UPDATED, 8:08 PM: The two-hour GOP debate is over, and neither Donald Trump nor his absence was a focus. The moderators and candidates spent less than three total minutes discussing the Republican front-runner all night, and most of that came right at the outset. Ted Cruz drew chuckles from this exchange with moderator Chris Wallace: “Chris, I would note that the last four questions have been, ‘Rand, please attack Ted.’ ‘Marco, please attack Ted.’ ‘Chris, please attack Ted.’ ‘Jeb, please attack Ted.’” (Many boos.) Wallace replied, “It is a debate, sir.” Then Cruz teed up his big line: “Well, no. A debate actually is a policy issue, but I will say this: Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage.” He did resist the urge to drop the mic — maybe because it didn’t get the huge laugh he expected.
PREVIOUSLY, 6:16 PM: Fox News Channel chief Roger Ailes and Donald Trump were talking several times today about the leading GOP candidate changing his mind and attending the cable news network’s Republican debate tonight, both sides confirm. According to Fox, Trump supposedly requested a $5 million charity donation to get him on the stage with Ted Cruz and the other GOP contenders but FNC said no. Hence there will be no Trump at the debate after all.
“I didn’t want to be here, I have to be honest, I wanted to be about five minutes away,” Trump told a rally of his own for veterans that he was holding Thursday just down the road from the GOP debate. With over $5 million raised for veterans at his event tonight, Trump revealed that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter and his wife Laura donated more than $1 million.
“I just didn’t think this was a fair process and, by the time they apologized, I said look the problem is we now have a big event scheduled,” Trump said today to CNN just before the debate and his own event. “I was treated very badly and very unfairly by Fox,” the candidate told Brianna Keilar on his private jet. “Since then they have been very nice, but it is too late,” Trump added, while not saying who from FNC called him. “You have to stick up for yourself. You to fight for yourself, and you have to fight for your country.” In a clear ratings challenge to FNC, CNN, MSNBC and C-SPAN have all said that they will be covering the Trump event tonight – which is taking place at the same time as the Kelly co-moderated Republican huddle.
“Roger Ailes had three brief conversations with Donald Trump today about possibly appearing at the debate – there were not multiple calls placed by Ailes to Trump,” a FNC spokesperson told Deadline tonight. “In the course of those conversations, we acknowledged his concerns about a satirical observation we made in order to quell the attacks on Megyn Kelly, and prevent her from being smeared any further. Furthermore, Trump offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that Fox News contribute $5 million to his charities. We explained that was not possible and we could not engage in a quid pro quo, nor could any money change hands for any reason. In the last 48 hours, we’ve kept two issues at the forefront — we would never compromise our journalistic standards and we would always stand by our journalist, Megyn Kelly. We have accomplished those two goals and we are pleased with the outcome. We’re very proud to have her on stage as a debate moderator alongside Bret Baier & Chris Wallace.”
Meanwhile, at tonight’s GOP debate co-moderator Kelly started things off by saying “Let’s address the elephant not in the room.” Speaking to Cruz, Kelly said: “Donald Trump has chosen not to attend this event. What message do you think that sends to the voters of Iowa?” The Texas senator replied with a prepared attempt at zinger. “Let me say, I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” Cruz joked in an play on Trump’s words. “And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way,” he added to applause and laugher, “I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of the state and the people of the country why we would make the best commander in chief.”
While Trump is skipping the last GOP contenders gathering and likely taking some of the ratings with him, the candidate did hand FNC some choice numbers out of his satellite sit down with Bill O’Reilly last night. In what was the most watched show on all of cable on Wednesday, The O’Reilly Factor host one-upped his The Kelly File colleague but was ultimately unsuccessful in his attempts to get frontrunner Trump to reconsider his belief that Kelly is biased, that FNC taunted him in a “childishly written” PR statement and attending the debate.
“When Fox called me, because they very much want me there, they called me just now,” Trump told CNN earlier Thursday as he prepared to head to his own fundraising event for veterans in Iowa tonight. “They called me, and in all fairness, very nicely but they want me there very badly.” Noting his war of words with FNC and claims that co-moderator Megyn Kelly is biased against him, Trump said, “I never once asked that she be removed what I didn’t like is their public relations statement where they were sort of taunting and I didn’t think was appropriate and I didn’t think was nice.”