Donald Trump doesn’t want to debate.
That’s the impression you might get after listening to a Fox News interview with the GOP presidential front-runner on Wednesday, when he announced that he would not attend a Republican primary debate planned for next week. “I think we’ve had enough debates,” Trump said, adding that he would instead be “doing a major speech” for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Fox News subsequently canceled the debate, stating that John Kasich said he would not participate if Trump did not. “Obviously there needs to be more than one participant,” Fox News executive vice president Michael Clemente said in a statement. “So the Salt Lake City debate is canceled.”
It’s the latest incident in Trump’s love-hate relationship with the media, a dynamic where the presidential candidate seems to call the shots more often than not. Trump routinely portrays journalists as vicious, cynical, and all-around out to get him. Yet for all his complaints, Trump has masterfully exploited the media over the course of his campaign, racking up free air time by routinely sucking up all of the oxygen in the race. Major television networks, meanwhile, have been extremely permissive with Trump, frequently allowing him to call in for interviews. The tactic has allowed the candidate to more easily achieve wall-to-wall coverage and steer the conversation in whatever direction he wants to take it.
Trump’s knack for securing free media coverage is undoubtedly a skill honed during his time as a reality-television star. The presidential candidate always seems to know just what to say and do to tap into coverage when it’s to his advantage. He surely also knows when it’s strategic to shun the spotlight. That secondary consideration is likely at play in Trump’s decision to sit out the now-canceled Fox News debate. The network has previously confronted Trump over apparent inconsistencies in his record and statements that would sink any other candidate during past debates.
This isn’t the first time Trump has opted to skip a Fox News debate. In January, Trump refused to participate in a debate after accusing network host Megyn Kelly of unfair coverage. Trump instead opted to hold a competing event where he could set the terms of engagement, ensuring that he would not face any kind of awkward confrontation. A desire to avoid uncomfortable questions may once again be a motivating factor for the real-estate mogul in this latest decision to sit out a debate. After all, why would Trump subject himself to intense scrutiny and questioning on the debate stage when it is so easy for him to garner far less rigorous coverage elsewhere?
As the primary season drags on, Trump’s campaign has also barred members of the media from covering events after the journalists in question put out unfavorable coverage of the campaign. The latest example arrived on Tuesday when a Politico reporter who co-bylined an unflattering story about Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had his credentials revoked, upending his plans to cover the candidate after the results of Tuesday’s primary contests. (The Trump campaign did not provide Politico an official explanation as to why the credentials had been rescinded.) Members of the media have expressed alarm at the way that Trump’s campaign seems to set the tone for coverage, and others have criticized fellow journalists for not doing more to upend the status quo. The challenge for media outlets that want to more forcefully challenge Trump, however, as Fox News has learned firsthand, is that the candidate is likely to simply walk away.