Bernie Sanders and his deputies are working overtime to make the idea of a debate between the Vermont senator and Donald Trump more than just a late-night joke.
“We want this to happen,” Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs told POLITICO on Thursday, when asked if the campaign would reach out to its counterpart, hours after Trump said on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” he would be willing to debate the Democratic candidate if the proceeds from the event went to charity.
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The Republican National Committee also appeared to give a blessing, of sorts, to the showdown, with spokesman Sean Spicer saying it would be “phenomenal.”
“Well, I think if it did, it would be a huge contrast in the direction of this country. I think when you look at what Sanders is offering, the only thing that Bernie Sanders offers is another flavor of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. It’s a far left socialist agenda,” Spicer told CNN.
He also managed to get in a knock on Hillary Clinton, who declined an invitation to debate Sanders on Fox News ahead of California’s primary on June 7.
“So I think it would be a phenomenal debate if it happened. The other thing that’s odd, by the way, is that Hillary Clinton refuses to fulfill her promise to debate Bernie Sanders, so there is a void because Hillary Clinton refuses to actually keep her word and do what she said and debate in California against Bernie Sanders.”
It’s unclear if the debate will actually materialize, especially because it appears to be Sanders who’s trying to whip up interest in it for his own gain.
Kimmel told Trump that it was Sanders who offered up the question about whether he would be up for a public showdown, and the Vermont senator quickly tweeted after Trump’s remarks aired.
“Game on. I look forward to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7 primary,” he messaged.
On Thursday, Sanders’ campaign manager was on TV, goading Trump into the debate.
“Well, let’s see if he has the courage to get on a stage with Bernie Sanders and go one on one about the important issues facing the country. That’d be the real test,” Jeff Weaver said on MSNBC.
Then there was the candidate himself, pushing the idea as he sat down for a social media town hall with Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Revolt TV.
“Donald Trump has agreed to debate me, and I look forward to that. Hillary Clinton has not agreed to debate me here in California so I look forward to debating Mr. Trump on that,” Sanders said. “I hope that one of the major networks will be prepared to sponsor that debate.“
It’s not hard to see why Sanders would be interested in such a primetime tussle. With the Democratic primary in its final throes, the Vermont senator is forcefully resisting not-so-subtle calls for him to drop out.
He’s eager to prove his point in California, where polls show him in a virtual dead heat with Clinton.
And what better way to get a big primetime audience than to go toe-to-toe with Trump?
As for those networks, which have scrambled to pick up as many debates and town halls as possible, a Trump and Sanders debate would be a ratings bonanza. Officially, none of the networks had any comment as of Thursday afternoon, and some network sources said on background that they’re trying to figure out whether Trump is even serious about participating.
During his interview with Kimmel on Thursday night, Trump acquiesced to the agreement, but with strings attached.
“Have you met Bernie? Have you guys ever met before?” Kimmel inquired.
Trump responded, “I’ve never really had the privilege.”
“I see, OK. So here’s the question from Bernie: He asked, ‘Hillary Clinton backed out,” Kimmel began, before launching into an impression of Sanders, “Hillary Clinton backed out of an agreement to debate me in California before the June 7 primary. Are you prepared to debate the major issues facing our largest state and the country before the California primary? Yes or no, he wants to know if you will debate him.”
Trump responded quickly, “Yes I am,” before asking, “How much is he going to pay me?”
“You would—you would do it for a price? What would that price be?” Kimmel asked.
The presumptive Republican nominee, who held a fundraiser for veterans in Iowa in late January rather than participate in Fox News’ debate, speculated that “some worthy charity” should benefit from the telecast because it “would have such high ratings.”
“So if it was done for charity you would agree to do that?” Kimmel asked.
“If he paid a nice sum for the charity, I would love to do that,” Trump responded
When asked if the hypothetical network were to put up the money for the charity, Trump welcomed that as a possibility as well.
“In fact, I’ve been saying that should happen anyway. You know, when we did the Republican debates, the Fox had 24 million people, the largest in the history of cable television,” the former reality star reminded the audience. “CNN three weeks later had 23 million people, the largest in the history of CNN. Think of it. CNN with the wars and all the things they cover, it’s the largest audience they’ve ever had. The largest audience ever on cable was Fox a couple of weeks before. And I must say, you know, I think I had a lot to do with that, OK?”
He continued, “But I said why aren’t we getting paid for this, and give the money to charity, and I actually, as you know, I’ve been saying this for a long time, get paid, give the money to charities, pick good charities and give the money to charity.”
And yet, CBS News cited “multiple sources” on Thursday saying that Trump was only pulling Sanders’ leg.
“Well I didn’t think it was a joke. I saw it. I thought it was serious. We are ready to debate Donald Trump, we hope that he will not chicken out,” Weaver told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Weaver declined to get into specifics on CNN but said that the campaign has heard from “I think, every network.”
As far as the charity stipulation, Blitzer pointed out that Sanders “has been active in veterans organizations.”
“Well, we haven’t really discussed that,” Weaver said. “Although I would say that Senator Sanders has been a leading advocate for veterans in the Congress his entire career. He was chairman of Veterans Affairs Committee and he worked with John McCain in a bipartisan way to pass the most sweeping veterans’ health care reform legislation in a generation when he was chairman of that committee. The senator is very fond of veterans. I’m sure if the issue is which charity it goes to, we can figure that out.”
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but senior adviser Sarah Huckabee Sanders told MSNBC that the prospect of the debate “just goes to show that Donald Trump is not afraid of Bernie Sanders nearly as much as Hillary Clinton is who refuses to debate Bernie.”
“If she can’t handle the guys in her own party, how do we expect her to take on foreign leaders that are probably much more aggressive than Bernie Sanders,” Huckabee Sanders added. “Whether it happens or not, I think we’re all waiting to see about that. But Donald Trump certainly is happy to debate Bernie Sanders, I think, at any point.”
Hadas Gold and Nolan D. McCaskill contributed to this report.
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