Former President Trump has thrown Republican debate season into turmoil just as it is about to start.
In a Sunday post on Truth Social, Trump declared that, owing to his commanding lead in GOP primary polls, he would “therefore not be doing the debates!”
Trump had been widely expected to take a pass on the first debate, set for Wednesday evening in Milwaukee. But his announcement that he intends to stay away from all such events during the GOP primary was startling.
Trump senior adviser Jason Miller told Newsmax on Monday that people should take the former president’s post “at face value.”
Miller added: “He said he’s not doing the debates, and so until he says something differently, I would assume he’s not going to be participating.”
As with anything in Trump World, that could change. But it seems clear that the former president has at least decided to stay away from the Milwaukee clash.
Instead, the New York Times has reported Trump has recorded an interview with Tucker Carlson, the right-wing host who was ousted from the Fox News lineup in April.
There are some key pros and cons to Trump’s decision — for himself, for his rivals and for Fox and for other networks hosting debates.
Pro: He can float above the fray
Love or hate Trump, it’s tough to argue with the political calculus underpinning his decision.
He leads the GOP field by massive margins. What does he have to gain by debating? If he took the stage, he would be a target for all his rivals and could get hit by an unexpected verbal blow.
A CBS News/YouGov poll released Sunday put Trump ahead of second-placed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) by a huge 46 points, 62 percent to 16 percent. Biotech businessman Vivek Ramaswamy was third at 7 percent. No one else polled higher than 5 percent.
In the critical early states, Trump holds a big advantage, too. A NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of Iowa released Monday showed Trump on 42 percent support among likely Republican caucusgoers, with 19 percent for DeSantis and 9 percent for third-placed Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
With margins like that, the debate’s risks simply outweigh the rewards for Trump.
Con: He is ceding the stage, for once
Trump’s decision to do an interview with Carlson means he is offering counterprogramming, of a kind, to the debate.
But there will still be plenty of interest and hype around the Milwaukee clash. And Trump’s absence matters.
The former president, known for avidly courting the spotlight, is voluntarily taking himself out of a major event on the political calendar.
That could give his rivals room to make news on their terms.
The situation could grow more complicated as time goes on — assuming Trump indeed intends to stay away from all the debates.
For the moment, this is a choice made from a position of strength. But what if one or more of his rivals become a serious threat in the next few months?
Then, Trump would be faced with an unenviable choice: letting such rivals go unchallenged at future debates or having to back down from his no-debates stance.
Trump’s GOP rivals
Pro: They get to make their case
Trump’s rivals have been struggling to get heard since the campaign began.
Even criminal indictments of the former president — developments that would be politically fatal for anyone else but him — have kept him center stage.
A Trump-less debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday will be a rare respite from that.
It’s not only DeSantis or the rising Ramaswamy who could take advantage. Former Vice President Mike Pence, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Scott are all credible political figures who are about to get a real opportunity to make an impact.
The former president’s absence also means the event itself won’t become a story of a single Trump storm — as happened in the first debate of the 2016 cycle, when he tangled heatedly with moderator Megyn Kelly, then of Fox News.
Wednesday night’s debate gives his rivals their first and best chance to step out of his shadow.
Con: They need to tread carefully
Wednesday’s debate will dramatize the central question in this year’s GOP race: Is there any way to beat Trump in today’s Republican Party?
Some of his rivals, such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have attacked him forcefully. Others, like DeSantis, Ramaswamy, Haley and Scott, have taken pains not to alienate his supporters.
Neither tack has been successful.
Trump’s rivals face a complicated landscape when they take to the stage Wednesday.
If they are too conciliatory, they will miss an opportunity. If they are too strident in their attacks on the former president, that could elicit a backlash from GOP voters.
The weekend CBS poll found that just 9 percent of Republican primary voters wanted to hear the other candidates make the case against Trump, rather than making a case for themselves.
It also found 77 percent of those voters believe the indictments against Trump are politically motivated. Roughly three-quarters of the people currently backing the former president said they were doing so, at least in part, to show their support for him amid his legal fights.
Fox News and other networks hosting debates
Pro: Less chaos
Hosting any TV event with Trump at its center has big challenges. Just ask CNN, whose much-hyped town hall in May was widely panned as an embarrassment for the network and a gleeful victory for Trump.
The Kelly-Trump contretemps back in 2015 was tricky for Fox News, which was caught between the impulses of an audience that was already revved up for Trump and the imperative not to hang its moderator out to dry.
Whatever fiery moments the other candidates might create Wednesday, it’s extremely unlikely there will be any Trump-scale conflagration.
Con: Lower ratings
There is virtually no doubt a Trump-less debate will be less of ratings draw.
The fact that Trump has chosen to give an interview with Carlson will irk Fox News even further.
Carlson is still technically under contract with Fox, but no one expects him to return to its schedule. The conservative commentator has been seeking to build his independent brand with shows hosted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
The simple reality is that a debate without Trump is less salient and less compelling. That’s Fox’s problem on Wednesday. But other networks will also rue his absence, at least from a commercial perspective, when their turn comes around.