Donald Trump, a controversial Republican presidential front-runner, today shunned the last primary debate before the Iowa caucus but relished the drama triggered by his snub of a top US news network, taunting his rivals at a competing fundraising event schemed to chide them.
“I wanted to be about five minutes away (at the GOP debate)… but you have to stick up for your rights. When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up to your rights,” Trump told a packed auditorium, where he raised $6 million for veterans.
“I have to go a step further and say that Fox has been extremely nice in the last number of hours,” he said. “They called a few minutes ago. Can you come over? I say, hasn’t it already started?” he joked.
Hundreds of Trump supporters were seen waiting for hours to enter the auditorium for the event organised at a short notice after the real estate tycoon had a simmering feud with the conservative Fox News, which hosted the primary debate.
The 69-year-old billionaire, who has been leading national and local polls among the crowded Republican candidates, said he decided to skip the debate because he was treated “very unfairly” by Fox News.
Trump’s boycott has injected en element of chaos to the presidential race just days before the February 1 Iowa Caucus.
At the event, Trump was joined by two other Republican presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who interestingly were the winners of the last two Iowa caucuses.
“Let me be very clear… Rick Santorum, Donald Trump and I may be competitors in a presidential race, but tonight we are colleagues in unison standing here for the… veterans of the United States of America,” Huckabee said.
Earlier in an interview to CNN, Trump claimed that Fox News apologised to him. “They called me. They want me there very badly. And by the time they apologised, I said, look, the problem is we now have a big event scheduled for the vets.”
However, Fox News in a statement said the network’s CEO Roger Ailes had “three brief conversations” with Trump, where he “acknowledged his concerns about a satirical observation we made in order to quell the attacks on (anchor) Megyn Kelly, and prevent her from being smeared any further.”
Fox said Trump offered to show up at the debate if the network contributed USD 5 million to his charities.
“In the last 48 hours, we’ve kept two issues at the forefront – we would never compromise our journalistic standards and we would always stand by our journalist, Megyn Kelly,” the network said.
Even though he was absent, Trump figured prominently in the debate. The first question was asked about him when Kelly, who picked up a fight with him last summer after she subjected him to tough questioning, described it as “the elephant not in the room.”
“Donald Trump has chosen not to attend this evening’s presidential debate. What message do you think that sends to the voters of Iowa?” Kelly asked White House hopeful and Senator Ted Cruz, who took the centerstage in Trump’s absence.
“Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way,” Cruz began amid laughter from the audience, “I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of this state.”
“(The campaign) is not about Donald Trump. He’s an entertaining guy. He’s the greatest show on earth. This campaign is about the greatest country in the world and a president who has systematically destroyed many of the things that made America special,” Senator Marco Rubio said.
“I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me,” said Jeb Bush, a former Florida Governor.
“Everybody else was in the witness protection program when I went after him on behalf of what the Republican cause should be: conservative principles, believing in limited government, believing in accountability,” he said.