The Republican National Committee on Friday suspended its partnership with NBC News for a planned February presidential primary debate, two days after aggressive questioning by moderators during a CNBC debate left campaigns and party officials fuming.
Republican candidates and campaigns have been up in arms over the contentious tone and what they called “gotcha” questions at what was billed as an economic-focused debate. In a letter to NBC Chairman Andrew Lack, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said he was suspending their partnership for the debate, scheduled to be held at the University of Houston on Feb. 26, pending further discussion with the network and the Republican presidential campaigns.
“The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith,” Priebus wrote. “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.”
During Wednesday’s debate, moderators aggressively pressed the candidates on their economic plans. They also asked Donald Trump if he is a “comic book version” of a presidential candidate, and at one point they were booed when they asked Ben Carson about his ties to a supplements company.
“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,” Priebus said.
Priebus’ move is a face-saving gesture in the wake of criticism from candidates, many of whom have expressed their displeasure with the way the debates have been conducted. It comes as Republican campaigns plan to gather in Washington on Sunday evening to discuss how they can reform the debates without the RNC’s help. Organized by the Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal, and Lindsey Graham campaigns, the meeting is set to focus on both the format and qualifications for the debate, with the candidates hoping that by teaming up together, they can exercise leverage over the networks and the national party. Earlier this month, Trump and Carson successfully forced CNBC to make the main stage debate a two-hour affair, rather than the planned three, when they threatened to boycott the event.
Aides to multiple candidates said they were not informed of the RNC letter before it was distributed to the press. On Thursday, the party told campaigns it would no longer hold group debate briefing calls, which had become contentious in recent weeks and frequently leaked to the media. Instead, campaigns will be briefed in one-on-one conversations.
In a statement, NBC called the Priebus letter “a disappointing development.”
“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.
In 2014, the RNC formally took control of the debate process, sanctioning up to 12 contests for the 2016 primary season, in response to candidate feedback and the party’s 2012 autopsy, which argued that too many debates were distracting and weakened eventual-nominee Mitt Romney. The party chose the debate hosts, banishing MSNBC and Bloomberg because of perceived bias, told other networks they wouldn’t get debates if particular journalists anchored, and encouraged all of the networks to include conservative questioners. But the party allowed the television networks to maintain control over the format and qualifications for the debate—both of which have become flash points in the 14-candidate GOP field.
The record number of candidates is at the root of the party’s debate troubles—resulting in the controversial “happy hour” and “main-stage” split debates, and forcing moderators to balance hearing from all the candidates with covering multiple topics and keeping the debate interesting. To be sure, some of the criticism of the debates has also stemmed from candidates who are uncomfortable with any scrutiny. Trump has criticized each debate moderator over the tone and substance of questions, and party officials fear he is trying to rewrite the debate rules himself.
Steve Duprey, the New Hampshire Republican National Committeeman and the chairman of the RNC’s debates committee, told TIME that there was little the RNC could do.
“The RNC hasn’t been shy about expressing its view about people who shouldn’t be asking questions and about making other suggestions,” he said. “Ultimately though, because we don’t have an FCC license and can’t deliver a national audience, we have to partner with the media.”
Duprey said that in his view, the networks will “self-correct” after the CNBC debate.
“The best thing is that the [networks] are all such fierce competitors,” he said. “No one wants to be criticized like CNBC has been. Everyone wants to put on a good show, so I think just the natural competition between the networks will make sure that it gets better.”
It’s not the first time the RNC has clashed with NBC News properties. In 2013, Priebus threatened to boycott the network, as well as CNN, over planned programming deemed overly fawning of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Priebus did not lay out the conditions for potentially reinstating NBC, and said the Feb 26. debate would take place with or without the network, which is partnering with National Review for the night.