Former President Trump plots counterprogramming for GOP primary debate, sources say

Aug 17, 2023, 8:00 AM

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at the Faith and Freedom Roa...

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at the Faith and Freedom Road to Majority conference at the Washington Hilton on June 24 in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(CNN) — The current thinking among former President Donald Trump’s campaign advisers and those close to the former president is that he is not planning on participating in next week’s Republican presidential primary debate, three sources familiar with his plans tell CNN, and has been proposing counterprogramming to the event.

The sources say that President Trump has not done any prep for the debate, which is being hosted in Milwaukee by Fox News. However, one adviser argued he doesn’t need debate prep, and said there’s always a chance he may ultimately decide to participate at the 11th hour.

Former President Trump, meanwhile, has been throwing out different ideas for his own counterprogramming during the debate, the sources say, including sitting down with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson and calling into the different cable news shows.

Conversations regarding a potential interview with Carlson have taken place with President Trump’s team, but there is no definitive plan for him to do that as of now, they say.

Former President Trump has privately and publicly floated skipping either one or both of the first two Republican presidential primary debates and has repeatedly pointed to his commanding lead in the polls as one reason he is hesitant to share the stage with his GOP challengers.

Wednesday’s primary debate, the first of the 2024 campaign cycle, will come just over a week after the former president was indicted for the fourth time. On Monday night, a grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, charged President Trump with being the head of a “criminal enterprise” to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. The indictment included 18 co-defendants in addition to President Trump, 41 charges in total and 30 unindicted co-conspirators.

Lawyers for President Trump are in “ongoing negotiations” with the Fulton County District attorney’s office regarding details of his surrender, CNN previously reported.

As of now, former President Trump’s lawyers have not yet landed on a date for when President Trump will surrender, the sources said. He is expected to surrender at some point next week, setting up a potential collision course with the GOP debate.

The former president personally feels like he is in a very strong position to skip the debate after Fox News executives, including network president Jay Wallace and chief executive Suzanne Scott, traveled to his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club last month to persuade him to participate, sources close to President Trump told CNN, including one person who spoke about that meeting with the former president on Monday.

Former President Trump, who prior to that dinner had been indicted for a third time over his efforts to remain in the White House after losing in 2020, did not commit to participating in the debate, CNN previously reported.

But President Trump’s personal read from that meeting, during which Wallace and Scott repeatedly encouraged him to attend the debate, is that the network is worried about ratings without him there.

President Trump’s advisers have also been coordinating with his surrogates to represent him in the spin room in Milwaukee next week, and have been in talks with former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Reps. Byron Donalds and Matt Gaetz of Florida and other Republicans in Congress to attend the debate next week. Members of President Trump’s campaign team are also planning be in attendance, three sources with direct knowledge of their plans tell CNN. It’s unclear, however, if Fox News will allow Trump’s surrogates and members of his campaign to attend if the former president himself does not show.

Fox News did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Over the last year, President Trump has trashed Fox News and Rupert Murdoch, the Fox Corporation chairman and controlling shareholder of the company, for not being sufficiently supportive of him.

Five Republican presidential candidates have so far qualified to participate in next week’s debate, meaning they have met the unique donor threshold, polled well enough in qualifying surveys and signed the pledge to support the party’s eventual nominee.

They include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.

Former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have both met the polling and donor thresholds to attend the debate, but they have yet to sign the RNC pledge to support the party’s eventual nominee – a requirement to participate in the debate. Pence told Fox News on Wednesday that he plans to sign the debate pledge.

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Former President Trump plots counterprogramming for GOP primary debate, sources say