The latest federal indictment against former President Trump has raised fresh speculation over whether he will participate in the first GOP presidential primary debate later this month.
The former president and his team have signaled that he’s leaning toward not participating in the event given his frontrunner status.
But some Republicans think Trump would be better served if he had the opportunity to make his case in front of a national audience — and defend himself in person against his fiercest rivals.
On Thursday, Fox News host Dana Perino said that it could be strategically beneficial for the former president to attend.
“I was just thinking, if I’m President Trump and I haven’t committed yet to the debate, I might be thinking ‘I want to be at that debate to defend myself,’” said Perino, who served as White House press secretary under former President George W. Bush. “I’m just thinking from a strategic standpoint, if you have that commanding of a lead, and you want these people behind you, and you know the Republican Party faithful is behind you, why wouldn’t you want to try to put it away that night?”
But other Republicans argue there isn’t much more for Trump to say on the matter, pointing to how the former president has frequently called it “a political witch hunt.”
“I don’t think that’s there anything he can really say other than the narrative that’s out there now,” said Saul Anuzis, a GOP strategist and former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. “His supporters have all the proof they need to see this as a witch hunt.”
And some Republicans are skeptical that the first debate would be a good move at all for him.
“Trump’s team realizes that having him debate while having such a large lead — both because and in spite of the indictments — is a huge risk,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former spokesman at the Republican National Committee. “The other candidates need a real moment at a debate with Trump to catapult themselves and Trump should want to deny them of the opportunity.”
Matt Bartlett, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist, told The Hill that the indictment wouldn’t necessarily be a deciding factor in terms of whether or not Trump will attend.
“I don’t think he’s thinking about going to the debate as a chance to defend himself as opposed, to going to the debate to punch out and knock out some of these candidates just like he’s always done,” Bartlett said. “No one wanted to hear Mike Tyson talk about the charges and the reasons he went to jail. People wanted to see Mike Tyson go to the heavyweight fight and clean somebody’s clock.”
So far, Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) have qualified for the forum.
Christie, who has prepped Trump for past debates, has telegraphed that he would go on the offense against his former boss. Meanwhile, recent comments from DeSantis, who has consistently trailed Trump in second place, suggest that he could be getting ready to step up his criticism of the former president as well.
“All those theories that were put out did not prove to be true,” DeSantis said Friday of the 2020 election conspiracies that have been pushed by Trump, his most direct rebuke of the former president’s unfounded claims that he won that election. “It was not an election that was conducted the way I think that we want to, but that’s different than saying [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro stole votes or something like that,” he added. “Those theories, you know, proved to be unsubstantiated.
With or without Trump on stage, DeSantis will likely be a prime target.
“DeSantis will distinguish himself from Trump and all of the other candidates will throw mudpies at DeSantis,” said Mark Weaver, an Ohio-based Republican strategist.
Trump has cited his formidable lead in the Republican primary when suggesting he won’t attend the debate. The former president leads the field with 53.1 percent support, according to the latest Real Clear Politics polling average. DeSantis trails in second place at 17.6 percent. Ramaswamy comes in third at 5.2 percent, while Pence clocked in at 4.8 percent. The rest of the field polled in the three percent range or lower.
“Let them debate so I can see who I MIGHT consider for Vice President!” Trump said in a post on his social media platform Truth Social on Monday.
“When he says that this is the vice presidential debate, what he’s really trying to say here is I’m going to bleed these other candidates dry because if I’m not there, they can’t boost their fundraising,” said one Republican strategist.
Trump’s allies indicate that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether he participates in the debate or not.
“If President Trump debates, he will win the nomination. If President Trump doesn’t debate, he will win the nomination,” said Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for the pro-Trump super PAC MAGA, Inc.
The New York Times reported this week that on Tuesday Trump dined with top executives at Fox News, who asked him to consider attending the first Republican primary debate later this month.
“Trump’s going to do what he wants to do,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based GOP strategist. “I think he’s earned a first-round bye because of where he is in the polls but at some point, he’s going to debate. The question is just when.”
Trump could skip the first debate and host or participate in a counterprogramming event, which he did in 2016 ahead of the Iowa caucus.
“He has no reason to debate,” Weaver said. “He could hold a rally in some bright-red state the night of the debate and garner news coverage and sign up volunteers and say all the things he wants to say.”