Trump May Skip Some G.O.P. Debates, but Advisers See a Biden Face-Off as Key

by Joe Holman
Trump May Skip Some G.O.P. Debates, but Advisers See a Biden Face-Off as Key

On July 17, the head of the Republican Party traveled to Donald J. Trump’s private club and home in Bedminster, N.J., to make a personal pitch for him to join in the party’s first sanctioned debate of the presidential nominating contest.

One of the arguments that the Republican National Committee chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, made to Mr. Trump that day was that by skipping the debate, he would give President Biden an excuse to get out of debating Mr. Trump should they meet again in 2024, according to two people familiar with their conversation.

Mr. Trump apparently disregarded the warning: He told people close to him in recent days that he had made up his mind not to participate in the first debate.Instead, he sat for a taped interview with Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host, which is expected to be posted online Wednesday. He suggested in a Sunday post on his social media site, Truth Social, that he would not face his primary rivals onstage at all, saying he has a wide lead and “I will therefore not be doing the debates!”

Still, Ms. McDaniel’s argument appealed to a key focus of the Trump campaign as it looks ahead to a possible rematch with Mr. Biden: getting both men onstage. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said publicly that he wants debates with Mr. Biden, and Mr. Trump’s advisers view face-offs with the incumbent president as vital to Mr. Trump’s chances of winning.

It is unusually early to begin considering the contours of a general election debate, with months still to go until the Iowa caucuses and not a single vote cast in a primary race so far defined by Mr. Trump’s four criminal indictments. But with both parties heading in the direction of renominating the same candidates as in 2020 — Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump — some thinking has already gone into potential matchups, at least on the Trump side.

The strong desire of Mr. Trump and his advisers to see him debate Mr. Biden may lead to Mr. Trump undercutting work by the R.N.C., which has spent the last two years searching for an alternative to the Commission on Presidential Debates for hosting general election matchups. Every presidential race since 1976 has had at least two televised debates, and the C.P.D., which is run by members of both parties, has overseen the process for every election since 1988.

The Republican Party sought to end that streak after 2020. But people with knowledge of the matter said that Mr. Trump is open to returning to a C.P.D. debate if that format is the only way he can ensure a debate against Mr. Biden.

One Republican strategist with knowledge of the Trump team’s thinking, who was granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to disclose private conversations, put it bluntly: The party committee “will not control the party nominee’s debate strategy in the general election.”

But the party is trying to do just that. The “beat Biden pledge” that the R.N.C. is requiring candidates to sign to participate in primary debates also stipulates that they agree to participate only in R.N.C.-sanctioned general election debates. Mr. Trump has not yet signed it because he has not agreed to attend a primary debate.

The Republican strategist added that “the end goal is as many debates as possible between Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” and that the Trump campaign would do whatever was necessary to achieve that goal.

A senior Biden official, who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said that there have been no senior-level staff meetings about debates yet, nor any discussions with the president himself.

But people in Mr. Biden’s orbit had their own frustrations with the C.P.D. in 2020, in particular its handling of Covid protocols. The belated revelation that Mr. Trump had at least once tested positive for the virus just days before participating in the first debate only deepened their concern.

A Trump spokesman and an R.N.C. spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Since 2021, the R.N.C. has been pushing the C.P.D. for changes to how the debates are held. And, over the past year, it has actively looked for a non-C.P.D. debate host.

But the debates are negotiated between the nominees’ campaigns and the commission, meaning the decision to participate is ultimately up to the nominee, and that the R.N.C. cannot force his or her hand.

In the past, candidates have skipped primary debates. And Mr. Biden, like other incumbents dating back to Gerald Ford, is declining primary debates. But there’s little precedent in modern history for an incumbent president skipping general election debates, save for Jimmy Carter.

There have been no discussions between the C.P.D. and any of the campaigns as of yet, according to the commission.

