Trump’s debate counterprogramming got weird

Trump’s debate counterprogramming got weird

Donald Trump’s attempt to dominate the Republican presidential debate from afar Wednesday night veered into dark and occasionally bizarre territory.


BEDMINSTER, N.J. — Donald Trump’s attempt to dominate the Republican presidential debate from afar Wednesday night veered into dark and occasionally bizarre territory as he mused with commentator Tucker Carlson about potential civil war, the manner of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s death in prison and whether he’s concerned about potential assassination attempts.

Carlson, a keen Trump sympathizer and former Fox News host, steered Trump toward each of those topics in a 45-minute taped conversation that started streaming on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter, just five minutes before Trump’s top eight GOP rivals took the debate stage in Milwaukee.

Trump’s decision to sit down with Carlson at his Bedminster club — instead of engaging with GOP rivals in one of the country’s most tightly divided swing states — illustrated his position in the 2024 Republican primary campaign and, more broadly, his position in his reshaped version of the Republican Party.

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When Trump skipped a GOP primary debate in 2016 just before the Iowa caucuses, he cloaked the decision in a rally ostensibly raising money for veterans. Now, with the former president enjoying double-digit leads in both national and early-state polls, Trump tried to maneuver around Carlson’s questions about Epstein. But ultimately, they were the type of questions he decided to face instead of facing his primary opponents.

“Do I sit there for one hour or two hours or whatever it’s going to be and get harassed by people who shouldn’t even be running for president? Should I be doing that?” Trump rhetorically asked Carlson, brushing off the idea of facing scrutiny from other GOP contenders, most of them polling in the single digits.

Trump dismissed his chief 2024 rival so far, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as “gone-zos” as he spoke to Carlson with DeSantis falling back in the polls over the course of the summer.

“DeSanctus is out,” Trump said. “I think he’s gone-zos. He was at a level — people have figured him out. He’s gone.”

On Thursday, Trump is set to fly to Georgia to formally surrender to the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office after he was indicted last week on state charges stemming from his alleged efforts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results.

“I got indicted four times — all trivial, nonsense, bull----. It’s all bull----,” Trump told Carlson. “It’s horrible when you look and you look at what they’re doing.”

Trump also repeated the election fraud claims that ultimately led to two of his indictments this summer, saying: “They cheated on the election. But you have people that are very smart, but they’re fascists and they’re radical left lunatics.”

Foreshadowing his race in 2024, Trump also said he expects to make similar claims about mass voter fraud efforts next year: “Oh, well, they’ll try. They’re going to be trying.”

But Carlson also steered Trump into more unusual territory, asking him multiple questions about potential future violence in the country, including a possible civil war and hypothetical attempts to kill Trump.

“It started as protests against you … then it moved to impeachment twice and now indictment — I mean, the next stage is violence,” Carlson said. “Are you worried they’re going to try to kill you? Why wouldn’t they try to kill you — honestly?"

“They’re savage animals,” Trump responded. “They’re people that are sick — really sick.”

Asked specifically about the possibility of open conflict, Trump responded: “There’s a level of passion that I’ve never seen. There’s a level of hatred that I’ve never seen, and that’s probably a bad combination.”

He also demurred after two minutes of Carlson’s questioning him about the death of Jeffrey Epstein, which has spawned a vast network of alternative theories even though federal officials determined Epstein died by suicide.

“Oh sure, it’s possible,” Trump said when Carlson asked whether he thought it was possible that Epstein was murdered. “I mean, I don’t really believe — I think he probably committed suicide.”

Trump also continued to take an even approach to Russia’s aggression in its war against Ukraine as many of his GOP presidential opponents spoke out in support of Ukraine on the debate stage Wednesday night.

“That’s a war that should end immediately — not because of one side or the other, but because hundreds of thousands of people are being killed,” he said.

While Wednesday night showcased the GOP’s field of presidential candidates, Trump, the GOP front-runner, largely focused on Democratic President Joe Biden, targeting his attacks on Biden’s age.

“I think he’s worse mentally than he is physically, and physically, he’s not exactly a triathlete or any kind of an athlete,” Trump said. “It looks like he’s walking on toothpicks.”