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Touting Trump At Trump-Free Debates

Newsmax found a way to put a pro-Trump spin on the Republican presidential debates, despite the fact that Donald Trump didn't take part in any of them.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 3/4/2024

The Trump-fluffers at Newsmax were putting a pro-Trump slant on the first debate of Republican presidential candidates months before it happened. In June, Newsmax was touting how Trump was thinking about skipping the debate; that was followed by a July 12 column by Trump toady Dick Morris dismissing the debate as a "kangaroo court" and insisting that "Our nation's 45th president should refuse to participate in any debate moderated by the likes of Baier and Martha MacCallum. He should, instead, propose that Tucker Carlson be the moderator." Morris added: "Better yet, Mr. Trump should walk next door to Newsmax and ask them to sponsor a one-on-one interview between Tucker and Trump, at the exact same time as the likely rigged debate the RINOs are hosting." Trump did a little of his usual logrolling in a July 20 Newsmax TV appearance, declaring that "Newsmax should get a debate."

On Aug. 9, Newsmax wrote about how Trump was still teasing whether or not he would take part, as well as another article about him whining about a planned Republican loyalty pledge that presidential candidates endorse the eventual nominee. And even though Trump ultimately chose not to participate, Newsmax still made him the center of its debate coverage: An Aug. 21 article by Mark Swanson complained that "Fox News will not allow surrogates of former President Donald Trump into the spin room of Wednesday's GOP presidential debate, a highly unusual move that could be construed as retaliatory over Trump's decision to skip it." That was followed by Megyn Kelly gushing on Newsmax TV the next day that Trump is a "ratings machine" for whatever he does instead of the debate, and her former employer, debate host Fox News, deserves the "middle finger" Trump is giving it.

After it was made clear that an interview Trump did with fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson would be his counterprogramming against the debate, Newsmax plugged that too. Brian Freeman was in hype mode in an Aug. 23 article:

Former President Donald Trump declared on his Truth Social site Wednesday that "my interview with Tucker Carlson will be aired tonight at 9 p.m. Sparks will fly. Enjoy."

This is the exact same time that the first Republican primary debate for the presidential nomination will begin in Milwaukee. The debate will be televised nationally on Fox News, and will include eight other candidates.

Trump announced earlier this week that he would not be participating in the debate, citing his commanding lead in the GOP field — he's about 40 points ahead in national polls — and instead would be taking part in the interview, The Hill reported.

The pre-recorded interview will be broadcast on X, formerly known as Twitter.

That was followed by an Aug. 23 column by Paul Quenoy proclaiming Trump's refusal to take part in the debate "a brilliant move by the most astute strategist in American politics since Ronald Reagan," adding; "All Trump needs do on Wednesday is sit back and look down on the arena as the other candidates tear each other apart while revealing their strengths and weaknesses to a leader who will soon almost certainly be unchallenged. Sun Tzu could not have strategized it better."

Newsmax didn't do too much coverage of the debate itself; it was more interested in bashing candidate Vivek Ramaswamy after he exposed the pay-for-play coverage scheme Newsmax wanted to impose on his campaign. It did, however, devote three articles to Trump's interview with Carlson:

Trump was also given space to brag that his interview with Carlson had "over 100 million views in less than four hours" -- but it didn't tell readers that Twitter's view metric is so unreliable as to be meaningless. An article by Eric Mack insisted that "Fox News' first Republican primary debate got a terrible response from American television viewers, with the broadcast losing about half the audience Fox’s kickoff debate had during the 2016 election." In reality, though, the debate drew much higher ratings than expected for an event lacking Trump -- and those ratings dwarfed the number who actually watched the entirety of the Carlson-Trump interview. Still, yet another article by Swanson let Trump go on a tirade of "trolling the network over its "anemic debate ratings" while Trump's interview with Tucker Carlson — which aired the same night — surpassed 250 million views," without fear of being fact-checked by Newsmax.

