In a not-so-shocking turn of events, Donald Trump will not debate Bernie Sanders, depriving the American people of the least probable tête-à-tête since Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs squared off in 1973.
In what’s becoming a pattern—from self-funding his campaign to the minimum wage—it turns out that Trump wasn’t serious about the promise he made, speaking to Jimmy Kimmel on Wednesday, to debate Bernie Sanders. Perhaps the Republican nominee thought it was a joke. Sanders, however, did not, and quickly accepted the “offer.” Trump quickly backpedaled, with aides saying he didn’t really intend to debate:
Then Trump, apparently unable to help himself, back-backpedaled (or repedaled?) saying while campaigning in North Dakota that “I’d love to debate Bernie, but they’d have to pay a lot of money for it.” He said the debate would have to be in a “big arena” and raise $10 and 15 million “for maybe women’s health issues or something.” Not the most solid of pledges, it seemed.
Still, it was enough for the Sanders campaign. Around 3:30 p.m. on Friday his campaign issued a statement, saying it had received two offers from broadcast networks to host the debate and make a large charitable gift.
We are prepared to accept one of those offers and look forward to working with the Trump campaign to develop a time, place and format that is mutually agreeable. Given that the California primary is on June 7, it is imperative that this all comes together as soon as possible. We look forward to a substantive debate that will contrast the very different visions that Sen. Sanders and Mr. Trump have for the future of our country.
But Trump was never going to accept, and that’s when he, like a jock who had suckered a nerd into believing they would hang out, pulled the rug out from under Sanders. A little after 4 p.m., Trump issued a rambling little statement, using the declaration that he had passed the magical 1,237-delegate mark on Thursday as an excuse for backing out. Trump’s statement both validated Sanders’s claim that the Democratic nomination was fixed against him and at the same time used it as a pretext for skipping out.
“Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher,” he said.
Trump also claimed—contra Sanders—that the networks wouldn’t ante up for charity: “As much as I want to debate Bernie Sanders—and it would be an easy payday—I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party.” This isn’t the first time Trump has tried to tie his involvement in a debate to charity, unsuccessfully.
Trump comes out of his looking like an disingenuous schoolyard bully, but then that’s his stock in trade. Sanders comes out of it looking awfully thirsty, having gone after the bait in his increasingly futile quest for the Democratic nomination. Instead, he made himself a pawn in a Trump publicity game. Who knows what it means for Hillary Clinton. Some pro-Clinton pundits, like Jonathan Chait, were convinced that the debate would have been terrible news for Clinton, since Trump would likely have used the occasion to attack Clinton without response, while both would have undermined the legitimacy of her nomination. Who can say, though? Both Trump and Sanders are unpredictable, inconsistent debaters. It could have been a snooze, or it could have been a fracas. It would have been loud, and the Queens-Brooklyn accent showdown would have been tremendous.