DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — As his rivals made their final case to voters ahead of Iowa’s kickoff caucuses, Donald Trump was headlining a show of his own.
Just three miles from the site of the final GOP presidential debate before voting begins, Republican front-runner Donald Trump held what amounted to a cross between his typical rally and a fundraising telethon to benefit veterans.
Between his usual talking points on issues like the country’s trade imbalance and media camera angles, Trump read out the names of wealthy friends who’d pledged major contributions to veterans’ causes. Later he announced the event had just cracked raising $6 million. When he announced he’d pledged $1 million himself, the crowd erupted into cheers.
It was the latest example of how Trump, a billionaire businessman and former reality television star, has completely rewritten the rules of campaigning, turning typical protocol on its head. Trump decided to boycott the debate due to a feud with debate host Fox News over and organized a competing event instead.
Trump opened by telling the students and veterans packed into a 775-seat auditorium at Drake University that he would have preferred to be at the debate, but felt he had little choice.
“You have to stick up for your rights. When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights,” he said.
In an interview with several reporters aboard his plane at the Des Moines airport before the event, Trump said that he’d been in touch with Fox throughout the day.
“The time to change my mind was two days ago,” he said. “It’s too late. When you look at the lines, what am I going to do? Tell thousands of people that, by the way folks, I’m going to go do the debate? I think it wouldn’t look bad.”
Fox News Channel issued a statement saying Trump had offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that Fox contribute $5 million to his charities, which the network said was not possible. Trump’s campaign responded with a counter-statement saying that, if “FOX wanted to join in that effort and make a contribution Mr. Trump would have welcomed that.”
Trump’s decision posed potential risks with just days to go before Iowa’s caucuses. While recent polls show him pulling ahead in the state, he remains locked in a close race with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa. And his decision was seen by some voters and local party leaders as a slight to those still making up their minds.
But Trump said he wasn’t concerned. While some might take issue, he said: “You’re going to have a lot of voters that like that were didn’t get pushed around.”
About halfway through the event, Trump yielded the stage for Staff Sgt. John Wayne Walding, an Afghanistan war veteran who lost his leg to sniper fire, to speak powerfully about his experience overseas and about coping with the aftermath of war at home. Trump was later presented with a ring from a veterans group representing the number of veterans who commit suicide after returning home.
Trump was joined at his event by two of his rivals — Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — who briefly spoke. Huckabee praised Trump for bringing them together, saying the three may be competing against each other, “but tonight we are colleagues in unison” for the cause.
Santorum spoke standing slightly to the side of Trump’s podium, joking he didn’t want his picture taken with the Trump campaign sign.
But in many ways the event was typical Trump. Moments after saying he would skip his usual campaign mainstay of reading off his poll numbers, Trump pivoted to a summary, bragging about his “amazing polls” and leading “by substantial margins in Iowa and every single state.”
Later, as he introduced Walding, Trump offered the following: “He should be much more famous than me, ’cause he’s a lot much more courageous than I am.”
“I’m financially courageous,” Trump added, but not so good at the other stuff.
Trump’s campaign did not disclose on Thursday which groups would receive money raised from the event, but representatives had spent the day reaching out to various groups, in some cases inquiring about their programs and finances. Among those contacted were the Green Beret Foundation, which provides care to veterans, and Fisher House, which provides free or low cost housing to veterans and military families receiving treatment at military medical centers.
Trump launched a website earlier Thursday to collect donations. Contributions collected there were funneled to The Donald J. Trump Foundation, Trump’s nonprofit charitable organization. The page says: “100 percent of your donations will go directly to Veterans needs.”
As for the debate, Trump predicted it would have far fewer viewers without him on the stage.
And his event offered some similar trappings. Reporters covering his event were ushered to a filing room with five long rows of tables, where they watched via closed circuit television.
When it ended, Huckabee sauntered into the filing room to answer reporters’ questions, giving it the distinct feel of the post-debate spin room just down the road.