Newsmax kept other coverage of the debate Trump-centric even though he wasn't there. One article noted that the candidates at the debate discussed Trump, while a column by John Gizzi declared that "More than a few political prognosticators who do not have a favorite Republican candidate told Newsmax on Wednesday night that the true winner of the first GOP presidential debate was actually the contender who sat it out." Both Donald Trump Jr. and girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle were given space to whine that they were blocked from the post-debate spin room.

ConWebWatch has noted how Perry Johnson -- a fringe candidate who, unlike Ramaswamy, is buying lots of airtime on Newsmax -- was given lots of space to complain that he wasn't invited to take part in the debate. Another low-polling fringe candidate who similarly failed to qualify, Larry Elder, also got space to complain as well:

Newsmax's opinion-makers were even more pro-Trump. Longtime Trump toady Dick Morris praised Trump's refusal to take part in the debate in a Aug. 25 column, insisting it was beneath his dignity (not that Trump and dignity are that well acquainted):

When this writer considered the various legitimate reasons that former President Donald Trump might not choose to participate in the first Republican debate, I thought about the bias of FoxNews, the partiality of Brett Baer, the potential of minor, fringe candidates to hog the stage.

But, having watched the debate, this writer missed the key point:

To participate would have been undignified for a former president.

If what we witnessed (in the form of eight contenders) are understudies for Donald J.Trump — God help the GOP going into 2024.

The big winner was Donald Trump.

He had the good sense not to show up but to sit down for a thoughtful, articulate interview with Tucker Carlson.

Meanwhile, the shouting match unfolded in the adjacent rink of the circus.

Morris went on to attack all the non-Trump candidates, taking particular aim at Vivek Ramaswamy: "Ramaswamy think’s he’s an agent provocateur calling out corruption, saying that all his opponents are "bought and paid for," but he's really just a child throwing stinks bombs in grade school."

Morris concluded with a poorly edited rant against the Fox News anchors who ran the debate:

The biggest losers were Brett Baer and Martha MacCallum who went from RINOS (Republicans in Name Only) to MINOS (Moderators in Name Only) as they lost control of the debate and were swept along in the anarchy of their own making.

Wednesday's debate was a total waste time, with the real losers being the American people.

Morris repeated this assessment in an Aug. 26 Newsmax TV appearance.

Larry Bell similarly cheered Trump for skipping the debate in his Aug. 25 column:

There should be little wonder why Donald Trump, who leads bigly in GOP primary polls, would forego sound bite debate exchanges with desperate challengers on a media venue that shuns coverage of his enormous rallies for one with a host and that shares common grievances on a competing network that apparently reached a far larger audience.

Approximately 236 million viewers reportedly logged into Trump’s simultaneous prerecorded interview with Tucker Carlson — 19 times the 12.8 million that Nielson ratings showed tuning in to Wednesday evening debates hosted by Fox.

Trump’s conspicuous absence from the stage wasn’t for want of pleading on the part of Fox co-moderator Bret Baier who had reportedly called him four times.

Nor is there any real mystery why he rejected those invitations.

Perhaps consider a rather inelegant analogy of scheduling a globally televised colonoscopy by med school interns and the patient doesn’t show up.

And why would he, when adding all of his primary competitors together would still leave them trailing Trump by double digits?

Again, the debate's ratings dwarfed the number who actually watched the entirety of the Carlson-Trump interview. He concluded by calling the debate irrelevant:

The big point here is that Trump's base of supporters — and there are many — already know and highly value his accomplishments.

They see them starkly contrasted by abject Biden administration failures impacting diverse aspects of lives and futures.

The only debate venue that truly matters will be determined in October 2024 ballot boxes.

Daniel McCarthy, however, had a different take on Ramaswamy than Morris did, identifying him as a mini-Trump who could take votes from Trump, stating in his Aug. 31 column that "Trump faces a new opponent that may prove tougher — Trumpism":

Ramaswamy has cultivated Trump's knack for the stinging barb. "Nikki, I wish you well on your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon," he shot at her.

