DES MOINES, Iowa — Donald Trump's high-profile boycott of the GOP debate Thursday came in the form of a thrown-together variety hour benefiting veterans.
The last-minute event both asserted Trump's power to skip the debate, the Republican Party's seventh of the primary season, and allowed him to depict himself as a generous philanthropist to a crowd of Iowans just five days before the state's all-important caucuses. Planned in just two days, the event drew appearances from two low-polling rivals, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, along with veterans, YouTube’s Trump-loving sister duo Diamond and Silk, and some of Trump's rich friends. Many took the stage to give quick speeches laced with Trumpian rhetoric.
The event, at Drake University, took place at the same time and just miles away from the debate, which Trump announced two days ago he would skip after Fox refused to replace Megyn Kelly as a moderator. It was a far more demure and positive gathering than Trump’s typical fiery rallies.
At times it had the feel of a charity benefit. The bombastic billionaire and Republican frontrunner boasted that he’d raised $6 million dollars for veterans. It’s still unclear where that money’s going: Trump said the list of groups receiving the money would be announced, though by press time it was not available and many veterans groups have said they didn't want to be drawn into political controversy.
Instead of being the main attraction on Thursday night, Trump played the role of the benevolent master of ceremonies.
“Hey fellas, come up here for a second,” Trump said, corralling Huckabee and Santorum -- the past two winners of the Iowa GOP caucuses -- onto his stage and encouraging them to say a few words. Both did so while making uncomfortable jokes that underscored the odd nature of the event.
“I’m going to stand over here,” Santorum said standing slightly off to the side of the Trump-emblazoned podium with a smile. “So I’m not photographed with the Trump sign.”
Chants of U-S-A broke out during Huckabee’s brief remarks in support of veterans, which the 2008’s caucus champion joked he’d like to be hearing “Go Huck Go” instead. Huckabee later told reporters he’d make a donation to the cause, but acknowledged that he doesn’t know where that money’s going.
“I’m pretty sure that he’s not going to pocket the money,” Huckabee said of Trump. “The one good thing about it: he doesn’t need the dough.”
The hour’s longest speaker was veteran John Wayne Walding, who spoke about his sacrifice and how important it is for veterans to be thanked and treated well by the nation. He also spoke glowingly of Trump.
“That was amazing, isn’t it better than the debate that’s going on?” Trump said afterwards, later drawing Diamond and Silk back on stage. The sister duo also spoke before the event to warm up the crowd.
There wasn’t much of the usual Trump rally rhetoric at this event, though protesters interrupted a few times. And despite his assertion that he wouldn’t talk about polls, Trump almost immediately did boast about just how well he's doing against other candidates.
And of course, you can't see Trump without hearing a bit about winning.
“We don’t win anymore, when was the last time we won?” he asked, boasting that his administration would win a lot more. “We are going to win so much, we’re going to win at the military, we’re going to win on trade.”