DES MOINES, Iowa (CBSNewYork/AP) — Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump held an alternative event as his GOP rivals debated in Iowa Thursday night, saying he had been “treated badly” by Fox News and had to stick up for his rights.
Trump hosted what his campaign is calling a “special event to benefit veterans’ organizations” at Drake University.
“I didn’t want to be here. I have to be honest,” Trump said at the event. “I wanted to be about five minutes away.”
But Trump had refused to back off his decision to boycott Thursday’s prime-time faceoff, and was not there as his fellow candidates took each other on.
His campaign insisted that debate host Fox News crossed a line with a sarcastic statement mocking him and continued to criticize moderator Megyn Kelly. In turn, Fox accused Trump’s camp of trying to terrorize its employees.
“They think they can toy with Mr. Trump,” campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Mr. Trump doesn’t play games.”
At the event, Trump said he had been mistreated by Fox News and had to defend himself.
“You have to stick up for your rights. When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights. You have to do it,” Trump said.
He went on to compare the concept of “sticking up for his rights” to the need for American military might, and criticized President Barack Obama’s Iran deal as weak.
Thunderous cheers erupted among the crowd several times even in the first few minutes, and Trump said his event was indeed taking attention away from the Republican debate.
“This is the Academy Awards,” he said. “We’re actually told that we have more cameras than they do by quite a bit.”
Trump added that ahead of the rally, he had raised more than $5 million for veterans in one day, and had personally contributed $1 million.
Trump repeated earlier statements that Fox “very much” wanted him to attend the debate and said he’d fielded repeated phone calls from the network during the day. 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.
Fox News says Chairman Roger Ailes, in conversations with Trump, “acknowledged his concerns” about a statement the network had made in the days leading up to the debate.
Trump has said he’s not worried about turning off voters who may be disappointed by his decision to skip Thursday’s contest.
“We’ve had other voters that love what I’m doing because they don’t want to be pushed around by the establishment,” said Trump, who is planning to participate in the next debate in New Hampshire.
It was unclear exactly which groups would receive money raised from the event and new website Trump launched for collecting donations: donaldtrumpforvets.com. Contributions to the site will go 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.”
Trump representatives had been 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.
K9s for Warriors, which trains rescue dogs to be service animals for veterans, received a call from a Trump campaign representative asking if the group was interested in accepting funds from the event, according to executive director Rory Diamond. Diamond said the group is non-partisan but would be happy to accept any contributions.
Two fellow Republican candidates, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, joined Donald Trump after their undercard debate, CBS2’s Dick Brennan reported.
Santorum joked that he didn’t want his picture taken with the Trump campaign sign. He quipped that he’s “supporting another candidate for president,” but said he was happy to come out to support veterans.
Huckabee had earlier stressed his appearance should not be seen as an endorsement of Trump. He told the audience gathered at Drake University that he, Santorum and Trump may be presidential race competitors but said “tonight we are colleagues” in supporting veterans.
Rival U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has criticized Trump’s decision to sit out. Earlier, he challenged Trump to a separate one-on-one debate, a proposal that was dismissed by his opponent. He renewed the invitation to debate, saying they could meet Saturday in Sioux City, Iowa.
“I’m going to propose a venue,” he said. “Western Iowa Tech, Saturday night in Sioux City. We already have it reserved.”
Two super PACs supporting Cruz promised to donate $1.5 million to charities serving military veterans if Trump agreed to a head-to-head showdown.
“It’s not really that Donald is afraid of me,” Cruz said at a rally Wednesday night outside of Des Moines. “He’s afraid of you. He doesn’t want to answer questions from the men and women of Iowa about how his record doesn’t match what he’s selling.”
The Texas senator added, “What does is say when Donald tells the men and women of Iowa, ‘My time is more important than your time?'”
Cruz also took to social media earlier this week to criticize Trump’s decision. The politician posted an image to Twitter of Trump’s head Photoshopped on the body of Disney character Scrooge McDuck, alongside the hashtag #DuckingDonald.
Cruz has also issued “Make Trump Debate Again,” hats — a jab at Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” campaign signature.
Trump fired back to Cruz’ criticisms, taking to Twitter with his comments about where the two candidates would debate — a subtle reference to a claim surrounding Cruz’ eligibility to run for president in the United States.
“Even though I beat him in the first six debates, especially the last one, Ted Cruz wants to debate me again. Can we do it in Canada?” Trump tweeted, referencing Cruz’s birthplace.
Despite the attention, there was little sense that Trump’s move would significantly change the trajectory of the Republican contest in Iowa. While the former reality television star holds a big lead in most national polls, he and Cruz are locked in a tight race here.
“My sense is those Iowa Republicans who weren’t fans of Donald Trump before yesterday, this has only validated their opinion of him, and those Iowans who have been drawn to his passionate attack on the media and political elites in our country are even more emboldened by their guy today,” said former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn.
Thirty-eight percent of Iowans said in a poll that they could change their mind about who to vote for ahead of the caucus.
In December, Trump threatened to skip a CNN debate unless the network paid him $5 million, which he said he’d donate to charity.
The network did not pay up, and he showed up nonetheless. And in October, he and rival Ben Carson’s campaign threatened not to show unless their demands for a shorter run time and other conditions were met. The network adjusted and they appeared.
Trump’s Fox feud dates back to the first primary debate, when Kelly took him to task over derogatory statements he’d made about women.
The mocking Fox statement on Tuesday was the final straw.
It said the leaders of Iran and Russia “both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president” and said “Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”
A recent CBS News/New York Times poll shows Trump leading nationally among his GOP opponents with 36 percent of support from Republican primary voters. Cruz is second at 19 percent.
(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)