In private comments to aides and confidants, Donald J. Trump has indicated he does not want to breathe life into his Republican challengers by sharing a debate stage with them.
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For Donald J. Trump, denying his low-polling rivals access to a massive television audience is part of his calculations in potentially skipping debates.
The leading Republican candidate for president, Donald J. 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 chairwoman 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.
In private comments to aides and confidants in recent weeks, Mr. Trump has made it clear that he does not want to breathe life into his Republican challengers by sharing the stage with them. Mr. Trump has led his nearest rival, Gov. 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 Mr. Trump recalled him saying.
One adviser stressed that the situation was fluid, particularly given how early it remains in the 2024 race and with Mr. DeSantis not yet even a declared candidate. Mr. 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.
ImageMr. Trump has long credited the debates in the 2016 campaign, both in the primary and the general election, for his victories. Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times
Still, if Mr. 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 Mr. Trump almost monopolizes the news media’s attention.
For Mr. 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 nonsports 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Trump is revenge: The former president has a history with the two institutions hosting the first two Republican candidate debates.
Mr. 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 Mr. Trump regularly brings up.
Mr. 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 Mr. DeSantis, but has never extended an invitation to Mr. Trump, according to two people familiar with his thinking.
The library started a speakers series in 2021 called “Time for Choosing,” and invitees have included Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina; Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador; and, more recently, Mr. DeSantis. A spokesperson for the library said no former president has been included in the series.
One reason Mr. Trump may skip the first debate is its timing — he believes it’s too early, and has told aides he does not want to debate in August. Another reason is the host, Fox News.
ImageIn 2015, Fox News drew an audience of 24 million for the first primary debate of the 2016 campaign. At the time it was the biggest viewership for a nonsports event in cable television history.Credit…John Taggart for The New York Times
Mr. Trump has been warring with Fox News since the conservative network announced on election night in 2020 that Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the state of Arizona. While the former president maintains warm relationships with several prime-time hosts — especially Sean Hannity, a reliable Trump booster — Mr. Trump’s overall relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s television network has deteriorated as the network showered Mr. DeSantis with praise over the past two years while constricting its coverage of Mr. Trump.
“Why would I have Bret Baier” question me, Mr. Trump told an associate, explaining a reason to skip the Fox News debate. Mr. Trump was furious with Mr. Baier, a Fox host, over his coverage of the 2020 election, in which Mr. Baier refuted many of the election-fraud claims made by the Trump team.
Mr. Trump has also 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, Ms. Kelly asked Mr. Trump about demeaning things he’d said about women. Mr. Trump viewed this as a declaration of war from Fox News’ management. He later attacked Ms. Kelly in crude and sexist terms.
And Mr. Trump has obliquely raised a more specific issue in some other recent discussions about the upcoming debates, acknowledging that there will be questions about the charges filed against him in Manhattan — falsifying business records in connection with payments to a porn star — that could change the character of the debates.
Mr. Trump has negotiated with CNN to hold a town hall-style event, the type of event the network has held with Mr. Biden and with former Vice President Mike Pence. For Mr. Trump, taking part in the CNN event is a shot at both Fox and Mr. DeSantis, who refuses to engage with the mainstream media. Even as Mr. Trump attacks mainstream media coverage and calls reporters the “enemy of the people,” the former fixture of New York City’s tabloids routinely invites a handful of mainstream reporters on board his private plane, where he holds court and provides fodder for news stories.
A campaign official, speaking with anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the private deliberations, said Mr. Trump’s decision to leave the traditional Republican “comfort zone” was key to his victory in 2016 and contended that some candidates were now “afraid” to do anything other than Fox News.
The Trump campaign had warned the Republican National Committee not to announce any debates before Labor Day, because Mr. Trump had no intention of debating before then, according to two people familiar with the conversations. But last month, Ms. McDaniel, the chairwoman, announced on “Fox and Friends” that the network would host the first debate in August.
For the party committee, operating outside of Mr. Trump’s demands and appearing neutral is seen as a positive development, according to a person familiar with Ms. McDaniel’s thinking. An R.N.C. official declined to comment.
Ms. McDaniel also said that the R.N.C. would ask all debate participants to pledge they would support the party’s eventual nominee — no matter who that person is. Advisers to Mr. Trump were unsure whether he would agree to such a pledge.
Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.