When Donald Trump and his campaign team told reporters on Tuesday that he wouldn’t participate in tonight’s debate on Fox News, it was hard to know whether or not to believe him. Maybe it was just a little cry for attention. Perhaps he’d seek some kind of concession from the network. Maybe this was the latest move to dominate the news cycle for another day or two.
In the end, it’s not like the Republican frontrunner would just blow off a prime-time event on the party’s most important news network, right? Wrong. The NBC First Read crew noted this morning:
Today isn’t just four days out until the Iowa caucuses; it’s also the final GOP debate before Monday’s contest. But as you know by now, there’s a TAD bit of drama on that front. After refusing to participate in tonight’s debate, Trump is holding a competing event in Des Moines to benefit veterans’ organizations.
Blowing off a debate poses a potential headache, but blowing off a charitable event for veterans isn’t really an option. When the Trump campaign organized this alternative event, it effectively committed the candidate to skipping the debate. It was the point at which the conversation shifted from “he’ll eventually agree to participate in the debate” to “he’s really not going.”
The drama, however, is ongoing and multifaceted. During an interview with the candidate last night, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly implored Trump to participate in the debate. Trump wouldn’t budge. Fox’s Roger Ailes reportedly reached out to Trump’s daughter, which also did not change the dynamic.
Ted Cruz’s super PAC has offered to donate $1.5 million to a charity of Trump’s choosing if the Republican frontrunner agrees to a one-on-debate ahead of Monday’s caucuses – this is a trick that should be familiar to Trump – but such an event appears unlikely.
Meanwhile, according to Trump, two of his 2016 rivals reached out to him last night to ask if they, too, could skip the debate and join him at his veterans’ event. Whether or not this happened in reality is unclear, though if we’re talking about candidates stuck at the kids-table debate, it certainly seems possible.
What we don’t know is what effect this is going to have on the race itself. The latest polls show Trump in a dominant position, but those surveys were conducted before this debate drama.
One could make a perfectly credible case that Trump’s debate boycott raises questions anew about his temperament and judgment, especially while warring with a cable news network that remains a staple of the Republican media diet. This is a huge risk, and it’s a gamble he may lose.
One could also make an equally credible case that Trump is proving himself to be the candidate who’s taken a command role over the party and the process.
Rush Limbaugh, whose influence in Republican politics has few rivals, appears to be taking Trump’s side in this feud with Fox News.
Looking ahead, there are some hard-to-answer questions to consider. Will Trump manage to dominate the debate he’s skipping? Will the ratings drop? With Trump not there, will the remaining candidates turn their attacks on Ted Cruz? Will Trump’s support go up or down as a result of this flap?
Meanwhile, Democrats are dealing with some debate drama of their own. It looked like we were on track to see another Democratic debate ahead of the New Hampshire primary – Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley are on board – but Bernie Sanders’ campaign has added a wrinkle.
As of last night, Team Sanders has said he’ll agree to the Feb. 4 debate in New Hampshire, but only if Clinton meets a variety of conditions: Clinton would have to agree to participate in three additional debates, spanning March to May, on top of the two scheduled debates and the possible event next week. What’s more, Sanders demands that these three new debates cannot be held on a Friday, Saturday, or holiday weekend.
If Clinton accepts these terms, plans for the Feb. 4 debate can move forward. If not, Sanders will apparently balk. Watch this space.