Trump Announcement Prompts More Conservative Criticism Of Fox News' GOP Debate Rules

Trump on FNC

Donald Trump's presidential announcement and likely involvement in the Republican Party's presidential debate on Fox has prompted criticism of the network's debate criteria, which would prioritize Trump over elected officials.

Trump announced on June 16 that he would be a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, saying that “the American dream is dead” and that he would “build a great wall” on the southern border and “have Mexico pay” for it.

Fox News announced that its scheduled August 6 presidential debate would include candidates “in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls.” Current polling indicates that Trump would make the cut of the top 10. RealClearPolitics' average of recent polls shows Trump with 3.6% support, higher than figures like Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, and Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Fox figures have begun promoting the debate as the “Cleveland Primary” and as more important to the nomination process than the traditional electoral process in Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates like Fiorina are pushing their supporters to donate to her campaign so that she can raise her visibility and qualify for inclusion in the debate.

Republicans began to push back on the criteria.

A report from the New York Times said "[m]any Republicans" were worried about Trump's likely inclusion because it would “squeeze out” more legitimate candidates. Then, a coalition of prominent New Hampshire Republicans asked the network to reconsider the criteria for the debate. In response, Fox announced that it would hold a separate debate for those candidates on the second tier of the race.

Trump's announcement has prompted a new wave of concerns for conservatives.

As Bloomberg reported, Trump appearing in the debates “is a nightmare scenario for the Republican establishment, which risks having its presidential field look more like an unwieldy circus of a reality TV show than the self-styled embarrassment of riches.”

The conservative Club for Growth PAC issued a press release calling for Trump's exclusion from the debate. They described him as “not a serious Republican candidate,” adding that “it would also be unfortunate if he takes away a spot at even one Republican debate.”

Tom Rath, a Republican and former attorney general of New Hampshire, told the Wall Street Journal that excluding governors and senators -- some of them currently in office -- from the debate in exchange for Trump “doesn't make sense to me.”

Washington Post conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin argued that “it would be wise to keep Trump at bay,” and complained that “Fox News's criteria of using national polls to gain entry into the debates was a flawed mechanism from the start,” because it “rewards celebrity candidates.” She instead advocated for using state polling since it would make it “harder for Trump and other cranks to qualify.”

As Media Matters has often documented, in recent years Trump has become a regular fixture in conservative media, particularly on Fox News. Despite indulging in birther conspiracy theories about President Obama, calling climate change a “hoax,” promoting a false connection between vaccines and autism, and calling for a revolution after Obama's re-election, Trump was never turned away. He was invited on multiple occasions to address the conservative CPAC conference (including one year where New Jersey governor Chris Christie was excluded from the proceedings).

Trump was among the most frequent guests on Fox News among probable presidential candidates. He appeared on the network 48 times between January 2013 and April of this year, well ahead of figures like Rick Perry, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush. In May, Trump appeared on Fox for 51 minutes, ahead of all but two likely presidential candidates.

After Trump's presidential announcement, several Fox News figures heaped praise on him. Host Neil Cavuto said he would be “a force to be reckoned with,” while Sean Hannity compared him to Ronald Reagan. After hosting him for a prime time interview, Bill O'Reilly said, “I'd rather have the straight talk of Donald Trump than the obfuscation of Hillary Clinton any day, at any time.”