DES MOINES, Iowa — The show went on, as promised.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump kept his word and skipped the seventh GOP presidential debate of the campaign Thursday night to stage a production that was equal parts campaign rally, telethon and televised revue.
Relishing the attention, Trump led an event billed as a fundraiser for military veterans more like a variety-show host than a politician. He name-checked his wife and daughter, who stood to take bows. He introduced Republican presidential rivals Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who served as reluctant sidekicks. Instead of recapping his poll rankings, Trump touted six- and seven-figure donations from wealthy friends who he said helped raise more than $6 million before he left the stage.
“I didn’t want to be here. . . . I wanted to be about five minutes away,” he told about 700 people packed into a university auditorium three miles from the debate hall.
Trump said he “had a kick” debating. But he added that the Fox News Channel, long beloved by conservatives, was disrespectful for releasing a statement that mocked him. So he passed up the prime-time event days before the Iowa caucuses.
“You have to stick up for your rights,” he told the crowd. “When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights.”
The real estate magnate, now legendary for his brash words and unpredictable political moves, held the political world in suspense for most of Thursday as rivals, reporters and the Republican National Committee awaited final word from Trump confirming that he would skip the debate.
But speculation about his intentions stirred early in the day when his campaign added a last-minute event to his schedule here that would leave him enough time to make the debate. Would he change his mind?
“No. No, I’m not doing it,” he announced to a small pack of reporters aboard his private plane parked at the Des Moines Airport.
He said that Fox “has been very nice, they’ve been very understanding. They’ve tried very, very hard, which I appreciate.”
Before the debate, Fox News said that Trump offered to appear at the debate if the network contributed $5 million to his new veterans charity.
“We explained that was not possible and we could not engage in a quid pro quo, nor could any money change hands for any reason,” the network said in a statement.
Trump told reporters that he had spoken directly with Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes during the day, but that “there just wasn’t anything we could do because it was too late.” Regarding the assertion that Trump asked for a $5 million charitable contribution, a campaign spokeswoman said she could not immediately verify Fox’s claims, saying she was “not privy to that conversation.”
Trump’s late decision to skip the debate gave his team less than 48 hours to stage a “special event.” They booked Drake University’s historic Sheslow Auditorium, a venue that hosted Democratic presidential candidates for a CNN forum Monday night.
His campaign also launched a website to collect money that it said would benefit unspecified veterans organizations. The candidate told the audience that he donated $1 million. His children chipped in, too. So did businessman Carl Icahn, who gave $500,000.
Trump conceded on his airplane that he might lose support for staging his own rally. But, he added, “You’re going to have a lot of voters that like that we didn’t get pushed around.”
Sure enough, Trump’s supporters stood by his decision.
Trump “is putting his foot down towards Fox News, telling them that their biased journalism isn’t going to happen anymore,” said Paul Bartosz, 29, an ethanol-plant worker in Hartley, Iowa.
Thursday was the ninth time Bartosz had seen Trump. He wore a blue winter hat with the Trump campaign logo, a gray sweatshirt and a name tag that read, “F--- Megyn Kelly.”
Kelly, a Fox News anchor, has been the focus of most of Trump’s ire toward the network. Bartosz said she had treated Trump unfairly in a previous Fox debate because “she was making statements rather than asking questions, and it was singling him out.”
Also in the predominantly white and male crowd sat local leaders of veterans-service organizations, a Marine from Los Angeles who flew overnight to attend and the three young “Freedom Girls” who recently performed a song written by a Trump supporter at a campaign rally in Pensacola, Fla.
Doug Banker, 36, a Marine veteran from Los Angeles, said that he arrived in Des Moines Thursday morning and slept only a few hours before he got in line. Growing up in Miami, Banker said he had seen Trump several times at his hotels and golf courses in South Florida.
“I think he’s just brutally honest. I think he’s what the country needs as far as his skill in business, finance, get us out of this debt,” he said. “He could be a strong leader as far as our military. If I was still in, I’d love to have him as a commander in chief.”
Robert Burd, 71, an Army veteran from Ankeny, said he first saw Trump during his first political campaign trip to Iowa.
“I want to see Don again. I appreciate his stance on a lot of things,” he said. “Donald Trump has the ability, I believe, to lead people and get things done.”
Other veterans in the room conceded that Trump was using their struggles as an excuse to skip the Fox debate — but they didn’t care.
“Everybody uses veterans to promote themselves,” said Daniel Gannon, 69, a Marine veteran from Ankeny. “I have no problem with it if we get something back with it. Because without the publicity, we get nothing.”
Watching in the back of the auditorium, a janitor who declined to give his name shook his head as he surveyed the room.
“Bush has been here, Obama’s been here. Now we’ve got this guy,” he said. “I’ve seen it all.”