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Donald Trump to boycott tomorrow’s Fox News debate

Donald Trump spoke in Farmington, N.H., on Monday.
Donald Trump spoke in Farmington, N.H., on Monday. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — Donald Trump is planning to boycott the Fox News debate on Thursday night, throwing one of the biggest events of the campaign into chaos just days before the Iowa caucuses.

The late development, announced by Trump’s campaign Tuesday night, not only disrupts the network’s 2016 election plans, but it marks the latest — and potentially highest-stakes — gambit by Trump, a candidate who has thrived on riling the establishment.

The real estate and entertainment mogul, who is neck-in-neck in the polls with chief rival Ted Cruz, could further endear himself to voters who crave his outsider sheen and ability to maneuver as no conventional politician ever would. But he also risks a critical opportunity to make his closing argument before the nominating contest begins, starting in Iowa.

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During a lively and combative press conference here on Tuesday night, Trump lashed out at Fox News, criticizing anchor and debate moderator Megyn Kelly and saying that he was so incensed with the network that he was not going to attend at all.

But the decision not to participate in the debate robs the network of the GOP front-runner — and its chief ratings draw — and threatens to turn the event into a much different debate at a time when Trump’s rivals are squabbling to become his chief alternative.

“I don’t know what games Roger Ailes is playing,” Trump said, speaking of the chief executive of Fox News, adding it was “irrevocable” that he would skip the debate. “Let’s see how they do with the debate. Let’s see how many people watch.”

Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told reporters afterward it was “100 percent” that Trump would not participate. He said there were no negotiations with Fox, and there was nothing the network could do to win Trump back. Lewandowski raised the possibility of partnering with another media outlet and holding an event at the same time as the debate.

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“We’ll see how Fox does on their ratings on Thursday with no Trump on stage,” he said. “It’ll go back to 1 million people watching a debate nobody cares about.”

Trump said that he would consider doing an event to raise money for Wounded Warriors and military veterans.

“Let them have their debate,” Trump said. “I’m going to raise money for wounded warriors during that time. And for the vets. Let Fox play its games.”

Fox News did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Obviously we would love all of the candidates to participate, but each campaign ultimately makes their own decision what’s in their best interest,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

Some of Trump’s opponents mocked him for not participating.

“If Donald is afraid to defend his record, that speaks volumes,” Cruz said. Cruz also challenged Trump to a one-on-one 90-minute debate with no moderators.

The decision was the climax of several days of back and forth between Trump and Fox, with Trump increasingly lashing out at Kelly.

“Megyn Kelly is really biased against me,” Trump said in a video posted Tuesday afternoon on his Instagram account. “She knows that, I know that, everybody knows that. Do you really think she can be fair at a debate?” He also asked supporters whether he should even participate in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses.

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Ailes on Tuesday defended the popular news anchor. The network then sent out a statement mocking Trump.

“We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president,” the statement read. “A nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”

Trump said as soon as the “wiseguy” press release was sent out, “I said, ‘Bye-bye.’ ”

The network later said Trump is still invited and would be treated fairly at the debate but it criticized the candidate for attacks from him and his campaign on Kelly.

“Capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards, as do threats,’’ a Fox News spokesman said in a statement. “We can’t give in to terrorizations toward any of our employees.’’

Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump has displayed a mastery of the media game, soaking up attention and dominating news coverage for days by providing entertaining and unexpected plot twists.

In fact, his announcement that he would not attend the Fox News debate came moments after he finished an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, who is another debate moderator. It also came just after the new debate lineup was announced, with Trump at center stage given his dominance in the polls.

During the press conference — held in a high school weight room, with stationary exercise bikes, dumbbells, and other exercise machines all around — Trump heightened his criticism of chief rival Cruz and sparred with reporters over his past positions on abortion and allegations of infidelity.

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“Ted Cruz, he’s nervous as can be,” he said. “I looked at him the other day. He’s a wreck.”

“He has checked, and he doesn’t know himself whether he has the legal right to run and serve as president,” he added.

The news conference included a testy exchange with NBC’s Peter Alexander who pressed Trump on his position on abortion, asking a question that included a partial quote from Trump’s 1999 “Meet the Press” interview where the real estate magnate said: “I’m pro-choice in every respect.”

Alexander asked Trump about his position and was rebuffed. Several minutes later, Alexander read the full quote — which included Trump saying “and yet I hate the concept of abortion.”

After hearing the full quote, Trump looked triumphant and asked Alexander to read it again. “Read it again. Go ahead.” Next, Trump asked for an apology.

“Do I apologize? For reading your words?” Alexander said.

“For not reading my words,” Trump said. “No. No. Do you apologize for not reading my words? Excuse me.”

Alexander did not apologize.

“OK. Forget you,” Trump said, and moved on to another question.


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser. Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieLinskey.

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