UPDATE: Donald Trump confirmed that he sat down with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson for an interview that will post at the exact time as the Republican presidential debate.
Trump, who is skipping the debate, wrote on his social media platform, Truth Social, “MY INTERVIEW WITH TUCKER CARLSON WILL BE AIRED TONIGHT AT 9:00 P.M. “SPARKS WILL FLY.” ENJOY!”
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His absence likely will be brought up at the debate, especially since Chris Christie will be on stage. The former New Jersey governor has staked much of his campaign on criticizing Trump.
Trump’s decision to counter program with the interview with Carlson, who was dropped from the Fox News lineup in April, is an obvious dig at the network. His presence at the debate would likely have meant higher ratings, although Fox News is still expected to get a viewership bump due to the fact that it will be the first debate of the 2024 cycle.
Trump’s campaign also reacted to reports that Fox News, in their questions to the candidates, will use highlight clips of Trump’s past statements. The campaign predicted that the moderators would have an “unnatural obsession” with Trump and said that they would be “tallying the number of times” his name is brought up, “and his total ‘speaking time,’ even though he is not in attendance.”
Trump has griped about Fox News’s coverage, including when it has focused on Ron DeSantis, who has been his chief rival for the Republican nomination. He’s also attacked Bret Baier, who is co-moderator of the debate along with Martha MacCallum. In an interview with Deadline last week, Baier said, “The news side is going to do stories that he doesn’t like, but it’s the news. So you take it with a grain of salt, and you keep moving and if you build it, they will come. I think they will come.”
The network previewed the stage with an overhead drone flyover, showing the eight candidates’ lecterns arranged on the crescent-shaped stage.
Trump’s biggest impact on the debate may come on Thursday, when he is set to turn himself in to face state racketeering and other charges in Georgia related to his efforts to reverse the 2020 election results. That will likely dominated the news cycle, rather than post-debate focus on key breakout moments from the event.
PREVIOUSLY, Tuesday: As much of the political press descends on Milwaukee, many of the stories coming out of the Fiserv arena have to do with the candidate who won’t be there: Donald Trump.
The most recent flap has been over whether Trump surrogates have been denied access by Fox News to the spin room, the post-debate circus where candidates and their representatives meet the media to deliver their take on who won and who lost.
Axios reported that Trump allies won’t be allowed in the spin room given network guidelines that restrict access only to staffers of candidates who are participating in the debate. According to a memo obtained by Deadline, participating candidates are being allowed only five spin room credentials.
“Any non-participating candidate/campaign is welcome in the Spin Room or Media Row as a guest of one of the media organizations with positions in those locations, using one of their credentials,” the network said in a memo to campaigns.
There were reports that Trump allies like Kari Lake, the GOP candidate for governor last year, planned to attend, along with Trump campaign figures like Jason Miller. They are expected to get seats in the arena, but those are doled out by the Republican National Committee, not the network.
In an interview with Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday, Fox News anchor Bret Baier, who is moderating the debate with Martha MacCallum, said that if any media invites a Trump surrogate to the spin room, “they are welcome to come.” He also raised the possibility that someone like Sean Hannity could invite the Trump surrogates.
“There are these stories out there that we are blocking them, and it is not true,” Baier said.
Later on Tuesday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said on Newsmax that Trump’s surrogates will get access to the spin room, in what he called a “little bit of confusion. I can tell you now that has all been sorted out.” It was not immediately clear which media outlet helped Trump’s team secure access and a Trump campaign spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The flap underscores the extent to which Trump and his allies will try to have a presence before, during and after the debate, even though the former president and GOP front runner is snubbing it.
Not only did Trump resist overtures from Fox News executives and personalities to participate in the debate, he seems to be actively working to draw attention away from it. Trump has done numerous interviews with Fox News personalities, including Hannity and Baier, but he’s also hammered the network on his social media platform, Truth Social. Last week, Trump griped that Fox & Friends “purposely show the absolutely worst pictures of me, especially the big ‘orange’ one with my chin pulled way back. They think they are getting away with something, they’re not. Just like 2016 all over again.”
Trump reportedly will counter-program the debate with a pre-recorded sit down interview with former Fox News Tucker Carlson, who now does a regular show posted to Twitter/X.
Carlson’s most recent show, an interview with Col. Douglas Macgregor, has drawn 5.7 million Twitter/X views. While that sounds significant, it compares to the 121 million views for Carlson’s first show in June. Twitter/X also counts as a view anyone who sees a post as they scroll, not just those who actually watch the video.
There also is speculation that Trump would plan for some other type of event during the debate, as he did when he refused to participate in a debate before the Iowa caucuses in 2015 and instead held a fund-raising rally.
Trump also plans to turn himself in on Thursday to face Georgia racketeering and other charges related to efforts to reverse 2020 election results in that state. That means that a significant amount of media attention on the day after the debate will be to that event, not on breakout moments among the Trump alternatives.
On Hewitt’s show, Baier said that he thought that “there has to be some planning” on the part of the Trump team to schedule his arrest for Thursday with the post-debate coverage in mind. “I think it is about sucking the oxygen out of the room for anyone who had a big night on Wednesday,” Baier said. “It is not a great counter-programming thing, but I do think it is calculated.”
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