Others made no effort to disguise their exasperation: "I've had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT," said Christie.

That's how Ramaswamy's detractors see him — as TrumpGPT, a large language module lab-built to mimic the former president when Trump isn't in the room.


Trump's critics have long argued his success in 2016 was down to the size and fragmentation of the field.

This cycle, it's just possible there will be fragmentation on the Trump side, between him and Ramaswamy, giving DeSantis an opening to consolidate the get-beyond-Trump vote.


The race is still Trump's to lose. Ramaswamy may pose a new challenge, but the opponent Trump has to take most seriously right now isn't him or DeSantis or Joe Biden; it's Democratic state and federal prosecutors.

No wonder Morris was so hostile to Ramaswamy.

Second debate

Newsmax was less excited over the second Republican presidential debate than it was over the first one -- it was largely a rehash of the first, with Trump again refusing to take part and the others fighting to get attention. A Sept. 18 wire article noted Trump skipping the debate for a photo op with striking auto workers in Michigan. Other pre-debate positioning was noted as well:

Newsmax also took a shot at the competition with a Sept. 27 article by Michael Katz claiming that "A 30-second spot for the second debate in Simi Valley, California, on Fox Business cost just above $200,000, a huge decline from the $495,000 charged for the similar spot during the first debate Aug. 23 in Milwaukee."

Post-debate coverage began with a Sept. 27 article by the apparently unironically named Charlie McCarthy that was surprisingly balanced, admitting that some candidates "criticized former President Donald Trump for again skipping the debate." That was joined by a wire article doing much the same thing. The next day, John Gizzi dismissed the debate:

None of the Republican presidential hopefuls on stage at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California on Wednesday night gained any significant ground in the second GOP debate of 2023-24.

That was the general conclusion of a group of political experts with whom Newsmax spoke shortly after the two-hour debate concluded. Among them was Arizona State University Prof. Donald Critchlow, founding editor of the Journal of Political History.

"The debate stage was overcrowded. The [Fox News] panel was not in control of candidates talking over one another and interrupting," he said.


Critchlow's conclusion was echoed by Chapman University (CA) Prof. Luke Nichter, who told Newsmax, "In the three acts of a Greek tragedy, in Act II, the plot gets more complicated. That's where we are tonight."

Nichter, author of the critically acclaimed new book "1968: The Year That Broke Politics," concluded that "no one did anything so remarkable as to close the big gap with [former President Donald] Trump."

Jim Thomas took another shot at Fox over the debate's ratings:

Fox’s second Republican primary debate had the lowest TV audience for any GOP presidential debate since Donald Trump's debut appearance in 2015, NBC reported Thursday.

Nielsen ratings topped out at a little more than 9 million viewers for Wednesday's Fox debate, held at the Reagan Library. That was down 3.5 million viewers from last month's event, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

Josh Hammer spent his Sept. 29 column complaining that the candidates were not sufficiently Reagan-esque despite the debate being held at the Reagan library. Michael Dorstewitz used his column the same day to hype Ron DeSantis declaring that he "is turning out to be the strong, steady hand America needs at the helm. If we can only find a way to get former President Trump to meet him on a debate stage." There were also the usual attempts to spin things:

And it wouldn't be a Trump-adjacent event without Trump sycophant Dick Morris weighing in, which he did in a Sept. 30 TV appearance:

The second presidential debate not only affirmed former President Donald Trump as a runaway in the GOP primary race, but Trump was fully vindicated on skipping the debate "food fight," even as his top challengers are calling him out, presidential adviser Dick Morris told Newsmax.

"Yeah," Morris told "Saturday Report," Trump was "incredibly" vindicated on skipping the debate.

