Trump is likely to sit out one or both of first two GOP debates

May 4, 2023

In private comments to aides and confidants, former President Donald Trump has indicated he does not want to breathe life into his Republican challengers by sharing a debate stage with them, reports The New York Times.

Trump is likely to skip at least one of the first two debates of the 2024 Republican presidential nominating contest, according to five people who have discussed the matter with the former president.

Last month, the chairperson of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, announced that Fox News would host the first G.O.P. primary debate in Milwaukee in August. The second debate will be held in Southern California at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

While the former president maintains warm relationships with several prime-time hosts—especially Sean Hannity, a reliable Trump booster—Trump’s overall relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s television network has deteriorated as the network showered DeSantis with praise over the past two years while constricting its coverage of Trump.

Trump also has mentioned his previous skirmish with the former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in his private conversations with associates as a reason not to agree to a debate hosted by the network.

In the first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign cycle, Kelly asked Trump about demeaning things he’d said about women. Trump viewed this as a declaration of war from Fox News’ management. He later attacked Kelly in crude and sexist terms.

What’s more, Trump has led his nearest rival, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, by around 30 percentage points in recent polls. All other contenders are polling in single digits.

“I’m up by too many points,” one associate who spoke with Trump recalled him saying.

One adviser stressed that the situation was fluid, particularly given how early it remains in the 2024 race and with DeSantis not yet even a declared candidate. Trump may find it hard to stay away from a stage where others are criticizing him, and some senior Republicans expect that he will ultimately join the debates. He has long credited the debates in the 2016 campaign, both in the primary and the general election, for his victories.

Still, if Trump opts out of some primary campaign debates—as he did once before in 2016—he will shrink the viewing audience and limit his rivals’ chances to seize a breakout moment on the debate stage. The visibility such moments offer is hard to come by in a race in which Trump almost monopolizes the news media’s attention.

For Trump, denying his low-polling rivals access to a massive television audience is part of his calculations in potentially skipping the debates, according to the people who have discussed the matter with him. In 2015, Fox News drew an audience of 24 million for the first primary debate of the 2016 campaign. It was, at the time, the biggest viewership for a non-sports event in cable television history.

“In his mind there’s not enough candidates who are polling close enough to him,” said a person familiar with Trump’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with the former president. “And that, if he does a debate this early with candidates who are polling in the single digits, there’s no upside for him.”

Another motivation for Trump is revenge: The former president has a history with the two institutions hosting the first two Republican candidate debates.

Trump has told advisers that the second debate is a nonstarter for him because it will be held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The chairman of the library’s board of trustees, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., also serves as the publisher and chief executive officer of The Washington Post, a fact that Trump regularly brings up.

Trump is also sour that the Reagan library has invited numerous other leading Republicans to speak at its events over the past two years, including his presidential rival DeSantis—but has never extended an invitation to him, according to two people familiar with his thinking.

Research contact: @nytimes