True to form, Trump makes a big show of skipping GOP debate and staging benefit for veterans

Less than a year after giving up his reality show to run for president, Donald Trump proved Thursday night that he still has a television executive's touch.

After dropping out of the Republican debate because of a feud with Fox News, Trump, the former star of "The Apprentice," decided to host his own counter-programming just three miles away. While his rivals for the Republican nomination butted heads over immigration and foreign policy, the New York businessman did what he does best: put on a show.

The event's official purpose was to honor veterans, and Trump drew gasps by announcing that he had raised $6 million in donations for veterans groups, including $1 million from himself. Dozens of veterans attended, some wearing Trump's signature "Make America Great Again" hats.

"This is like the Academy Awards," Trump said, gesturing to cameras broadcasting the event live on CNN and other Fox News competitors. "We're actually told that we have more cameras than they do," he said of the debate.

Skipping a debate just days before the Iowa caucuses was a bold move by Trump, who is leading in polls here and across the country. But it was characteristic of a candidate who has relied on his skills as a performer on the campaign trail.

Trump has largely scorned the small-town stops and town halls of traditional retail politics, opting instead for big, televised rallies and other events, such as his trip to the Mexican border in July and his speech aboard the battleship Iowa in September in San Pedro. He often arrives by private jet.

Those theatrics are what attracted some to Trump's event at Drake University on Thursday, including Drake students who didn't even support his candidacy.

"We're all here to be entertained," said Julia VanPetten, a 19-year-old freshman at Drake and one of hundreds of people turned away from the event because the theater was full. "He's a spectacle."

VanPetten supports Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, but took pictures in front of a Trump sign with several of her sorority sisters while waiting outside in temperatures hovering around freezing.

Trump announced his event Tuesday after abruptly withdrawing from the Republican debate over disagreements with Fox News that date back to August, when network star Megyn Kelly asked him about his history of calling women "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals."

Since then Trump has repeatedly attacked Kelly, dismissing her as a "lightweight" and demanding she be removed as a moderator for Thursday's debate. Fox News Chairman and Chief Executive Roger Ailes refused and released a statement mocking Trump.

On the way to his special event, Trump invited journalists from Fox's cable news rival CNN onto his private plane for an interview.

Trump said Ailes had called multiple times to apologize and ask him to appear at the debate after all.

Fox News responded with a statement acknowledging Ailes and Trump had talked. The statement said Trump agreed to appear at the debate only if Fox contributed $5 million to Trump's charities.

When Trump arrived onstage to huge applause, he said, "I didn't want to be here." But, he added, "when you're treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights."

Trump directed his supporters to a website where they could donate money to the Donald J. Trump Foundation. The website promised that 100% of donations would go directly to veterans' needs. Trump's campaign did not respond to questions about how the money would be used.

Trump has had a rocky relationship with some veterans groups after he mocked Sen. John McCain's experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. At a forum in Iowa in July, Trump said McCain, who spent more than five years as a captive, was "not a war hero."

"I like people that weren't captured, OK?" Trump said.

Trump did not serve in the Vietnam War, thanks to a medical deferment.

Audience member and veteran Chris Cook said that didn't bother him.

"My stepdad served in Vietnam. And he was of the firm belief that if you didn't go, you didn't miss a damn thing," said Cook, 50, who served for eight years in the Marines, including in Desert Storm.

Robert Montgomery, a 30-year-old community college student who works at an insurance company, said Trump was right to pull out of the debate because the media had been unfair to him.

"When you're in the media, it's important to be as objective as possible," Montgomery said. "There's a lot of journalists out there that don't seem to have a lot of objectivity."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

chris.megerian@latimes.com

ALSO:

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Republican rivals take advantage of Trump's absence in Iowa presidential debate

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 29, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "He makes a show of skipping debate" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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