Furious GOP chairman suspends debate plans with NBC

CNBC on-air editor Rick Santelli asks a question during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado.
CNBC on-air editor Rick Santelli asks a question during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado. AP

As conservative and candidate complaints over Wednesday’s CNBC debate refused to ebb, the Republican Party chairman said Friday the event was “conducted in bad faith” and suspended the party’s partnership with NBC for a scheduled February primary debate.

“CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack in a letter.

Priebus made the move as Republican candidates as well as influential conservatives demanded changes. Campaign officials were expected to meet soon to discuss ways to change the format of upcoming debates, perhaps before the next one Nov. 10 in Milwaukee.

NBC said in a statement it was disappointed. “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. Telemundo, an NBC network, was set to be a host a Feb. 26 debate in Houston, the only Spanish-language network scheduled for such a prime spot.

“Given the recent inflammatory rhetoric around immigration in this country, now . . . is not the time for the Republican Party to choose political expediency over an opportunity to engage with millions of Spanish-language network viewing Latinos in advance of Election 2016,” said a statement from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

We are suspending the partnership with NBC News for the Republican primary debate at the University of Houston on February 26, 2016.

Republican Chairman Reince Priebus

Campaign officials are furious with CNBC.

Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and leader in recent Iowa caucus polls, suggested having a candidate talk about his or her plan, then take questions about it. Candidates were upset not only that the CNBC panel asked questions that seemed aimed at exploiting controversies, but jumped quickly from one topic to another.

“The first thing we’re looking for is moderators who are actually interested in getting the facts, and not just gotcha questions,” Carson told reporters Thursday.

The moderators did ask Carson and others about their tax plans. They engaged in a give and take with Carson, and with Donald Trump, about their proposals.

Trump’s campaign hailed the RNC decision and cited “the total lack of substance and respect exhibited during Wednesday’s night’s debate.”

The campaign said Trump would pursue alternatives “along with the RNC to ensure candidates are given ample opportunity to outline their vision for the future of our country.”

Conservatives also complained.

“What would you call a political party that hands the power to set the agenda during its presidential primaries to its sworn enemies in the liberal media, then doubles down to give the power to set the agenda in the waning days of the general election to a self-perpetuating ‘commission’ of Washington, D.C., progressive insiders?” veteran conservative strategist Richard Viguerie asked Friday.

“These CNBC journalists exposed themselves to the world as left-wing stooges jockeying for a position in Hillary Clinton’s campaign press shop. It was embarrassing,” added Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center.

Lesson for future moderators from the CNBC debate: Be tough, incisive, follow up. But don’t be a high-handed snot.

Tweet from conservative commentator Peggy Noonan

Party officials agreed. Jennifer Horn, New Hampshire Republican Party chairman, noted “the grossly inappropriate, blatantly biased and unprofessional behavior of CNBC’s debate moderators.”

The RNC announced the debate series early this year, hoping to avoid the debate-of-the-week chaos leading up to the 2012 campaign. It rotated the sponsorship among major news organizations and planned one debate a month. The media groups determine who qualifies, and so far, that’s meant 10 or 11 candidates with the highest poll numbers in the main event.

Fox Business News and the Wall Street Journal will sponsor the November debate. CNN will sponsor a December debate, followed by Fox News in January, ABC News in one February debate and CBS in another.

After the CNBC debate, Priebus quickly issued an angry statement saying CNBC should be “ashamed” of how it handled the evening. Friday, he went further.

“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,” he said.

“The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith,” he said. “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.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid