Donald Trump skips debate, salutes veterans

Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, left, and Donald Trump, center, laugh as they listen to Mike Huckabee during a campaign event on the campus of Drake University Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, left, and Donald Trump, center, laugh as they listen to Mike Huckabee during a campaign event on the campus of Drake University Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. AP

It was part patriotism, part politics and all Donald Trump.

The real estate magnate who decided to skip the final debate before Iowa votes because of a spat with Fox News, instead took to a college auditorium about 2.5 miles away, serving as emcee for a veterans benefit, laced with lines from his standard stump speech, exhortations to caucus for him on Monday – and appearances from veterans.

Trump told the audience stocked with veterans that he had wanted to be at the debate, but “you have to stick up for your rights when you’re treated badly” – a reference to his belief that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly had treated him badly at the Aug. 6 debate. He said his event – put together in about 24 hours – had raised more than $6 million for veterans, including a $1 million contribution from Donald J. Trump himself.

The Republican front-runner opened with a profession of love for veterans and touted some of the contributors to the veterans’ groups, but soon found himself reciting bits of his campaign speech, complaining about Obama's Iran deal and how he's covered by the press.

He compared his decision to skip the debate because of Fox News’ purported maltreatment to walking away from what he said was a bad deal the Obama administration negotiated with Iran.

"We have to stick up for ourselves as people and our country when we're being mistreated,” he said. It’s an open question as to whether Iowa voters will be offended by his decision to duck the debate -- or reward him for supporting veterans: "Who the hell knows, but it's for our vets,” Trump said. (Some veterans’ groups panned the event, accusing Trump of using veterans as political pawns.)

At one point he beckoned to the stage, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, Republican rivals who didn’t make the cut to the primetime debate -- and were free at 8 p.m. CST, Huckabee joked. They walked slowly across the stage and stood awkwardly until Trump invited them to the lectern.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump skipped the last GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses on Monday and held his own rally at Drake University's Sheslow Auditorium on Jan. 28, 2016. He claimed that Fox News had called him about joining t

Santorum stood to the side, quipping that he didn't want to be photographed behind a Trump sign.

“I'm supporting another candidate," he said, adding that it didn't mean he couldn't support veterans. Huckabee said the three may be competitors for the presidential race, but were united in support for veterans.

"It says something about him that he would bring us to his own event," Huckabee said of Trump.

After they left the stage, Trump turned it over to John Wayne Walding, a Green Beret who lost the lower part of a leg after being shot by a sniper in Afghanistan in 2008. The author of No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan, Walding said he wasn't there "for politics" and delivered lengthy remarks about his personal story of injury and recovery.

“Never underestimate the magnitude of what 'thank you' means to veterans," he said.

The event was disrupted several times by protesters who were quickly outshouted by the audience, shouting “Trump, Trump.” It broke into a chant of “USA, USA,” when representatives from 22vets.com, which combats veteran suicides, presented Trump with an honor ring.

“Isn't this better than that debate that's going on?" Trump said. "They're all sleeping, they're all sleeping."

He ended by promising a military "so strong, so powerful" that no country will "mess with us” and pledged that “we're not going to be laughed at around the world, they laugh at our stupidity, they can't believe what's happening.”

Trump’s family joined him at the event and he noted that his daughter, Ivanka, was due to give birth in two weeks.

“Ivanka, it would be great if you had your baby in Iowa," he said. "I want that to happen."

He closed with a salute to veterans: "I want to thank you for the job that you do because without you we would not be here tonight."

Trump's event was held just 2.5 miles from the debate site at a Drake University auditorium that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Trump supporters, many of them veterans wearing fatigues, service pins and caps, filled the venue’s 700-plus seats and a Jumbo-tron was set up outside for an excess crowd.

Trump’s Iowa co-chair, Tana Goertz, a former finalist on Trump’s The Apprentice, opened the event, referencing the debate and urging audience members to caucus for Trump: “This is a lot more fun than what they’re doing!” she said to applause. She was followed in short order by the national anthem and an appearance by Diamond and Silk, two YouTube personalities that have joined Trump at campaign events.

“You are our heroes and our s-heroes,” they told the audience.

Few in the audience thought that the debate snub would hurt Trump among voters, with even Fox News fans suggesting that Kelly and Fox News were biased against Trump.

“He was being set up and he knew he was being set up,” said Norm Pawlewski, 81, a Korean War veteran, who, along with his family, plans to caucus for Trump on Monday. “They were looking to take him down.”

Pawlewski said he and his wife once liked watching Kelly -- before she asked Trump about his various denunciations of women at the August Republican debate.

Pawlewski said he’s backed Trump from the start: “He’s an honest guy who loves his country,” he said of Trump. “It’s most important that a president is a patriot and loves his country.”

Trump, Pawlewski noted, “has his own money and didn’t need to do this. He’s doing it for our country.”

Vicki Newman, 55, a Des Moines hair stylist and Navy veteran, said she backs Trump because he’s not part of the political establishment.

“They’ve had all this time to go to Washington and take care of this stuff, but they haven’t done anything,” she said of politicians. “If you are in the establishment, you are part of the problem, you aren’t listening to us.”

She said Trump’s decision to skip the debate would do little to hurt him among supporters.

“I watched all six debates and it was the same questions, the same answers, just people going after each other,” she said.

Chris Heimburger of Houston brought along a quilt she made as a "labor of love" for Trump, featuring service emblems, the American flag and Trump's signature "Make America Great Again" slogan.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark