While eight Republican presidential candidates tried to make their case in Wednesday night’s debate that their party should move on from Donald Trump in 2024, the former president tried to make his case that everyone but him is irrelevant.
Trump, the early front-runner for the nomination, skipped the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, instead opting to appear in a pre-recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson posted Wednesday night on X, the website formerly known as Twitter. The interview was posted online five minutes before the debate aired.
“Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president?” Trump said in the 46-minute interview. “Should I be doing that at a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me?”
Trump attacked some of his rivals early, calling former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson “nasty,” and cited him as an example of someone who shouldn’t be on the debate stage, along with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Both Christie and Hutchinson have been critical of Trump and said he shouldn’t be running for president.
“I’m going to have all these people screaming at me, shouting questions at me, all of which I love answering, I love doing. But it doesn’t make sense to do them so I’m taking a pass,” Trump said.
Trump, who is facing a barrage of legal problems — including in Georgia where he is expected to turn himself in Thursday for booking on state charges of conspiring to overthrow the 2020 presidential election — has said it is beneath him to appear with the other candidates on the Milwaukee debate stage because of his large lead in the polls.
His ongoing feud with Fox News Channel, which is hosting the debate, seemed to cement his decision.
In a post on his Truth social media network hours before the debate, Trump insulted two Fox hosts and complained about the network.
He then touted his poll numbers and wrote: “FOX NEWS REFUSES TO POST OR DISCUSS.”
His third White House bid has come as he’s continued to align himself with those espousing extreme views and conspiracies while wrapping his campaign around bogus claims about the last election.
Appearing with Carlson instead of debating leans into that. The former Fox host has promoted the view that white people are being “replaced” by people of color and spread misinformation about issues like the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the war in Ukraine.
Carlson tried to engage Trump in conspiracy theories about disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein and then asked Trump if his political opponents might threaten his life, which Trump didn’t dismiss.
“They are savage animals. They are people that are sick. Really sick. You have great people in the Democrat Party, great people that are Democrats,” Trump said. “But I’ve seen what they do, I’ve seen the lengths that they go to.”
He also told Carlson: “I think it was a terrible move getting rid of you.”
The night before the interview, Trump spoke at a fundraiser hosted at his New Jersey golf club for the Patriot Freedom Project, which supports the defendants charged for their roles in the insurrection.
Trump has remained dominant in the party even as he faces increasing legal jeopardy in four separate criminal cases related to his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss, allegations he mishandled classified documents and hush money payments made to hide allegations of extramarital affairs.
The day after the debate, he’s set to make his fourth appearance this year as a criminal defendant, when he appears in Georgia to answer charges in a sprawling racketeering case related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in that state.
Poll numbers have shown that despite the legal challenges, his standing among Republicans remains strong.
Before Trump on Sunday announced his decision to skip the debate, several Fox News personalities and executives had encouraged him to participate. While many hosts on the network boosted Trump over the years, the former president has been complaining since he left office about what he feels is unfair coverage.
His decision to instead sit with Carlson also seems designed to send a message to the network, which fired the host earlier this year. The network offered no explanation, but it occurred shortly after Fox agreed to pay $787.5 million to Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit for the network’s coverage of bogus claims by Trump after the 2020 election.
Trump and his team have not clarified if he will skip every Republican debate, or at least those announced thus far. He has complained about the location for the second debate in September, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, because Fred Ryan, the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, is the chairman of the foundation’s board of trustees.
Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is in Milwaukee as a surrogate for the Trump campaign, called it “pointless” for Trump to debate because he is so far ahead in the polls.
“There’s nothing that he has to prove on that stage with them,” she said in a Wednesday interview. “They have everything to prove against him.”
Many of the candidates on the debate stage have embraced Trump’s policies, including his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has criticized Trump for not going far enough to follow through on his policies. Three other candidates all worked for Trump: Mike Pence, his vice president; Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s U.N. ambassador; and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Trump prepare for debates in 2016 and 2020 and led his 2016 transition team.
“They’re all playing out of the same playbook and they’re all espousing the same unpopular positions that Donald Trump led with and he continues to drag this party to the extreme,” former Democratic Congressman Cedric Richmond, a co-chair of President Joe Biden’s campaign, told reporters on Tuesday. “And so whether he’s on the stage or not, his extreme agenda will be.”
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Sara Burnett in Milwaukee contributed to this report.