Trump roils GOP debate scheme
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE threw Republican presidential campaigns for a loop Monday, announcing that he’d break from a group seeking to gain control over the debate process and go it alone.

Representatives from nearly every campaign, including Trump’s, gathered at a Washington-area hotel on Sunday night to hash out a list of demands they hoped to extract from the networks hosting the debates going forward.

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As late as Monday afternoon, Trump campaign officials appeared to be on board with a letter crafted by Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg that detailed how the campaigns expect future match-ups to proceed.

But The Washington Post first reported late Monday that Trump would reject the group letter and instead negotiate with the networks on his own.

 “As we have for the previous three debates, the Trump campaign will continue to negotiate directly with the host network to establish debate criteria that will determine Mr. Trump’s participation,” a Trump aide said in an email to The Hill. “This is no different than the process that occurred prior to the FOX, CNN, and CNBC debates.”

Trump’s reversal came as news to the rest of the campaigns, which, having wrested control of the process from the Republican National Committee (RNC), had gathered the night before in hopes of presenting a united front to the networks.

The Hill reached several campaigns, and all were learning about Trump’s decision for the first time.

“He was among one of the first candidates to pull us all together. It seems kind of strange that he’s jumping ship,” said one Republican campaign aide. 

Even Ben Carson’s campaign manager, Barry Bennett, who was instrumental in setting up the weekend meeting and pushing for changes to the process, learned about Trump’s withdrawal through media reports.

“From what I can tell, he wants to send his own letter on his own letterhead,” Bennett said, going through his email to see if he’d missed something.

Still, Bennett insisted that little has changed and that the group would largely be moving forward as one.

Bennett said he expected most of the campaigns would sign a letter within the next 48 hours that they’d send to the networks requesting information on the debate formats and outlining candidate expectations.

The letter, which is close to being finalized, demanded the candidates get opening and closing statements of at least 30 seconds; pre-approval of graphics displaying their biographical information; and the elimination of lightning-round-style questions, which the candidates believe lack substance and contribute to “gotcha” moments.

The campaigns also wanted a pledge that the debates will not run longer than two hours, that the rooms will be kept below 67 degrees and a general agreement from the networks that the moderators would focus on substantive issues and not pit the candidates against one another using personal attacks.

Sunday night’s meeting was spurred by furor from the campaigns at CNBC’s handling of last week’s debate and anger at the RNC, which many candidates believe didn’t negotiate strongly enough on their behalf or communicate the details of the debate formats in a timely manner. A representative from the RNC was not on hand for the meeting.

But Trump’s announcement puts a crack in the united front candidates hoped to display.

The Trump and Carson campaigns have talked openly about how being ahead in the polls earned them more leverage with the networks.

“The Trump and Carson campaigns have the opportunity to drive this forward in a good way,” Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told The Hill just hours before Trump backed away from the group. “These two [candidates] are far and away the front-runners, so that’s a factor in who has leverage.”

Now, the campaigns have lost the No. 1 candidate and the negotiating power he would have brought to the table.

Campaign advisers said they were annoyed but not surprised by Trump’s power play. They worry that he’ll negotiate only for those things that benefit his campaign.

“I think the Trump folks are overestimating their ability to negotiate on their own,” said Brett O’Donnell, a senior adviser to Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamObama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements Trump putting TikTok ban on hold for 45 days: report This week: Negotiators hunt for coronavirus deal as August break looms MORE’s campaign. 

“They want to set the parameters, but if they boycott and every other campaign shows up, that’s a big problem for them,” he said. “I hope they’ll stick with us and we’ll all stick together. We’re all Republicans running in a Republican primary. We want the debates to be good for all our candidates, not just one or two.”

Trump’s break was evidence of how difficult it is for the campaigns for 15 candidates to achieve consensus.

On Monday morning, just hours after the meeting, there were already signs of discord among the group.

Chris Christie adviser Ken McKay emerged from Sunday night’s meeting speaking positively about the developments. 

But on Monday morning, Christie was publicly blasting the group for squeezing the RNC out of the process.

“We’ll never agree,” Christie said on CNN’s “New Day.” “The RNC has done a good job on this. They took steps against NBC when they felt they had gotten out of line. I think we should allow the RNC to continue doing what they’re doing.”

And Carly Fiorina, who was the only candidate not represented at Sunday night’s meeting, dismissed the exercise entirely.

“I wasn’t there. My campaign wasn’t there. We’re here in Iowa talking to voters instead of being in D.C. talking about debates,” Fiorina said on Fox News’s “Fox and Friends.” 

“We’ve had no trouble negotiating with networks, and my policy remains what it’s always been: I’ll debate anyone, anytime, anywhere. We need to understand that the media is not going to be fair.”

The campaigns already faced tough negotiations with the television networks, which will seek to maintain editorial control over the process.

One network official said the campaigns could not make demands about certain aspects of production outlined in the campaigns’ letter, such as whether the camera showed crowd or moderator reactions.

The official also questioned whether networks would cede control over the biographical graphics displayed next to each candidate.

“I think as a journalist you can assume it’s unlikely,” said another network official. “There’s a difference between negotiating what microphone is used and where the podiums are versus the editorial control aspect. At the end of the day, the networks are news organizations and have a job to do.”