"First of all, the fact he's ahead going in and people really believe in him; his support has firmed to an unbelievable degree," Morris told host Rita Cosby. "But secondly, when you look at the food fight, the circus that went on and that rink, how can you possibly support one of those people? And Trump was so wise stepping out of it and not letting himself be dragged into it."

Morris also repeated his own insistence that Robert Kennedy running as an independent instead of a Democrat wold pull votes from Biden but not Trump, declaring without evidence that Kennedy's "appeal is very much on the Democratic side."

Third debate

As with the second debate, Newsmax's enthusiasm level for the third Republican presidential debate on Nov. 8 was subdued, largely because Donald Trump refused to take part and didn't do much in the way of counterprogramming. It published a wire article previewing the debate, then published a couple more wire articles along with its original content about the debate itself:

In a post-debate analysis, John Gizzi made sure to inject Newsmax's preferred (and no-show) candidate into the mix:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley were the big winners of the third Republican presidential debate, but there was still considerable force felt on the part of the candidate who wasn't there Wednesday evening — former President Donald Trump.

That was the opinion of a group of political experts who spoke to Newsmax shortly after the showdown between the five contenders who qualified for the GOP forum.


The political muscle of Trump was something to which Newsmax experts repeatedly returned to.

"Let's be clear: former President Trump remains the party's overwhelming favorite," said Rotterman. "And as long as that's the case, all the candidates on stage were just auditioning for backup quarterback."

Newsmax gave McDaniel space to respond to Ramaswamy's attacks in a Nov. 9 article by Sandy Fitzgerald:

Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, dismissing calls from presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy during Thursday night's RNC debate for her resignation, said the GOP must stop "infighting" as it is "not helping" the party.

"This Republican-on-Republican infighting — I'm not running for president so I'm not in this primary — isn't helping our party," McDaniel told CNN after the debate Thursday night, The Hill reported.

"We lost races in 2022 because of vitriol within our party," she added. "We need every Republican and then some to win elections. And the Republican voters want to hear us talk about the border, fentanyl, Israel, our kids, crime, inflation, and they want to see us take on Joe Biden."

Newsmax also made sure to mock the debate's ratings in a Nov. 9 article by Jim Thomas:

The third Republican presidential primary debate, hosted by NBC News, witnessed a dramatic viewership decline with just over 6 million viewers tuning in, marking the lowest audience turnout of the current campaign season and a 45% drop in viewers from the first debate.

The drop in Wednesday's debate was blamed on RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, with GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy criticizing her handling of the forums and calling for her to resign.


Wednesday night's audience figure was lower than the 9 million viewers who tuned in for the second GOP presidential primary debate in September, which was broadcast on Fox Business and Fox News.

The third GOP debate was also significantly lower than the nearly 12.8 million who watched the inaugural debate on Fox News back in August — as that event saw a 50% decline in ratings from the first debate of the 2016 campaign.

With then-candidate Trump attending, the Fox News 2015 prime-time GOP debate drew a record 24 million viewers.

Thomas claimed that the fourth debate was "shifting from mainstream media to liberal cable." In fact, the lead channel airing it, NewsNation, is a right-leaning network built and staffed in part by former Fox News personalities and executives and regularly fawned over by Newsmax's right-wing friends at the Media Research Center.

Meanwhile, Newsmax showed more interest in what Donald Trump did instead of taking part in the debate: give a speech in Florida. Eric Mack was the dutiful stenographer in a Nov. 8 article (while also touting that the speech "aired live and in its entirety on Newsmax"):

Warning of President Joe Biden and "radical left Democrats" moving America away from democracy toward socialism, former President Donald Trump spoke in terms well understood by his supporters in the Cuban community of Hialeah, Florida.

"What they've done is so terrible in the last three years with respect to Cuba," Trump told the thousands who gathered to show support at a Wednesday night rally in the Miami suburb, which aired live and in its entirety on Newsmax. "We had it just where we wanted it. It was all set to go and they blew it. They blew it so badly.

