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Trump is threatening to boycott the debates — here’s how to make sure he shows up

The New York Times reported Thursday that President Trump is mulling boycotting the three general election debates if the Commission on Presidential Debates does not provide moderators for the events he feels will be fair and unbiased. 

There are two reasons to think he won’t follow through on this threat.

First, Trump will often take an extreme position as an opening salvo in negotiations. In this case, a give-me-the-moderators-I-want-or-I-won’t show-up approach doesn’t seem far-fetched on the surface. During the 2016 Republican primaries, the reality TV star-turned-party front-runner boycotted a Fox News debate because Megyn Kelly had been chosen as one of three moderators.

“Let’s see how much money Fox is going to make on the debate without me,” Trump said at a news conference ahead of the proposed debate. 

“This is rooted in one thing — Megyn Kelly, whom he has viciously attacked since August and has now spent four days demanding be removed from the debate stage,” the network said in response to the boycott. 

“What’s interesting here is Trump is not used to not controlling things, as the chief executive of a large organization,” Kelly said on “The Kelly File” the night the boycott was announced. “But the truth is, he doesn’t get to control the media.” 

So would Trump actually boycott this time? History says yes, he could, although not showing up to a primary debate is much different than boycotting a general election debate with Election Day in sight.  

Also keep in mind that more than 84 million people watched the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Trump in 2016, and the numbers never dipped below 70 million for the final two stanzas. For the president to walk away from audiences like that just weeks before either returning to private life or earning four more years in the White House would be political suicide given how close the race will probably be.   

If you asked Trump to name three debate moderators he would be satisfied with who aren’t opinion hosts, he’d likely have a very difficult time doing so. 

Here are three options that would likely satisfy both the debate commission and the Democratic nominee:

1) Bret Baier, Fox News: Trump has gone after many journalists by name since taking office, but Baier, who anchors what Time Magazine has called “the only ‘straight newscast’ in cable news at 6PM/ET” via “Special Report” isn’t one of them. Baier also has the résumé (he co-moderated a debate in 2016 and has interviewed three presidents, including Trump) and the accolades (the 2017 Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism) to easily qualify for the job. 

The president has targeted Fox News in recent months, with his main gripe being that the network has booked Democratic lawmakers and given a platform to people who are critical of Trump on certain issues and in certain situations. In other words, Trump faults Fox News for trying to live up to its “fair and balanced” motto.

Baier acknowledged such in a recent interview with CBS News, but his overall perspective on what is most important is telling. 

“I think it’s part of the deal, as you guys know,” Baier said of Trump’s criticism of Fox News. “Listen, we’re trying to call balls and strikes. If we can do that every day — be fair to him but also cover the news fairly to all sides — that’s what I’m trying to do.” 

2) David Muir, ABC News: Trump has done two interviews with Muir since taking office, which puts the “World News Tonight” anchor at the top of rankings among the network evening news anchors. The president doesn’t seem to have any issue with Muir, who stays away from anything resembling controversial statements and the look-at-me culture of journalists making themselves the story that is increasingly permeating the industry. 

This quote From Muir in an interview with Time sticks out.

“We go out there and try to earn that trust every single night,” he said. “And we’re not perfect. One of the great gifts of this job is that you can go out the next night and give it your best shot again. But we never forget that we’re reporting to a divided country.”   

3) Kelly O’Donnell, NBC News: O’Donnell has been on the front lines covering Trump as an NBC White House correspondent since his inauguration. The president certainly knows who she is and which network she represents (which happens to be his second-most disliked, behind only CNN). But O’Donnell asks relevant and solid questions, never makes a show of it, and has been covering Washington, D.C., politics going back to the Clinton administration. 

O’Donnell described her approach to covering the news upon winning a Career Achievement Award for Distinguished Reporting on Congress from the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association. 

“Most questions we ask of others, the newsmakers we cover, but some are questions best directed at ourselves,” she said. “Will I be worthy of what is required today? Knowing it could be a seemingly ordinary day or one where another piece of history is carved. Will I be fair? Will I be thorough? Will I keep my opinions out of my work? Will I keep a sense of humor and a sense of humanity? Will I remember in the more exhausting moments how lucky I am to do this work?”  

The general election debates may be more than 10 months away, but the president is already doing the political version of working the refs.

In the end, he’ll show up in order to avoid, among other things, being called a coward. And if the debate commission is truly nonpartisan, it would be wise to consider the three journalists above. 

Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill and co-host of “WOR Tonight with Joe Concha” weeknights on 710-WOR in New York. Follow him on Twitter @JoeConchaTV.  

Tags ABC News CBS News CNN Commission On Presidential Debates David Muir debates Donald Trump Donald Trump Fox News Hillary Clinton Kelly O'Donnell megyn kelly NBC The New York Times

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