Appearing in a conference call with bloggers to discuss the launch of his new book, Time to Get Tough, Donald Trump found himself facing more questions about the upcoming GOP presidential debate he’ll be moderating. Trump didn’t mind. He views even the harshest critiques as incoming tennis balls, and he plays close to the net.
Thus, his feelings are not hurt by Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul refusing to attend his debate, because they’re irrelevant anyway. “Huntsman could use a little show biz to get his numbers up,” Trump mused, while “Ron Paul has zero chance.” He went on explain that he has “written off” Paul for “not caring whether Iran has a nuclear weapon,” while he felt Huntsman’s campaign was hamstrung from the start because the former ambassador to China worked for Barack Obama, and Trump doesn’t see “how you can write love letters to a man and then run against him for President.”
The star of Celebrity Apprentice is unperturbed by those who dismiss him as a sideshow, including high-profile GOP consultant Karl Rove, who is “not a smart person, and is highly over-rated.” Trump explained, “I’m a reality television star because I built a great company.” Touting the impressive personal financial profile he laid out in his book, he said, “I have a strong cash position with very little debt, and that’s what America needs.”
Trump wasn’t just administering beatdowns during his conference call. He was very complimentary of Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, praising his “very positive” attitude. He also mentioned that he had just completed a “great meeting” with presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, with whom he “talked about many different subjects.”
Asked point-blank if he was still contemplating a third-party presidential run, Trump said his preference was for the Republicans to field “a great candidate, one I would happily endorse.” If that doesn’t happen, he wouldn’t rule out entering the race, although he said plainly that he preferred to focus on his television endeavors.
He said he wrote his new book, arranged to moderate a debate, and keenly follows the Republican primaries because “I love this country, and I want to get it back on track.” Trump said he put more effort into Time to Get Tough than anything he’s written since his landmark The Art of the Deal in 1988. “I feel this country is in serious trouble,” he declared, “and I have suggestions that would work even if Obama used them.” He clearly doesn’t see much chance of that happening.
I had the opportunity to pose my biggest criticism of Time to Get Tough to the author, and ask how he would reconcile his advice to Republicans about being savvy negotiators – who keep their cards off the table until the last possible moment – with the requirements of leadership. Trump felt the Republicans should be able to square that circle by outmaneuvering the Democrats, and forcing them to lay their own cards down, rather than exposing themselves to devastating attacks by presenting the only concrete proposals in the debate. Doing so while Obama was still pumping out vapor so thin that the Congressional Budget Office refused to score it was a mistake, because the Republicans “took the pressure off the President.” It’s especially difficult to balance smart political strategy with leadership when the window of time for serious reforms that could save programs like Social Security and Medicare is closing… but, then, Trump never said the art of the deal was easy to master.
Besides his confidence and limited patience for those who waste valuable time by covering their posteriors instead of getting things done, Trump has one other great rhetorical asset: he’s very good at “framing” the terms of a debate. This is a vital skill when matters of great complexity are discussed before a vast and contentious audience. The comparative lack of framing skills displayed by the Republican presidential contenders can be seen in how rarely they’ve been able to take control of the debates away from the moderators. Each non-Romney candidate has surged during his or her moment of taking control. Gingrich has been doing a great job of it lately – his debate moderators should be wearing the padded armor suits employed in the training of attack dogs – and during his moment in the sun, it was impossible to prevent Herman Cain from talking about his 999 Plan.
Trump anticipates that his celebrity means “a lot of people will be watching” when he moderates the Newsmax debate on December 27. Besides taking advantage of the spotlight he offers, the GOP candidates could learn a few things by sparring with a tough coach who never passively follows a conversation anywhere he doesn’t want it to go.