Updated Aug 18, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Republicans brace for Trump cliffhanger on GOP debate

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Steer N' Stein bar at the Iowa State Fair on August 12, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Former President Trump speaks during a rally at the Steer N' Stein bar at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 12 in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidates are facing the distinct possibility that former President Trump will be absent from the debate stage next week, or he'll throw a curveball into the mix.

Driving the news: The New York Times reported on Friday that Trump plans to skip the Aug. 23 Republican primary debate and instead sit for an online interview with Tucker Carlson.

Zoom in: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who would be center stage in Trump's absence as the current second-place Republican in polls, has criticized Trump for planning to miss the debate.

  • "Nobody is entitled to this nomination," DeSantis said last month.
  • But a memo from DeSantis allies this week suggested a debate strategy of acting as Trump's defender if "[former Gov. Chris] Christie attacks him."
  • "Trump isn't here so let's just leave him alone," said the memo posted to the website of Axiom Strategies, which works for the DeSantis-aligned Never Back Down super PAC.

Christie has repeatedly goaded Trump over his indications that he would skip the debate.

  • "Surprise, surprise … the guy who is out on bail from four jurisdictions and can't defend his reprehensible conduct, is running scared and hiding from the debate stage," Christie wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Friday.

Former Vice President Mike Pence also said Friday that he hopes he has the chance to debate his "differences" with his former boss.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy told NBC News that he was planning for a Trump presence and his absence during the debate. "Maybe we'll do one with him and one without," he said.

The big picture: Trump would still loom large over Republican candidates fighting for the spotlight in his likely absence and maneuvering possible questioning about Trump's policy views and various legal woes.

  • Nine Republican presidential candidates appear to have qualified for the Republican National Committee's first debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  • A spokesperson for the RNC did not respond to Axios' request for comment, but chairperson Ronna McDaniel has previously said that it would be a "mistake" for Trump to miss the debate.

Trump for months has indicated that it is unlikely that he would participate in the first Republican primary debate, but he had kept the door open enough to stoke uncertainty.

  • Trump wrote on his Truth Social late Thursday: "People know my Record, one of the BEST EVER, so why would I Debate?"
  • A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to Axios' request for comment.

Go deeper: Christie tries to shame Trump into GOP debate

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