Once again, Donald Trump is moving in to steal the show.
The billionaire Republican presidential candidates’s decision to tangle with Fox News and skip the final presidential debate before Iowa’s kickoff caucuses could be a a brilliant PR move. But Trump is drawing heavy criticism, and opponents are calling his boycott petty.
Trump has said his refusal to participate in Thursday’s Fox News debate was based on the presence of co-moderator Megyn Kelly, who Trump believes is biased against him.
“This takes guts, and is the kind mentality our country needs in order to Make America Great Again,” Trump’s campaign charged in a statement that cited his campaign slogan and confirmed the finality of his decision.
For the past several days, Trump had sought Kelly’s removal as a moderator of the debate. His back and forth with the network reached a tipping point on Tuesday afternoon, when Fox News mocked Trump with a sarcastic statement that said the leaders of Iran and Russia “both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president.”
“If he doesn’t want to be there, that’s okay with me,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told Kelly on her show Tuesday night. “But I’ll tell you this: the American people should wonder if you’re not willing to show up when everything isn’t going your way and exactly the way you want to.”
Other GOP candidates were also quick to attack, trying to paint Trump’s reaction as the latest example of why he’s unfit for the White House.
His biggest challenger in Iowa, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, used the opportunity to grab headlines when he challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate.
Cruz went on to say that the move casts doubt on Trump’s capability of serving as commander in chief, saying, “If he thinks Megyn Kelly is so scary what exactly does he think he’d do with Vladimir Putin?”
Trump’s presidential run has been defined by such moments. He’s questioned whether Arizona Sen. John McCain is worthy of being called a war hero, graphically criticized Kelly and unveiled a controversial plan to bar Muslims from the United States.
Each led his rivals, political professionals and pundits to predict his undoing. But instead, Trump has maintained his support in the preference polls he loves to tout — a reflection of his ability to capture the feelings of a Republican electorate deeply skeptical of the party’s establishment and the country’s news organizations.
“I think in some ways, we’ve got to start pushing back. And I think he’s just demonstrating that, pushing against the liberal media,” said Yvonne Galusha, 57, a Trump backer who works at the University of Iowa and attended his Tuesday night rally in Iowa City.
That’s an argument yet to dent Trump’s standing among his supporters, who view such actions as a reminder of what they like most about him: Trump plays by his own rules, even if that means taking on his party’s leadership and his party’s favorite television network.
“With me, they’re dealing with somebody that’s a little bit different,” Trump said. “They can’t toy with me like they toy with everybody else.”
Republican officials tried to hide their disappointment, if not their concern for the tremendous power Trump wields in the 2016 primary contest.
“Every candidate has the right to decide not to participate in a sanctioned debate,” said Steve Duprey, the official in charge of the Republican National Committee’s debate efforts. “Time will tell whether this works to his benefit or hurts his campaign.”
Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said Wednesday that “Mr. Trump doesn’t play games. … He walks away from bad deals.”
“At the end of the day,” he said on MSNBC, “Mr. Trump is going to have the last laugh.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article