“The C.P.D. starts discussions with the campaigns only after the nominating process has concluded,” Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., the C.P.D. co-chairman and a former chairman of the R.N.C., said in a statement.

The group is expected to reveal the locations, dates and criteria for the general election debates in October. Typically, the C.P.D. hosts three sanctioned debates after both nominees have been selected at the party conventions.

Issues with the commission predate 2020, as its monopoly on general election debates has for years been a source of frustration for nominees from both parties. That is especially true for Republicans, who have complained bitterly since the 2012 presidential cycle about one of the moderators, Candy Crowley, then of CNN, fact-checking the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in real time during a debate with the incumbent president, Barack Obama.

In 2020, Mr. Trump’s team was enraged that the then-Fox News host Chris Wallace, whose coverage Mr. Trump often railed against, served as the moderator for the first C.P.D. debate. When the C.P.D. announced that the second debate would be virtual, the Trump team was apoplectic, and Mr. Trump announced he would not participate. Mr. Biden followed suit.

The decision to conduct the second debate virtually came after Mr. Trump appeared to be under the weather at the first debate on Sept. 29, 2020, then posted on Twitter less than 72 hours later that he had tested positive for Covid.

Since then, Mr. Trump’s former White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has published a memoir about his tenure, in which he states that Mr. Trump had a positive Covid test three days before the debate, followed by a negative one. The assertion raised questions about when Mr. Trump’s team knew he was sick and whether it was kept from the C.P.D. so that Mr. Trump did not have to cancel his appearance.

In addition, Mr. Biden’s team was angered — and complained to the C.P.D. afterward — when several members of the Trump family, except for first lady Melania Trump, removed the masks they were required to wear to be in the audience as they sat in the front row for that first matchup.

The senior Biden official said that the Biden team felt a lot of people were put at risk at the time, and that it was likely that the president’s campaign would press for its own specific rules. One possibility that could be raised would be conducting the debate without a live audience, given what happened recently when CNN hosted a New Hampshire primary town hall-style event with Mr. Trump. The former president fed on the laughter and applause from a cheering audience as he tried to dominate during his 70 minutes of prime time.

The official did not say whether Mr. Biden, an institutionalist who has typically been averse to breaking with tradition, would be inclined to skip a debate.

A spokesman for Mr. Biden declined to comment.

The sense that Mr. Trump could open himself up to the possibility of Mr. Biden choosing not to debate because Mr. Trump chose to skip at least one primary face-off has been underscored in recent days by Republicans with rival campaigns.

After The New York Times reported on Friday that Mr. Trump had told aides he would not join next week’s event, Christina Pushaw, an aide to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, highlighted a post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, that Mr. Trump’s adviser Jason Miller had written in August 2020 about Mr. Biden: “If Joe Biden is too scared to debate, he’s too scared to run the country.”

Mr. Trump and his advisers believe that debating his primary rivals at this point does little for him politically, given how far ahead he is in primary polls. However, national polls show that he would have a tight race against Mr. Biden, and aides think Mr. Trump can draw a favorable contrast to the president.

David Axelrod, who was a top adviser to former President Barack Obama during both of his presidential campaigns, said that the challenge for Mr. Biden’s team is that even if the two camps agree on debate criteria, Mr. Trump refuses to follow rules.

“I think the fact that Trump is utterly irresponsible and turns every event into a circus and a platform for disseminating disinformation is the basis for saying: This isn’t worthwhile,” Mr. Axelrod said.

He explained that Mr. Trump’s belief that the debates could bolster him may be misguided, pointing to the Sept. 29, 2020, debate, in which Mr. Trump was widely panned as having been too aggressive.

“He doesn’t necessarily help himself, either,” Mr. Axelrod said. “That first debate really hurt last time.”

But Mr. Axelrod said that the notion that Mr. Biden could use Mr. Trump’s avoidance of debates as a reason to avoid them himself was a “valid” question, noting that “whether you feel in a close race you could get away with that — and whether the public would accept it — is another question.”

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