No one skips an event he doesn't want to go to like Donald Trump. Earlier this week, he announced that he wouldn't be attending the latest Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa, because he doesn't like Fox News, and it was a bad deal, or something. Instead, he hosted a fundraiser for veterans down the road from the debate, thus earning a lot of headlines, avoiding a venue where he'd have to argue with Ted Cruz et al, showed how much he cared about the men and women who have fought in wars, and demonstrated his independence from the usual political machinery.
Given that Trump avoided serving in Vietnam and criticized the war record of John McCain, was it a cynical stunt? In the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, is there such a thing as a non-cynical stunt? In any case, there would be crowds on cameras at Drake University, where the shindig was, so I showed up too.
The students I met on the way in didn't seem to be typical Trump supporters. Alec Grant, 19, told me he's not sure whether he's leaning Democrat or Republican, but doesn't expect to caucus for Trump. Anna Bertz, 20, is supporting the Democrats, but came with Grant anyway. "It's more for the experience," she told me.
"It's not every day we get someone like Trump here at Drake," she added.
There were also actual veterans waiting in the line snaking through the Drake campus. Organizers eventually came around to each one and ushered them to the front—with temperatures close to freezing, and a three-hour wait for admission, it was probably a good move to get the aging vets inside as soon as possible.
Attendees seemed excited and slightly confused. There were still empty seats when I finally got inside thanks to people slowly going through Trump's rigorous security screening.
One of opening acts was a pair of internet personalities called Diamond and Silk, who create videos with titles like, "DIAMOND AND SILK ARE MAD AS HELL! DONALD TRUMP PLEASE BUILD THE WALL." One of them (I'm not sure if it's Diamond or Silk) does all the talking in these videos, and the other one goes, "uh huh!" and "mm-hmm!"
Onstage, the one who talks urged veterans groups who weren't accepting donations from Trump to have a change of heart. "When they throw you a lifeline, it doesn't matter where it comes from, as long as it's a lifeline," she said.
Then Mike Huckabee showed up. The former Arkansas governor had appeared on Fox News's "undercard" debate earlier that night and apparently knew free publicity when he saw it. "I like Mr. Trump. We're opponents in the campaign, but we're not opponents in supporting veterans," he said as he moved through the crowd proffering handshakes before disappearing out a side exit. He came back later in the evening to talk onstage, as did fellow candidate Rick Santorum. (As CNN points out, those two guys won the last two Iowa caucuses; it doesn't hurt Trump to tie himself to them.)
When Trump finally arrived, he talked up the success of the debate, bragging that there were more cameras than at the Academy Awards, and that his event was timed to start about 15 minutes into the debate so that he could catch people who switched channels to get away from the boredom of a GOP debate without him. Whatever you want to say about him, he's a populist as well as a capitalist: The most important thing is how something sells, and if people like something, it must be good. "We get the biggest crowds by far, much bigger than Bernie [Sanders], although I have to say he's in second," Trump said.
Trump talked about veterans, of course, in particular how badly they were being screwed over. "Illegal immigrants are treated better in many cases than our vets," was a big line. The implication was that where the government has failed vets, rich people were stepping in, including himself. Trump said he gave $1 million to the cause, as did real estate mogul Phil Ruffin. In total, Trump said in his speech that donors gave over $6 million. Where exactly is the money going? To the veterans! No, but where specifically? As of now, no one knows.
Next was a speech from a former Special Forces solider named John Wayne Walding, who wrote a book about the battle in Afghanistan that took one of his legs. His organization 22kill.com is aimed at preventing the 20 veteran suicides in America that take place every day. He was an excellent speaker, I have to admit, and at one point surprised me by pointing out from the podium that the guy next to me had fallen asleep.
After it was all over, I asked a Dick Tremain, an Army and Air Force veteran who supports Trump, to explain what I'd just seen. Trump didn't want to do the debate, Tremain said, and "he also said to himself, 'Well we had to do something.'"
Say what you will about Trump or his fundraiser, it certainly was something.
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