Former President Trump is fueling questions over how he’ll approach the second GOP presidential primary debate later this month as his lead in polls appears to be solidifying.
The former president’s allies have already signaled he’ll skip the next debate, which is being hosted Sept. 27 by Fox Business at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
But speculation is also growing as to how Trump will seek to counterprogram the event, where most of his rivals — including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and former Vice President Mike Pence — are expected to gather.
“President Trump usually comes up with something creative, but also it’s not really necessary,” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), a prominent Trump ally, told The Hill. “… He has been out and about with the people for nearly three years now since he left the White House. He has still had a very strong presence throughout our nation,”
Members of the party anticipate the former president will likely counterprogram the event after he snubbed the first debate, when he sat down for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson in a video that was released on X, formerly Twitter, instead.
“I don’t think that he has any other court appearances that he can try to strategically time and line up to kind of interfere with it, but I think they’re gonna have to try to counterprogram it in some way to try to steal some of the headlines away from the folks who are on the debate stage,” said Sarah Matthews, former Trump White House deputy secretary.
“If there’s anything I know about Trump, it’s that he loves attention,” she added.
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign, also said he expected Trump to counterprogram the event, suggesting the possibility of a rally or another interview.
Still, he said that regardless of how Trump counters the second debate, it won’t deter the significant amount of attention the second debate will attract.
“The entire Republican Party is gonna be focused on the debate stage at the Reagan Library. And if you’re not on the debate stage, you’re not top of mind that night, so I don’t think it really matters what he does, because I don’t think you can distract from it,” Conant said.
“If the candidates on the stage aren’t going to attack him, then he doesn’t need to distract from it,” he added.
Trump fueled weeks of speculation over whether he would attend the first GOP debate hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee last month. Eventually, he posted on his Truth Social platform he would not participate, pointing to his poll numbers showing him still widely leading the rest of the 2024 GOP primary field.
His team has signaled Trump is likely to not stray from that strategy given his strength among the primary electorate.
“[Trump is] up by a lot, I don’t think he needs to [debate] right now. I think he’s in the driver’s seat,” Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller told NewsNation’s “The Hill” on Wednesday. “And … until some of these guys actually show that they belong even on the same stage as him, then I would say he doesn’t need to.”
Miller said Trump’s assertion that he’s not doing the debates should be taken “at face value until he says something differently.” Earlier that day, the former president suggested in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt that he might be open to doing a debate in Alabama.
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung suggested in an email to The Hill that Trump’s counterprogramming with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson got considerable views on X, despite not being at the debate, and he’s even expanded his lead since the debate.
One poll by The Wall Street Journal earlier this month showed Trump widening his lead against DeSantis since a similar one conducted in April, showing the former president at 59 percent among GOP primary voters and DeSantis at 13 percent.
A CNN poll this week found Trump leading DeSantis by 34 points, compared to a June poll that had Trump leading DeSantis by 21 points.
One survey from Emerson College Polling showed a 6-percent dip for Trump after the debate, though executive director Spencer Kimball noted at the time that “the question from this poll is whether this is a blip for Trump or if the other Republican candidates will be able to rally enough support to be competitive for the caucus and primary season.” Most polls have not shown Trump’s numbers dropping noticeably in the wake of the Milwaukee event.
“President Trump won the first debate, and he didn’t even need to be there,” Cheung said, who called the counterprogramming “a substantive discussion about what he would do in his second term.”
“Post-debate, President Trump’s poll numbers grew even more, and he now holds the biggest leads he’s had in the primary and general elections. President Trump is always right,” he added.
Cheung declined to answer a question about the former president’s plans or possible counterprogramming around the second debate.
Allies of the former president maintain that the primary isn’t even a contest — a sentiment that comes as his primary challengers, including DeSantis, have struggled to close the gap against Trump.
“There is no debate. It has been clear for months that President Trump will be the Republican nominee,” House GOP Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) told The Hill in a statement. “This election is the most important election in our lifetime, and I will continue to call on Republicans to coalesce our entire party apparatus behind President Trump’s campaign which is facing unprecedented, unconstitutional, and illegal attacks from Biden’s weaponized Department of Justice.”
Other Republicans concede that Trump’s decision not to participate in the debates is unlikely to affect his standing in the primary and is probably the safest option for him anyway.
“From a strategic perspective, absolutely not,” GOP strategist and Trump campaign alum Brian Seitchik said when asked if Trump should attend the second debate.
“He paid no penalty in recent polling for skipping the first debate. There was no breakout performance in that debate where someone has appeared as a primary rival. So until there’s a political price to pay, I suspect he’s going to continue skipping debates,” he added.
Still, some Republicans say his effort to undercut the first debate with the Carlson interview was largely overshadowed by the news coverage of his legal woes.
“While he tried to counterprogram with the Tucker Carlson interview, I think that was actually pretty ineffective,” Matthews said. “I don’t think that anyone was really talking about the news [that] came out of that interview. The best counterprogramming he had was when he went the following day to be arraigned in Georgia. Like, everyone was talking about that and talking less about the debate.”
But some argue the approach of not participating in any of the debates is not sustainable even if it’s politically the safest option for Trump at this point. Sam Nunberg, a former adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign, noted that the former president’s decision to forgo the first debate in Iowa hurt him during the first-in-the-nation caucus when he ended up placing second that year.
“It remains to be seen that any candidate will win a presidential primary without debating. It’s never happened,” said Nunberg, who’s supporting DeSantis this cycle.
“I don’t think it’s sustainable not to debate, but once again, he doesn’t want to go up there and defend his record or his actions, and I don’t blame him. There’s only one place to go if he’s up there, and that’s down,” he added.
But Trump’s closest allies see few, if any, downsides to him skipping the debates.
“He does not need to debate his merits because he has shown everything that he stands for, not just through words on a pulpit grinning at the cameras, he’s done it through action,” Boebert said.