With GOP anger over CNBC’s handling of Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate boiling over, the Republican National Committee announced Friday that it was suspending its partnership with NBC News for an upcoming debate in February.
In a letter to NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said that their relationship for the debate, scheduled for Feb. 26 at the University of Houston, was on hold “pending further discussion.”
The RNC has faced increasingly vocal — and active — dissatisfaction with the debate process from presidential contenders in the wake of Wednesday night’s face-off, with candidates and their campaigns complaining that CNBC conducted the debate in “bad faith” and asked questions in an attempt to create infighting. “We simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns,” Priebus wrote Friday.
In a statement, NBC News called the RNC’s decision “disappointing.”
“However, along with our debate broadcast partners at Telemundo we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party,” the network said.
Priebus noted that a debate would still be held on that day and that the RNC would continue to work with its partner in the event, the National Review. But he did not say whether Telemundo, the only Spanish-language media organization hosting a debate in the Republican primary, would remain a part of the partnership.
The decision was generally praised by various Republican campaigns, most of which have complained about the way the debates have been handled. The campaign of Donald Trump, who used his closing statement Wednesday to take credit for shortening CNBC’s debate time, fully endorsed the move.
“The campaign supports the RNC’s decision to suspend the debate on February 26th due to the total lack of substance and respect exhibited during Wednesday’s night’s debate,” said spokeswoman Hope Hicks. “We look forward to pursuing alternatives along with the RNC to ensure candidates are given ample opportunity to outline their vision for the future of our country.”
A spokesman for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sergio Gor, also praised the RNC’s decision. “We hope networks and future moderators realize that what happened in Colorado should never have occurred,” said Gor, whose candidate complained Wednesday night about a lack of time.
Ben Carson’s campaign, which was uneasy with Priebus’s letter, had been working on its own effort to change upcoming debates. As far back as May, Carson had sent letters to the RNC chairman, warning that the candidate’s large and diverse field was ill-served by the debate rules.
“The rules may be good for me personally, but they are not good for the process,” he wrote. “We are blessed to have many qualified candidates running for President. More than a typical debate format can handle. Surely we can find a format that allows every voice to be heard.”
Since Wednesday, Carson had directed his team to work with rival campaigns on debate reform. A meeting of campaign staffers was set for Washington on Sunday — and the RNC was not invited.
Priebus had signaled early on that he was dissatisfied with CNBC’s handling of the debate, which at times devolved into cross talk and bickering between moderators and candidates. At several points in the debate, candidates scolded the hosts for the nature of their question.
Behind the scenes, former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s campaign manager, Danny Diaz, expressed his concerns to CNBC directly while the debate was still in progress. Diaz worried that CNBC’s format and management of the debate disadvantaged Bush, who by the end had logged the least amount of speaking time.
“I expressed my concerns with the amount of time that we’ve had. I think that’s pretty clear,” Diaz told The Washington Post on Wednesday.
But publicly, the grumbling began on stage. Almost immediately after the questioning began, Donald Trump accused CNBC’s moderator John Harwood of asking a mean-spirited question.
“Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?” Harwood asked.
Later in the debate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) seized the opportunity to excoriate the network.
“You know, let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said to massive applause. “This is not a cage match.”
A spokeswoman for Cruz’s campaign declined to comment on the RNC’s letter on Friday, as did businesswoman Carly Fiorina’s.
After the debate, candidates and their campaigns protested loudly that CNBC had conducted a frivolous, biased event.
“I thought it was a wasted opportunity, and, quite frankly, that’s what made it unfair, not just to the candidates but to the American people,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Thursday morning, adding that a network dedicated to business should have asked more questions about economic issues.
Priebus’s full letter:
Mr. Andrew Lack
Chairman, NBC News
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, New York 10112
Dear Mr. Lack,
I write to inform you that pending further discussion between the Republican National Committee (RNC) and our presidential campaigns, we are suspending the partnership with NBC News for the Republican primary debate at the University of Houston on February 26, 2016. The RNC’s sole role in the primary debate process is to ensure that our candidates are given a full and fair opportunity to lay out their vision for America’s future. We simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns.
The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith. We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach. However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance.
CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on “the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.” That was not the case. Before the debate, the candidates were promised an opening question on economic or financial matters. That was not the case. Candidates were promised that speaking time would be carefully monitored to ensure fairness. That was not the case. Questions were inaccurate or downright offensive. The first question directed to one of our candidates asked if he was running a comic book version of a presidential campaign, hardly in the spirit of how the debate was billed.
While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of “gotcha” questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.
I have tremendous respect for the First Amendment and freedom of the press. However, I also expect the media to host a substantive debate on consequential issues important to Americans. CNBC did not.
While we are suspending our partnership with NBC News and its properties, we still fully intend to have a debate on that day, and will ensure that National Review remains part of it.
I will be working with our candidates to discuss how to move forward and will be in touch.
Chairman, Republican National Committee
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.