By Jonathan Easley - 12/08/11 12:52 PM EST
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus advised presidential candidates against participating in a Donald Trump-moderated primary debate, but couched his warning with strong praise for the influential Republican businessman.
“First of all, candidates can do whatever they want to do,” Priebus said Thursday on “Fox and Friends,” noting that he can’t bar candidates from participating in the debate if they so choose.
“Now, I respect Newsmax and I respect Mr. Trump — we’ve done events together with Mr. Trump, so I mean, there’s no issue there. But I would have a concern and I do have a concern of a moderator who is talking of running as an independent still being a moderator of a debate. I would have an issue with that.”
From the moment it was announced, the Dec. 27 Newsmax-ION debate — which will be held in Des Moines, Iowa, and is the final debate before the Jan. 3 caucus — has been a lightning rod for controversy.
GOP front-runner Newt Gingrich immediately said he would attend the debate, and then traveled to Trump Tower in New York City to meet with the reality television star and real estate mogul. Rick Santorum is the only other candidate to commit to the debate thus far.
Jon Huntsman, who has had an ongoing spat with Trump, immediately declined.
The Ron Paul campaign strongly denounced the event, saying it was below the office of the presidency.
“The selection of a reality television personality to host a presidential debate that voters nationwide will be watching is beneath the office of the presidency and flies in the face of that office’s history and dignity,” Ron Paul 2012 national campaign chairman Jesse Benton said. “To be sure, Mr. Trump’s participation will contribute to an unwanted circus-like atmosphere.”
On Wednesday, Mitt Romney said he called Trump to inform him that he was too busy campaigning to make the debate.
Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are undecided.
“I would understand why candidates would say look, ‘I don’t know if I want to avail myself to a forum where the moderator might be’ .... albeit very slight, and again, we appreciate what Mr. Trump has done, but if you’re still talking about running as an independent candidate, then I think that’s a problem,” Priebus said. “I think it would be malpractice for me as an RNC chairman not to believe that that’s an issue.
“Candidates can do whatever they want.”
The debate has been a problem for the GOP because Trump remains influential in some conservative circles but cuts a controversial figure outside of them.
Because he remains adamant about the possibility of running as an independent, the party seems to have found a way to circumvent the issue.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Priebus said. “But I would also say to the candidates they can do what they want to do … but I would agree that having the person be the moderator, who is still talking about running as an independent — I think that’s a problem.
“I think that having a successful businessman serve as a moderator adds a lot of value. But, the only issue here, is whether the moderator should be a person who is still batting around the idea of running as an independent, and I think that should give some of these candidates cause for concern.”
Trump shot to the top of the GOP presidential polls in April, but withdrew from the field in May, citing a passion for business over politics.
Still, he has remained prominent in the primary process, holding private meetings with Romney, Perry, Bachmann, Herman Cain and Sarah Palin.
Trump is a controversial figure for some of his views that fall outside the mainstream. He remains skeptical that President Obama was born in the United States, despite the administration’s release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate.
Trump frequently takes to Twitter to criticize the president, once tweeting: “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.”