"Just like the Cuban regime, the Biden regime is trying to put their political opponents in jail, shutting down free speech, taking bribes and kickbacks to enrich themselves and their very spoiled children — my children aren't so spoiled, are they? — rigging and cheating in elections, using the fake news media to cover up their colossal incompetence and stupidity.

"What they're doing, what they've done to our country — nobody can even believe it."


Trump was joined by mixed martial arts fighter Jorge Masvidal and comedian Roseanne Barr, who led the crowd in a profane chant and called him a "MAGA-dor," playing off his "Make America Great Again" slogan.

People showed up in red, white, and blue clothes with MAGA hats and Trump 2024 flags. Some also carried the flag of Israel.

Dozens of supporters lined up earlier to get a copy of Trump's photobook "Our Journey Together" signed by the former president's son Donald Trump Jr.

Mack continued the stenography in another article:

Speaking just miles from the Republican National Committee presidential primary debate of his top challengers, former President Donald Trump hailed his crowd, responded to his opponents' criticism, and mocked the lowly rated debates.

"They're not watchable," Trump told his Hialeah, Florida, campaign rally Wednesday night, which aired live and in its entirety on Newsmax. "You know, the last debate was the lowest-rated debate in the history of politics.

"So, therefore, do you think we did the right thing by not participating?"

Mack gushed in a third article: "Repeating his vows to restore his strong border policies unwound by President Joe Biden on Day 1, former President Donald Trump said he will deliver the 'largest domestic deportation operation' in U.S. history." (Yes, he again noted that Trump's speech "aired live and in its entirety on Newsmax.") A fourth article, though, was stenography-filled but also noted that Trump defended someone who has less than popular with his adoring crowd, if only because the guy is a frequent Newsmax guest:

Former President Donald Trump was shocked by his Hialeah, Florida, supporters booing Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla., but the president stood by the lawmaker, who has been critical of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.


Then the enthusiastic crowd turned a tad sour when Trump brought up the next name to hail as one of his endorsers.

"And your congressman, Carlos Gimenez, do you know him?" Trump said to a raining of boos, shocking him.

"Oh, you don't like him?" Trump asked as supporters shouted from the gallery. "What's going on, Carlos? Come on, Carl. We have got to get that straightened out.

"Carlos Gimenez. Really? Wow. Carlos?!"

Gimenez was a frequent Newsmax guest throughout the House Republicans' search for a new speaker. His appearances were very critical of Gaetz and the other seven Republicans who voted to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

And, yes, he once more pointed out that Trump's speech "aired live and in its entirety on Newsmax."

Sandy Fitzgerald took over for a Nov. 9 article on local politicians sucking up to Trump during the speech:

Hialeah, Florida, may soon have a street named after former President Donald Trump, the city's mayor said during Trump's rally in the Miami suburb as the GOP debate was being held nearby.

Mayor Esteban "Steve" Bovo, speaking during the Trump rally covered by Newsmax, drew cheers from the crowd at the Ted Hendricks Stadium when he said he plans to ask the Hialeah City Council to rename a street for Trump.

"How honored we were, that we were going to do right by you because you've always kept your promises to the residents of this great nation, and we're appreciative," Bovo said. "I will be asking next week, the city council of Hialeah — and some of the members of the city council are here with us today, our council president is here, our other council members are here — and I will be asking them to be able to authorize and vote affirmatively as we name the street after you, Donald Trump Way."

The mayor presented Trump with a mocked-up street sign, but it proclaimed the street being named "President Donald J. Trump Avenue."

Trump called the plans "an honor."

Fitzgerald didn't mention that there is opposition to the renaming in Hialeah, particularly among people who don't want streets named after indicted felons.

In all, the five articles Newsmax devoted to Trump's speech matched the five original articles it published on the contents of the Republican debate.

Meanwhile, later on Nov. 9, an article by Mark Swanson announced that "Republican front-runner and former President Donald Trump won't participate in next month's fourth GOP debate."

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