DES MOINES — Republican debate-boycotting Donald Trump held a competing event Thursday to benefit veterans’ organizations, but it was unclear who benefitted more from the special attention he drew both from the appreciative crowd and from the stir his absence cast over the televised debate just 3 miles away.
“I didn’t want to be here, I’ve got to be honest,” Trump told a cheering crowd that packed a 700-seat Drake University auditorium. “You have to stick up for your rights. When you’re treated badly, you’ve got to stick up for your rights. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Trump’s event ran parallel to a TV debate that attracted his top-tier GOP competitors. The billionaire New York businessman, former reality television star and GOP polling front-runner boycotted that event in a dispute with a debate sponsor, Fox News and one of its debate moderators, Megyn Kelly.
“Will I get more votes or less votes” from boycotting the debate, Trump told the crowd. “Who the hell knows, but it’s for the vets.”
Trump said that Fox executives were on the phone to him and were “so nice to me” in trying to persuade him to participate, even after the debate was underway.
But he said he couldn’t step away from a benefit organized in 24 hours that “just snowballed” and raised more than $6 million.
“I’m told we have more cameras than they do,” Trump said. “Look at all the cameras. This is like the Academy Awards.”
At one point, Trump was joined on stage by rival GOP presidential contenders Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who appeared on an undercard debate and were not invited to participate in the main Fox News debate.
“I had nothing to do at 8 o’clock tonight. This worked great for me,” said Huckabee, who noted that Thursday night he, Trump and Santorum were in unison to honor veterans “because without you, there is no government” — prompting chants of “USA.”
“In my mind, I was hearing you say ‘Go Huck go,” Huckabee joked.
Before speaking, Santorum moved away from center stage “so I’m not photographed by the Trump sign,” he said. “I’m supporting another candidate for president, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to help the veterans.”
About eight minutes into the event, the proceedings were briefly interrupted by protesters who were escorted out while the crowd chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump.” Another protest broke out nearly an hour into the program.
“It really is too crazy,” Trump said.
Trump invited several wounded warriors to address and crowd and spent part of the event naming some of the event’s donors, including $1 million he put up.
He said people who have made lots of money have done so because of the sacrifices made by America’s soldiers, saying it’s shameful that “illegal aliens are being treated better than our vets.”
The honored vets presented Trump with an honor ring to wear on “his trigger finger” in appreciation.
“Isn’t this better than that debate that’s going on?” Trump asked.