Donald Trump’s campaign manager said Wednesday it’s unlikely the Republican front-runner will change his mind and show up at Thursday’s Republican debate, accusing Fox News of launching personal attacks and defending Trump’s decision to skip the debate as one of a “clear leader.”
In an interview with MSNBC, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Trump is someone who “is not going to be toyed with.
“A person who understands when a bad deal is in front of him and is ready to walk away from a bad deal,” he said of Trump. “Something that this country should be able to do.”
He accused the network of making “personal attacks” on Trump and questioned how the debate would succeed without the Republican front-runner: “Maybe Fox was going to have a 20 or 25-million person debate,” he said. “But without Mr. Trump’s participation, I think they may have a 1 or 2-million person debate.”
Trump said Tuesday he won’t participate in Thursday night’s Republican debate, escalating a long-running fight with Fox News, which he blamed for refusing to pull Megyn Kelly as a moderator and for taunting him.
Fox News accused Trump’s campaign of threatening the network if it didn’t remove Kelly and said it would not capitulate to his demands. It called his decision “near unprecedented” and questioned “how Iowans are going to feel about him walking away from them at the last minute.”
Trump, who had threatened earlier in the week to sit out the debate because of Kelly, told reporters Tuesday ahead of a town hall at a high school gymnasium here that he “probably won’t bother” to appear at the debate and instead will hold an event to raise money for veterans. His campaign later confirmed that he would indeed sit out the event -- the last televised contest among the candidates before voters in Iowa cast votes on Monday.
“Now let’s see how many people watch,” said Trump, the reality TV star whose appearance on the debates has helped spike viewership. “Why do I have to make Fox rich? Let me make the wounded warriors rich. Let me make the veterans rich.”
Fox for its part, said the show would go on, with or without Trump. A spokesperson for the network said it would not buckle to what it said was the campaign’s effort to intimidate Kelly. But Fox said Trump is welcome to change his mind.
“We can’t give in to terrorizations toward any of our employees,” the spokesperson said. “Trump is still welcome at Thursday night’s debate and will be treated fairly, just as he has been during his 132 appearances on FOX News & FOX Business, but he can’t dictate the moderators or the questions.”
Trump has been at odds with Fox News since the first Republican presidential debate in August when Kelly asked him a question about negative comments he’s made about women. On Tuesday, he repeatedly called her a “lightweight” and a “third-rate reporter” who “shouldn’t be in the debate” as a moderator.
Fox said that Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told a Fox News executive on a Saturday phone call that Kelly had experienced a “rough couple of days after that last debate” and that he “would hate to have her go through that again.” Fox said Lewandowski was warned against further threats, “but continued to do so.”
Trump said the last straw was a Fox press release “written by a child,” that mocked him in the wake of his Fox News complaints, saying he’d stack his Cabinet with his Twitter followers. It joked that "the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president. A nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meeting."
Earlier in the day, Trump had asked his Instagram followers to vote on whether he should participate.
The impact of a Trump no-show is tough to assess. Traditionally, candidates have to not only show up and campaign in the days before the Iowa caucus, but campaign vigorously to show how much they care about the voters.
Trump, though, has waged a highly unorthodox campaign, shunning much retail politicking, and still remains ahead in the polls. He was scheduled to be out of Iowa after the debate on Friday, and helping wounded warriors could neutralize his absence. He dismissed the effect, saying “I don’t think Iowans are going to care.”
Trump has been threatening all week to skip the debate. He remains angry at Kelly, who during the Republicans' August debate asked him about his derogatory comments about women. An annoyed Trump later said Kelly had had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."
This week, he began criticizing her again, telling CNN Monday, "I don't like her." And, he added, he "might be the best thing that ever happened to her...Who ever even heard of her before the last debate?” Tuesday, he kept going, calling Kelly a "third-rate reporter."
Kelly is to moderate the Thursday debate in Des Moines, along with Bret Baier and Chris Wallace. She read Trump’s statement on her show Tuesday and interviewed former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who said he believed Trump was making a mistake by skipping the debate.
Trump insisted he wasn’t afraid to spar with Kelly, saying he had done six debates and that “according to every single poll,” he had won every one of them. He noted that the Democrats were only holding six debates.
“The Republicans go on forever and ever and ever with debates,” he said. “It’s time that somebody plays grownup.” He said he arrived in Iowa on Tuesday with every intent to debate but was incensed by the Fox News statement. He called his decision “pretty irrevocable.”
“They can’t toy with me,” he said. “I said ‘Bye, bye.’ ”
Trump didn’t mention his intention to skip the debate at his town hall. But after the moderator noted that such events were better venues than debates for meeting candidates, Trump told the audience he doesn’t hold any grudges against Fox.
But he added, “They have to treat people fairly.”
Trump on Tuesday also picked up endorsements from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and Joe Arpaio, the famously anti-immigration sheriff from Maricopa County, Ariz.
David Lightman contributed to this report from Washington.