statements. We’re going to get some parity in questions. We’re going to actually get formats announced to the campaigns. Trump’s basically asking for the same thing — he’s just going to do it with his own letterhead.”
The draft letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post, included a series of questions for any network slated to host a debate. They incorporated concerns from the participating campaigns, warning moderators against belittling the candidates by holding “lightning rounds” or describing “how far away the bathrooms are” after commercial breaks, should candidates leave the stage. They even included a suggested room temperature — 67 degrees.
The only disagreement during Sunday’s meeting between the Trump and Carson camps, as Bennett saw it, was that Trump opposed letting more candidates on the main stage. “They don’t want more people onstage, because they think that would mean more people taking shots at him,” Bennett said. “I’d argue that putting more people onstage actually helps Trump the most, as everyone’s going to want to divide the time evenly.”
While two of Trump’s senior aides — Lewandowski and counselor Donald F. McGahn — attended the Sunday gathering, they were far from ready to sign the letter, and they left unconvinced that a cooperative push on the debates would be helpful to protecting Trump’s front-runner status or providing him with the most possible airtime, according to attendees.
“It is what it is,” said Matt Beynon, a spokesman for former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) who represented his campaign at the meeting, held in Virginia at the Hilton Alexandria Old Town hotel. “We would argue that there was a lot of common ground in that room. I had very low expectations, walking in there, that much progress would be made. . . . Mr. Trump is taking the course of action that looks best for him.”
Most Republican aides who came to Sunday’s conclave were not especially hopeful about finding consensus. Ginsberg, who oversaw the two-hour conversation, also made clear in his remarks to the group that his goal was to give them advice about how to deal with the networks, not necessarily urge them to work together.
Mark Levin, a talk-radio host and author suggested by some Republicans as a possible moderator, told Breitbart News on Monday that the RNC had lost control of the debates. “Reince Priebus should be fired or should resign,” Levin said of the RNC’s chairman.
Commentator Glenn Beck, who left Fox News to build a conservative media empire, released a public letter to Priebus recommending a perfect debate host: himself.
“Rather than being moderated by journalists who ask all the questions, I will host, and I will invite the greatest new conservative thinkers and media voices in America to prepare and ask questions live and by video,” Beck wrote.
“I’m with @glennbeck,” tweeted former Silicon Valley executive Carly Fiorina, the lone Republican candidate who did not send a representative to Sunday’s meeting. “What do you say, @Reince? Let’s have a conservative network host a debate!”