Trump roils GOP debate scheme

Trump roils GOP debate scheme
© Getty Images

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE threw the Republican presidential campaigns for a loop on Monday, announcing that he’d break from a group seeking to gain control over the debate process and go it alone.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 2016 debates going forward.

As late as Monday afternoon, Trump campaign officials appeared to be on board with a group letter crafted by Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg, detailing how the campaigns expect the debates 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 spokesman for the GOP front-runner 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 on Monday came as news to the rest of the campaigns that, having wrested control of the process from the Republican National Committee, had gathered the night before in hopes of presenting a united front to the networks.

The Hill reached out to several campaigns in the wake of the breaking news, 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 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 little has changed and that the group would largely be moving forward as one.

He 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 at least a 30-second opening and closing statement and pre-approval of graphics displaying biographical information. It also moved to eliminate “lightning round” 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 at 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 candidates at CNBC’s handling of last week’s debate and anger at the RNC, which many candidates believed 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 the united front the candidates hoped to put forth suffered a crack on Monday with Trump’s announcement.

The Trump and Carson campaigns have talked openly about how their lofty spots in the race earned gave them more negotiating leverage than the other campaigns have over 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 billionaire businessman 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 GrahamGraham throws support behind Trump's Turkey sanctions Hillicon Valley: Warren takes on Facebook over political ads | Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservatives | Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill Fury over Trump Syria decision grows MORE’s White House 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 of 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."

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

"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' "Fox and Friends." "We've had no trouble negotiating with networks and my policy remains what it's always been: I'll debate anyone, any time, 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, like 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.”