Home / Trump May Skip Debates, or Seek New Host, if Process Isn’t ‘Fair’

Trump May Skip Debates, or Seek New Host, if Process Isn’t ‘Fair’

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s campaign is considering only participating in general election debates if an outside firm serves as the host, and his advisers recently sat down with the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates to complain about the debates it hosted in 2016.

The Dec. 19 meeting between Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a prominent Republican and co-chairman of the commission, Brad Parscale, the campaign manager for Mr. Trump’s re-election effort, and another political adviser, Michael Glassner, came soon after Mr. Trump posted on Twitter that the 2016 debates had been “biased.”

Mr. Fahrenkopf said the meeting was cordial, but that Mr. Parscale essentially reiterated Mr. Trump’s complaints.

Mr. Parscale said “that the president wanted to debate, but they had concerns about whether or not to do it with the commission,” Mr. Fahrenkopf said, including worries about “whether or not the commission would be fair.”

Mr. Trump’s advisers asserted that the debate commission included “anti-Trumpers.” They also complained about previous moderators, Mr. Fahrenkopf said.

Mr. Fahrenkopf, in turn, insisted that the debate commission did not include any anti-Trump bias, and he said he walked Mr. Parscale through the guidelines for commission board members that require their neutrality.

He also said that with one exception, the commission did not think any of the moderators chosen over several decades had exhibited concerning behavior during the debates.

The one moderator he agreed was problematic was Candy Crowley, who was at CNN in 2012 when she moderated a debate between Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, and President Barack Obama.

Ms. Crowley fact-checked Mr. Romney when he wrongly claimed it took Mr. Obama 14 days to call an attack in Benghazi, Libya, an “act of terror.”

The meeting between Mr. Parscale and Mr. Fahrenkopf ended after 45 minutes with no resolution.

Since then, Mr. Parscale has told people that he was investigating other options for hosting the debates. It is not clear which outside firms he or other officials are talking to, and the campaign declined to provide any details.

“We want to have debates that are fair and are more geared toward informing the American people than to boosting the careers of the moderators,” Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s campaign, said of the meeting.

The commission has scheduled three presidential debates, to be held on college campuses in late September and October, as well as one vice-presidential debate.

Mr. Trump has been discussing the possibility of sitting out the general election debates for months. He has harbored bad feelings about the debate commission since the 2016 election, when he accused them of putting him at a disadvantage “on purpose” by giving him a “defective mic” at the first debate. (Mr. Trump was clearly audible to television viewers, but the commission said a technical malfunction affected the volume of his voice in the debate hall.)

After The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump had discussed the possibility of sitting the debates out, he wrote on Twitter that he wanted to face off against his eventual Democratic opponent. But he said that “the problem is that the so-called Commission on Presidential Debates is stacked with Trump Haters & Never Trumpers.”

He added that “there are many options, including doing them directly & avoiding the nasty politics of this very biased Commission. I will make a decision at an appropriate time but in the meantime, the Commission on Presidential Debates is NOT authorized to speak for me (or R’s)!”

Most people close to the president say his advisers are likely using a debate around debates to work with the commission, which was established in 1987 and has attempted to maintain its independence through every presidential cycle since then.

Representatives from both major presidential campaigns typically begin to approach the commission well before the party conventions, as Mr. Parscale did, and the commission spends months working with advisers and campaign lawyers to hammer out the specifics.

People close to the president also believe he has a slim window to try to affect who the moderators are, since there may be a presumptive Democratic nominee as soon as mid-March, and that person might push back against Mr. Trump’s attempts to influence the choice.

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