2024 Elections

Elizabeth Vargas: ‘Elephant in the room’ Trump won’t be ignored at NewsNation debate

Elizabeth Vargas says whether he’s there or not, Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate on NewsNation isn’t going to pretend former President Trump doesn’t exist.

“We are not going to ignore the elephant in the room,” the “Elizabeth Vargas Reports” host and co-moderator of the fourth 2024 primary debate told ITK. 

“One of the debates, they waited an hour to acknowledge his existence,” Vargas said.

The 45th president, who’s leading the Republican primary field, Vargas said, is “the No. 1 target” for all of the GOP White House hopefuls. 

“We intend to ask several pointed questions about Donald Trump, and his policies, and his plans and give the candidates an opportunity to compare and contrast themselves to the person they most need to beat at this point in the race,” she said.

Trump has signaled that he won’t attend the debate being held at the University of Alabama. He’s poised to participate in a Fox News town hall on Tuesday hosted by Sean Hannity.

Vargas, who’s moderating the mid-week debate alongside conservative pundit Megyn Kelly and The Washington Free Beacon’s Eliana Johnson, said in addition to asking about Trump, she’s also aiming to get candidates to toss their “canned campaign speeches.”

“We are dedicated and working hard to make this the smartest debate we can — to pin down these candidates on some of the issues that I think that they have largely glided over in the first few debates and on the campaign trail. We want to get some specificity,” the former ABC News anchor said.

Some topics Vargas said she’s hoping to address include violence in the Middle East, Ukraine funding, crime, fentanyl and U.S. border security and immigration.

“The debate’s happening in Alabama, which is a big military state. I’m an Army brat myself, so I’m hoping to get in a question about the state of the U.S. military,” she said.

It’s the first presidential debate to air on NewsNation, which like The Hill is owned by Nexstar Media Group. 

“I think our growing visibility will be exponentially bigger on debate night,” Vargas said of the network, which she joined earlier this year.

“We have lots of cable news networks catering to the far fringes — the extremes of both the left and the right — and not as many who are just trying to talk to the moderate middle. So I think this is a tremendous opportunity for us and we couldn’t be more excited.”

The Emmy Award-winning journalist said she and the debate team have been spending weeks “studying, reading and watching everything” to prep for the event and come up with questions for the Oval Office contenders, who include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

“There’s a lot of toing and froing and disagreement, as there should be. It’s all fine, and we will figure out the very best questions and probably be rearranging them, and swapping them in and out right until the moment of the debate,” she said.

On a personal level, Vargas said the best thing she can do for herself ahead of debate night is to “get a good night’s sleep.”

But with so much intense focus on the Republican showdown, even catching some zzz’s sometimes means dreaming of the debate.

“When you wake up at 2 a.m. thinking, ‘Wait, we should ask DeSantis this?’ it’s definitely taken over a lot,” Vargas said with a laugh.

“But in a good way.”

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