DES MOINES — The email landed mid-afternoon Thursday, less than five hours before the seventh Republican debate was set to begin: "You are invited to join Mr. Trump at the airport when he arrives in Iowa this evening for a press availability aboard his plane."
Two days earlier Trump announced he was skipping the debate here on Thursday because host Fox News insisted on having anchor Megyn Kelly as a moderator and because the network released a statement mocking the Republican front-runner. But throughout the day, speculation circulated: Would Trump change his mind?
Looking at the timeline, Trump appeared to have time to do so: He could announce his change of heart to reporters when his plane landed at 6 p.m. in Iowa. He could then swing by the rally his aides had quickly organized at Drake University, taking the stage an hour earlier than planned. Then he could travel three miles from the university campus to the debate venue, taking his spot on stage just before the 8 p.m. start time. It could happen. And why else would he call an impromptu press conference?
Five print reporters, CNN and at least one local television station received the email invitations and arrived at the small terminal that handles private flights on the grounds of the Des Moines airport. We had to be there more than 90 minutes early — which was a surprise to the airport staff already trying to accommodate the arrival of a flock of private jets carrying big donors headed to the debate that night.
"We have much more coming in here than just Mr. Trump," a manager snapped as nine CNN staffers piled into the lobby with loads of equipment. It's been like this for months, he complained, ever since Trump first visited in October. The phone rang and rang, and on the other end were people with what sounded like questions about Trump's arrival.
After waiting nearly two hours in the terminal lobby — furnished with leather furniture and stacks of magazines with titles such as "The Luxury of Home" and "Worth" — reporters were led onto the tarmac by Trump's campaign manager and spokeswoman, who was wearing stilettos despite the patches of Iowa ice spotting the dark landscape. Given the cramped quarters, print reporters would interview Trump first and then the television reporters would get a chance.
We climbed the stairs to the jet, boarded and then waited amid rows of light-colored leather seats to be beckoned ahead. At the front of the plane we could see the glow of a large flat-screen television.
Then, Trump welcomed us in, shaking hands and remembering names. We sat in oversized leather seats around a narrow polished wooden table. "You guys want something to drink?" Trump asked. We declined but he ordered a round of bottled waters.
The question we all had: Would he be at the debate in 90 minutes?
But first Trump needed to control Daily Mail's David Martosko, who was snapping photos from various angles. "Get over here," he said, wanting to be captured head-on instead of from the back or side.
Then he answered: "No, I'm not doing it."
As some of us posted Twitter messages about this latest doubling down, Trump explained that Fox News had been "very nice over the last day" but he could not abandon his own event, which had attracted a few thousand people even though there was only room for about 700 in the auditorium the campaign rented.
As Trump spoke, campaign staffers and three of his children stood listening. At one point, Trump stopped mid-sentence to introduce his wife.
"Melania: Say hello, honey, say hello," Trump said, waving his hand over us reporters. "These are the most powerful people."
Trump picked his thought back up:"So Fox has been very nice, they've been very understanding, they've tried very, very hard, which I appreciate. But what has happened" — Trump then paused to tell Martosko to be careful to not damage his expensive table — "So what has happened is we have an event. It's going to be dedicated to our warriors that are so badly so injured. And it's turned out to be a big monster."
Trump said he had been watching CNN and saw the lines that had formed for his event, declaring them "far bigger than the debate." Hope Hicks, his spokeswoman, confirmed this information: "Yes, sir."
Trump said many top reporters — including "three of the biggest" — were picking his event over the debate. This wasn't a regular campaign rally, Trump explained, it was a fundraiser for programs benefitting veterans. He shared some initial donation totals: About $5 million in big donations, plus "almost $400,000" in small donations through a website set up on Thursday. (Later in the evening, Fox News alleged that Trump told executives he would only attend the debate if the network contributed "$5 million to his charities," but a Fox spokesperson said the network was not willing to "engage in quid pro quo" or allow money to change hands in any way. Trump's campaign responded that Trump raised more than $6 million for veterans and " if FOX wanted to join in that effort and make a contribution Mr. Trump would have welcomed that.")
Although Trump has been relentlessly attacking Kelly on Twitter, he said he backed out of the debate because Fox News put out a statement on Tuesday that seemed to question his temperament and qualifications to be president.
"That was taunting," Trump said. "It was a taunting, you know, memo, and I said: 'Why would they do that?'"
Trump said he had repeatedly talked with Fox's head boss, Roger Ailes, and that the last call had ended "like two minutes ago."
"He would love me at the debate, and I'd love to be there — honestly, I'd love to be there" Trump said. "But this has taken on a life of its own. I said: 'Roger, they're at the same time.'"
Trump said Fox News officials had been calling him and others every 15 minutes, begging for his attendance. A staffer concurred and said it might have been even more frequently than that. (A Fox News spokesperson later said there were only three phone calls exchange between Trump and Ailes on Thursday, not multiple calls as the candidate claimed. Trump's spokeswoman then said the campaign and Fox News have "a difference of opinion" on what constitutes multiple calls.)
Trump admitted that skipping the debate could lose him the support of some voters — but that he has heard from a number of people who "love what I'm doing because they don't want to be pushed around by the establishment."
"They want me at the debate, and I would like to be there," Trump said of the crowd of people waiting at his event. "The problem is this has now taken on a life of its own."
He asked those standing around to "turn the CNN on" so he could see the lines that he said stretched for blocks.
As our 15 minutes with Trump drew to a close, we turned back to our original question: Is there any chance he would change his mind?
"The time to change my mind would have been two days ago," Trump said. "Not now. It's too late."
But Trump said he plans to be at the next debate, scheduled for next week in New Hampshire.
"I fully intend to," he said."Yes."
With that, we were led off the plane.