© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Donald Trump, left, and Joe Biden, right, during a presidential debate in 2020.

Top Republicans summoned the bureau chiefs of the five major television networks to the party’s Capitol Hill headquarters this spring for a secret meeting aimed at breaking the country’s 35-year-old system for presidential debates.

With everyone in the same room, the Republican National Committee’s leadership wanted to know if the networks would agree to broadcast 2024 general election debates that were sponsored by a third-party organization other than the Commission on Presidential Debates, according to six people with knowledge of the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The nonprofit commission has staged the events since 1988.

The bureau chiefs made no definite commitments, these people said, but several expressed openness to the idea if both major candidates agreed — effectively greenlighting the party’s continued efforts to remake the most-watched events of the U.S. presidential campaign season.

The discussions came at a difficult time for the networks: All the networks were jockeying to host Republican primary debates, which unlike general election debates are aired as exclusive broadcasts. They had each put forward elaborate pitches trying to woo the Republican Party, bringing in top executives and anchors to the party’s headquarters.

Top GOP officials have privately reached out to Democratic officials in an effort to feel out interest in holding general election debates separate from the commission. Advisers to President Biden have not weighed in publicly on the idea, and several advisers declined to comment when asked by The Washington Post whether they would entertain the idea.

Ronna McDaniel, the RNC chairwoman, has embarked on a two-pronged debate mission this year: Remake the general election showdowns by ditching the commission, which infuriated Republicans in 2020. And convince Republican candidates — particularly former president Donald Trump — to play nice as they meet for as many as 10 party-sponsored debates.

Both efforts remain works in progress. Trump has said he won’t pledge to support all of his rivals if they win the nomination, a condition of entry to the Republican debates. He has already entertained the possibility, both in private meetings with McDaniel and in public comments, of skipping the contests altogether.

In a call last month with McDaniel, Trump said primary debates should be canceled entirely because of his dominance in the party, Trump advisers familiar with the call said. McDaniel said she was not going to cancel the primary debates.

“When you’re way up, you don’t do debates. If you’re even or down, you do debates, but when you’re way up, what’s the purpose of doing the debate?” he said on an April 26 New York talk radio appearance.

In private, he has groused that he does not want to participate in August, saying he wants to spend time at his New Jersey home and golf club instead. “It’s too early,” Trump has said, according to people familiar with the comments.

An RNC official said the party notified Trump’s team of the debate schedule in advance of announcing it, and no such complaints were raised at the time.

© Damian Dovarganes/AP
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Sunday, March 5, 2023.

He has also complained publicly about the expected site of the second primary debate in September — the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library — because the publisher of The Post, Frederick Ryan Jr., a former Reagan adviser, has been the chairman of the board for 28 years. Ryan has separately led efforts for both The Post and the Reagan Library to secure one of the primary debates.

“I would not go there when he is the chairman,” Trump said in the radio interview.

Trump has separately told others that he is upset at the Reagan Library for not inviting him to speak at a speakers series, called A Time For Choosing, that has served as a platform for a number of his rivals, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former vice president Mike Pence and former representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).

A spokesman for the Reagan Library confirmed that Trump had not been invited.

“No former president has been included in the Time for Choosing speaker series as we’re looking to surface new voices that haven’t held that level of office,” the spokesman said.

A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment. A person close to Ryan said he has “always recused himself from any conflictual decisions” and had served on the board of the Reagan Library for 34 years.

“We look forward to holding a fair and transparent primary debate process that will provide voters the best opportunity to view the next president of the United States,” said RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn. “The RNC will continue to encourage our candidates not to participate with the biased Commission on Presidential Debates as we near a solution for better alternatives for a freer and fairer general debate process that will ultimately benefit the American people.”

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement, “President Trump is the clear front-runner — as evidenced by his dominating poll numbers showing him crushing the competition in the primary and general elections — and it is no surprise every other candidate and potential candidate wants to ride his coattails to relevancy.”

McDaniel, who has promised to run a neutral nominating contest, continues to forge ahead with the planned debates, setting up monthly contests starting in August and more frequent meetings early next year. The first debate will be broadcast in Milwaukee, the site of the 2024 GOP nominating convention.

McDaniel and her advisers have pushed for some nonconservative outlets to host the party’s debates, arguing that many independent and Republican voters can be reached through these channels and that Republicans should not limit themselves to right-leaning outlets. Some in the party have instead argued that the party should focus primarily on conservative outlets such as Fox and Newsmax.

Candidates who appear will be required to pledge their support to the party’s eventual nominee, agree to a data-sharing and fundraising partnership with the party, and meet minimum requirements for polling and the number of donors they have to their campaigns. Currently, candidates are expected to have 40,000 donors to participate in the debates, according to people familiar with the process. Whether such a pledge is enforceable remains to be seen.

Republican Party officials, including McDaniel, have talked repeatedly to Trump and his advisers about participating in the first two debates, and they have met with other candidates, party officials said, including the team for announced candidate Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador, and 2024 hopeful Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor. Privately, they believe he will eventually participate because he will not want to miss the chance.

© Paul Sancya/AP
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and businessman Donald Trump argue as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) listens during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre, Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Detroit.

At the same time, top party leaders have quietly ramped up talks in their effort to destroy the debate commission. The commission’s leaders say they are undaunted.

“We deal only with the candidates. The RNC can do what they want and say what they want, but they have nothing to do with the Commission on Presidential Debates,” said Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chair of the commission and a former RNC chairman in the 1980s. “It is the candidates and their campaigns that make the decision about whether to participate or not participate.”

Republican anger with the commission arose during the 2020 contest, when the commission selected C-SPAN’s Steve Scully to moderate the second debate. Scully had interned with Biden when he was a senator from Delaware during college and later worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), before attending journalism school and launching his career. Following Trump’s diagnosis with covid-19 and the candidates inability to agree on a virtual debate, the second debate was canceled.

Republicans also complained about the debates beginning after early voting had begun and about members of the commission’s bipartisan board who had been critical of Trump. The former president has separately railed against the commission for a technical problem with his microphone during a 2016 presidential debate that affected the volume of his words for people in the debate hall. The commission blamed the mistake, which organizers said did not affect the broadcast audio levels, on the calibration of the microphone before the event.

Despite multiple meetings with the RNC last year, the Commission on Presidential Debates has ignored the party’s efforts to create an alternate debate system and is moving ahead with requests for proposed debate venues from colleges and universities. The group’s leadership, which traditionally selects the time, place and moderator for general election contests, say they have faced similar challenges to their authority in the past.

Unlike primary debates, which are traditionally hosted by one or two networks, general election debates have no network branding onstage and have historically been carried without commercial interruption by all the major broadcast and cable television stations.

The Republican effort to break the commission debate system hinges on the agreement of the other major candidate or candidates in the race. The party has not identified an alternative organization to host the events if the commission is pushed aside.

Under current commission rules, any candidate who is polling at 15 percent nationally, appears on enough ballots to win 270 electoral votes and is constitutionally eligible for the job receives an invitation to participate.