MILWAUKEE — Less than 24 hours before he surrenders to authorities for the fourth time in five months, Donald Trump and his team tried to send a signal on Wednesday night: No one has a chance to beat him in the GOP primary.
As eight other Republicans battled onstage in the party’s first debate here, Trump instead stayed at his New Jersey golf club and said he was too far ahead to worry about debating. His team also tried to project an aura of invincibility, flooding the debate venue with advisers and allies.
“I’m leading by 50 and 60 points, and some of them are at 1 and zero and 2 [percent], and I’m saying, do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president?” Trump said in an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that was released simultaneous to the start of the debate.
Whether the strategy to skip the debate accrues in his favor — or matters at all — remains unknown. But Trump’s team has repeatedly deflected questions about 91 felony counts lodged against him, the potential he could face jail time, his 2024 electability and other thorny topics with a similar refrain: We are ahead, in his words, bigly.
What his team often says is that Republican voters do not believe he is guilty — or do not care if he is — of committing felonies in his bid to overturn the 2020 election; of illegally mishandling classified documents; of obstructing justice by not returning the documents and asking others to help him keep the documents; of illegally paying hush money to an adult-film star; or of any other charges leveled at him.
And they do not exude worries that Republican voters will punish him for skipping the debates, for hitting the trail less than many of his competitors or for attacking fellow members of the party, including popular governors.
Only a relatively brief portion of the two-hour debate focused on Trump’s legal problems, which could be a dominating factor for the GOP next year if Trump is the nominee. And the moderators seemed to almost apologize for asking about them — saying they wanted to talk about policy and knew candidates did, but felt compelled to ask the questions.
In one of the night’s most memorable segments, moderator Bret Baier called the former president “the elephant not in the room” and asked for a show of hands for who would support Trump if convicted. Investor Vivek Ramaswamy shot his hand up first, eventually followed by everyone except former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s leading challenger, looked around to see what the other candidates did before raising his own hand.
So far, most of Trump’s competitors have been reluctant to criticize him even as they trail him by 30 points or more, afraid of alienating his powerful base in the Republican Party, according to GOP officials and strategists involved in the campaign.
In private, they all hope that he will fail — but most of them don’t want to be seen as responsible for helping make it happen. They also all want to narrow the field and separate themselves from other low-polling candidates, and most of the candidates don’t believe hitting Trump helps them do that, GOP officials have said.
DeSantis, for his part, was loath to criticize Trump frequently onstage other than obliquely attacking him for empowering former national infectious-disease director Anthony S. Fauci during the coronavirus response and supporting “lockdowns.”
Asked after the debate why he did not attack Trump more, DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier said the Florida governor “has pointed out things he would have done differently.”
Uthmeier demurred when asked repeatedly if DeSantis would be sharper going forward against Trump as he tries to beat him.
“He’s said today he’s really focused on the future,” Uthmeier said.
Trump, for his part, attacked DeSantis for his performance and for an interview he did on Fox News afterward. “DeSanctimonious was a ‘BOMB’ tonight, especially with his softball interview with Sean Hannity. This guy has totally forgotten his past. Who cares!?!?” he wrote on his Truth Social site.
Mike Pence tried to highlight the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and Trump’s efforts to enlist him to overturn the 2020 election — even as other candidates sought to move on — and turned to the camera to tell voters what he believes disqualifies Trump for the presidency.
“He asked me to put him over the Constitution, and I chose the Constitution,” Pence said. When Pence talked in the room, there were often groans, audience members said. And he also repeatedly praised Trump’s record as president, when he served as vice president.
“Here’s the bottom line: Someone has got to stop normalizing this conduct. Whether you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of United States,” Christie said at the debate.
Christie was booed loudly and lustily again when he criticized Trump and he continued, getting booed even louder. The former governor said he did not mind the booing, and his advisers note his popularity has climbed some in recent New Hampshire polls.
What attacks there were tended to focus on electability and particular issues where some Republican strategists say he is vulnerable, though it remains unclear if he is.
“Trump is the most disliked politician in America,” former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley said. “We can’t win a general election that way.” She also criticized Trump for adding to the national debt. She was booed when she talked about Trump being disliked.
In the run-up to Wednesday’s first Republican primary debate, Trump wavered on whether he should attend after all, after loudly proclaiming that he wouldn’t deign to face the rivals trailing him in early polls. Even after taping the interview with Carlson that would be released to counterprogram Fox News’s broadcast, Trump asked associates at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., what he should do and speculated about what the ratings would be.
But by the end of the night, Trump’s allies projected confidence that he made the right choice in skipping the debate and belittled the event as a sideshow without him.
As it turned out, Trump’s absence led the candidates onstage to spend more time attacking each other than the front-runner. He went largely unmentioned for the first hour — and for much of the second hour — other than a brief segment about Trump’s legal problems.
Despite the candidate’s absence, Trump’s campaign established a looming presence at the debate site in Milwaukee. Supporters blanketed the city in signs — many said they had come from Illinois and other nearby states — and Trump’s top advisers stacked up national and local media interviews.
His team circulated throughout Milwaukee, conducting hundreds of interviews on his behalf where they repeatedly torched DeSantis. They passed out bingo cards highlighting DeSantis’s verbal tics and perceived weaknesses, and the super PAC supporting Trump created a website calling the debate a “battle for the vice presidency” and inviting users to vote for their “favorite VP.”
Other campaigns complained during a walk-through on Tuesday when they learned that Trump surrogates and advisers would be allowed inside the spin room after the debate even though he was not participating in the event. A sign outside some of the entrances said that some Trump aides, including Jason Miller and Justin Caporale, were banned from the venue. The sign included photographs identifying them.
Miller said he was stopped but eventually got into the arena, and he accused Fox News of bias against Trump. A spokesperson for the network said it was not responsible for the document and “did not sanction any of the language used.”
Trump did not respond to the debate in real time on social media, but his campaign emailed out policy plans corresponding to the topics discussed in the debate, such as abortion and the border.
After the debate, Trump’s advisers and surrogates dominated the spin room — an area where candidate advisers and allies make their pitches to reporters. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) called the debate “joyless” and said it was a lot of “has-beens.” The largest press gaggle was the one gathered for Donald Trump Jr. and his fiancée, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who were blocked from entering the official spin room and lambasted Fox News.
“It shouldn’t surprise us and it’s also why Trump was 100 percent right not to go to this debate,” Trump Jr. said.
Arguably Trump’s greatest act of upstaging was still to come on Thursday, with the former president scheduled to take over the post-debate news cycle with a prime time surrender in Fulton County, Ga., where he has been charged in an alleged conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election results in the Peach State.
His team is betting they can take attention away from the debate with a dramatic flight to Atlanta, where he will turn himself in at the Atlanta jail.
It is a continuing and risky bet that indictments and mug shots will continue to help him with GOP voters. As Trump predicted recently, one more indictment could help him win the nomination.