Former President Trump doesn’t plan to attend Wednesday’s first Republican presidential primary debate in Wisconsin, but he and his team are working to ensure he remains a dominant presence around the event anyway.
Surrogates for the former president are expected to descend on Milwaukee in an effort to make their presence known on the ground. And Trump is doing a pre-taped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that will reportedly air the same night as the debate, offering up his own counterprogramming to try and divide voters’ attention.
The debate happens to be the same week Trump must also surrender to authorities in Georgia after he was charged over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in the state. Trump said he will turn himself in Thursday, meaning the timing could create yet another spectacle that could swallow up a positive news cycle for one of his rivals coming out of the debate.
“The person in the lead has almost no incentive to debate, so of course he’s going to take a pass,” said Peter Loge, director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.
“That said, the debate will be about Donald Trump, which is what Trump wants,” Loge said. “There will be questions about the 2020 election, about the indictments, about classified documents. So, Trump doesn’t need to be there to make it about Trump.”
The former president wrote Sunday on Truth Social that he would not be participating in the debates, citing a poll from CBS News he spent most of the day touting that showed him leading the next closest GOP candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by a whopping 46 percentage points.
The announcement came after Trump had for months publicly and privately questioned why he should subject himself to insults and attacks on the debate stage from candidates polling in the single digits.
But Trump’s team is not entirely ceding the stage to the nearly 10 other rivals who will be in Milwaukee on Wednesday. A source familiar with the matter said there was a “concerted effort” by Trump’s campaign to have surrogates in attendance who could spin for the former president and do media in his absence.
Donald Trump Jr. announced Monday that he and Kimberly Guilfoyle, who previously worked on Trump’s 2020 campaign, would be in Milwaukee.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) office said the congresswoman would be on the ground Tuesday and Wednesday and available for media opportunities in support of Trump.
A source said Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) would be in attendance, and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) will also be there. Both men have backed Trump in the 2024 race, and Donalds in particular has sparred at times with members of DeSantis’s team.
The moderators for Wednesday’s event, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, have indicated that Trump will be part of some of the evening’s questions. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is expected to take aim at the former president for his absence, while leaked debate prep memos indicated DeSantis may try to defend Trump.
“I think Trump not being there, while his opponents will try to make it reflect badly on Trump, they all look really small for being there,” said one former Trump White House official. “It almost makes it look like a junior varsity debate without Trump being there.”
In lieu of attending the debate, Trump sat for a prerecorded interview with Carlson, who himself has a strong following among conservatives. A Trump campaign spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on when or where the interview would air, but one source suggested it may go out around the same time as the debate to maximize the split-screen.
The entire operation is reminiscent of January 2016, when Trump skipped a Fox News debate just before the Iowa caucuses and instead held his own event just down the road in Des Moines. Trump garnered significant media attention both for his decision to skip the debate, and for his counter-event, though he ultimately finished second in the 2016 Iowa caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
It is also part of a broader pattern with Trump, who strategists say manages to consume entire news cycles and drown out his rivals with his actions.
The same thing could happen again this week, with Trump’s surrender to authorities in Georgia on Thursday potentially blotting out any news out of the debate. His previous arraignments have led to all-day coverage on cable news and prompted statements from his rivals and supporters alike attacking or defending Trump.
“He’ll be the No. 1 issue [at the debate],” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based GOP strategist. “His legal peril is going to be an issue.”
Updated at 7:53 a.m. ET