RNC threatens to bar candidates from participating in official presidential debates
By: Allan Smith and Ali Vitali (NBC News)
Jan. 13, 2022, 5:16 PM UTC By Allan Smith and Ali Vitali
The Republican National Committee is considering changing its bylaws to prohibit GOP presidential candidates from participating in debates put on by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
"So long as the CPD appears intent on stonewalling the meaningful reforms necessary to restore its credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and nonpartisan actor, the RNC will take every step to ensure that future Republican presidential nominees are given that opportunity elsewhere," RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wrote in a letter Thursday to Frank Fahrenkopf and Kenneth Wollack, the co-chairs of the debate commission.
McDaniel said the party would initiate the rules change at its winter meeting, which is scheduled for February in Salt Lake City.
The letter was first reported by The New York Times.
The nonprofit commission, which is run by members of both parties and considers itself nonpartisan, was a target of former President Donald Trump's ire during the 2020 election. Trump withdrew from a debate the commission hosted in October 2020 after organizers made it virtual following his Covid diagnosis.
The RNC said it wants the commission to commit to hold a debate before the start of early voting and agree not to hold any matchups after the state deadlines to mail absentee ballots to military personnel and overseas voters. The RNC is also seeking term limits for the commission's board members and a ban on partisan political activity by officials and staffers of the commission.
The party also requested that the commission make its moderator selection process transparent, as well as adopt a code of conduct for debate moderators.
"These proposals are common sense solutions for an organization whose unique, nonpartisan role in American elections requires it to stand above the political fray," the RNC said.
Trump repeatedly lashed out at the debate commission in the fall of 2020. In late 2019, he tweeted that the commission was "stacked with Trump Haters & Never Trumpers," and he suggested that he would skip the debates altogether. In September 2020, after the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Trump took aim at moderator Chris Wallace, tweeting that the event amounted to a "two on one."
In response, the commission said in a statement: "The CPD deals directly with candidates for president and vice president who qualify for participation in the CPD's general election debates.
"The CPD's plans for 2024 will be based on fairness, neutrality and a firm commitment to help the American public learn about the candidates and the issues," the statement continued.
The two entities began talks about reform last spring, led by Fahrenkopf and RNC member David Bossie, a former top Trump campaign official, the letter said. The RNC said the commission has not taken steps to address its concerns for months.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison described the RNC's announcement as a "tantrum," adding that "voters can count on hearing from President Biden and Vice President Harris, who are proud of their records."
"Republicans can't win a fair fight and they know it," Harrison said in a statement. "After years of having their toxic policies exposed on the national stage, the RNC has decided they would rather hide their ideas and candidates from voters. And during the last presidential election, the Republicans decided to not have a platform for the first time ever so it's a natural progression, first no platform and now no debates."
Allan Smith is a political reporter for NBC News.
Ali Vitali is a political reporter for NBC News, based in Washington.
Ben Kamisar contributed.