Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley participate in the CNN Republican Presidential Primary Debate in Des Moines, Iowa, while former President Donald Trump declined to participate and instead held a simultaneous town hall event live on FOX News. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
DES MOINES –– With five days until the Iowa Republican caucuses, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley competed Wednesday night in a CNN-hosted debate, while at a separate Iowa event former President Donald Trump called for mass deportations and dismissed accusations that he represents a threat to democracy .
DeSantis and Haley were the only two candidates to take the stage at Drake University in Des Moines. Though front-runner Trump met the candidate polling requirements set by CNN, he continued his practice of holding a separate event instead of going directly up against his competitors, this time at a town hall with Fox News.
At the debate, the two candidates repeatedly attacked one another for allegedly lying about their track records. DeSantis said that Haley supported Chinese companies owning American land and was involved in “trans-ing kids” as South Carolina governor — both claims Haley disputed.
Haley said DeSantis was lying about her record because he was falling behind in polls, and she brought up reports of conflicts within her rival’s presidential campaign and funding issues in the super PAC supporting him.
“The best way to tell about a candidate is to see how they’ve run their campaign,” Haley said. “He has blown through $150 million. I don’t know how you do that. Through his campaign, he has nothing to show for it. … If you can’t manage a campaign, how are you going to manage a country?”
Haley and DeSantis did agree on one topic: Trump should have joined them. DeSantis said that Trump owes it to voters to participate in debates and to win the support of caucusgoers.
“Nobody’s entitled to your vote,” DeSantis said. “And he comes in here, every now and then, he does his spiel. And then he leaves. I’ve shown up to all 99 counties because it’s important. You’re a servant of the people, you are not a ruler over the people, and that’s the type of president that I will be.”
At the town hall event Fox News hosted a few miles away at the Iowa Events Center, Trump called the multiple criminal prosecutions he is facing “a witch hunt” and said undocumented immigrants should be made to leave the United States, while tempering some previous statements that were widely viewed as threatening of democratic norms.
Candidates who participated in previous events, like entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, did not meet CNN’s polling thresholds. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who qualified for a debate in December, dropped out of the race Wednesday afternoon.
According to polling data aggregated by FiveThirtyEight, Trump leads with 51.8% in Iowa, followed by DeSantis with 17.2% and Haley with 16.8%. Trump holds an even wider margin in national polls at 61.3% as DeSantis and Haley trail at 12.5% and 11.5% respectively.
Trump said at his event that he was “not exactly worried about” Haley gaining momentum in the race and cited “tremendous” leads in national and early-state polls.
Trump clarifies ‘bedlam,’ ‘dictator’ remarks
Trump began the Fox town hall with a confident tone, saying he thought Christie’s decision to drop out of the race would have little impact on the rest of the field.
He emphasized his hardline immigration stance, saying that he would not only close the country’s southern border to illegal immigration but would lead a massive deportation initiative in his second term.
“We are going to have the largest deportation effort in the history of our country,” he said to applause from a crowd that appeared to be composed mostly of dedicated supporters. “We’re bringing everyone back to where they came from.”
The former president spent much of the one-hour town hall defending himself from arguments that he has a record of anti-democratic behavior.
He again dismissed the prosecutions against him, two of which are being led by the special counsel Jack Smith and the U.S. Justice Department, as politically motivated. President Joe Biden, who is running for reelection, has emphasized he has no role in Smith’s investigation, but has also criticized Trump for a string of actions and comments out of line with democratic norms.
Through the campaign, Trump has retained support from his base, despite four criminal prosecutions that include accusations he encouraged an insurrection, by framing the charges as illegitimate and politically motivated.
Wednesday, he mocked concerns that he was outside the political mainstream.
“The new narrative they have is I’m ‘going to be a dictator,’” he said. “It’s going to be the new narrative because a guy like Biden, there’s nothing he can run on.”
But he did qualify a pair of controversial comments he’s made in recent months.
Asked about a comment at a previous town hall hosted by Fox’s Sean Hannity that he would seek to be dictator “only” for the first day of his second term to establish strict immigration protocols and ramp up energy production, Trump said Wednesday that news outlets and political opponents took the comment out of context.
“I’m not going to be a dictator,” he said.
He also accepted moderator Bret Baier’s invitation to denounce political violence, a relatively rare move for the former president who is accused in two criminal cases of encouraging his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol.
In one case, brought in federal court in Washington, D.C., Trump is claiming he cannot be prosecuted because he was a president acting in his official capacity. After an appeals court hearing this week, Trump said there would be “bedlam” if the courts did not accept that argument.
Baier brought up that statement, saying it was seen by many as a threat of political violence.
“Can you say tonight that political violence is never acceptable?” Baier asked.
“Well, of course that’s right,” Trump answered.
Asked what he meant by “bedlam,” Trump said the current president was causing it through a poor performance.
“I think bedlam is Joe Biden,” he said.
DeSantis and Haley criticized the legal argument Trump’s lawyers promoted this week, which included an answer that presidential immunity would extend to a commander-in-chief who ordered a Navy SEAL team to assassinate a political rival.
“Obviously, that attorney gave the case away on that explanation,” DeSantis, a former attorney in the Judge Advocate General Corps of the U.S. Navy, said.
Haley said Trump’s argument was “absolutely ridiculous.”
“We need to use some common sense here,” she said. “You can’t go and kill a political rival and then claim, you know, immunity.”
Candidates battle on Ukraine, Israel
Though DeSantis and Haley share many of the same policy positions on issues, the two butted heads on foreign policy — specifically, continued U.S. funding for Ukraine in its war against the Russian invasion.
While DeSantis has called for an end to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Haley said that continuing to fund military efforts in Ukraine keeps U.S. troops out of the fighting. She also said it’s necessary to maintain peace internationally.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re having the backs of the right friends, because if Russia wins, China wins,” Haley said. “There is a reason the Taiwanese want us to help the Ukrainians. And that’s because they know if Ukraine wins, China won’t invade Taiwan. This is about preventing war.”
The Florida governor said that Haley was purposely not highlighting her support for Ukraine joining NATO, a move that would put the U.S. at war defending its ally if conflict continues between Ukraine and Russia.
DeSantis said that Haley’s view of Ukraine and Russia was reflective of her time at the United Nations, by viewing the U.S. as “somehow globalists and we have unlimited resources to use.”
“You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations but you can’t take the United Nations out of the ambassador,” he said.
Haley defended her support of using American resources for supporting American allies in international conflicts — clarifying that she does not support sending funds directly to Ukraine, but sending military equipment and ammunition.
“They’re saying you have to choose between Ukraine or Israel, or Israel and securing the border,” Haley said. “Supporting Ukraine is 3.5% of our budget … If we support Ukraine and Israel, that’s only 5% of our defense budget.”
Both candidates spoke in support of Israel in its war against Hamas following the Oct. 7 attacks. When the moderators asked DeSantis if he would support an Israeli minister’s call for mass deportation of Palestinians, the candidate said he saw a “lot of issues” with the proposal. He also said that being a good ally to Israel means “you back them in the decisions that they’re making with respect to Gaza.”
“There’s a lot of pluses and minuses with how you’re doing this,” he said. “But for us to be sitting in Washington, second guessing them — I don’t think that’s the right way.”
Haley said it was “rich” that DeSantis claimed to support Israel when he brought U.S. Rep. Tom Massie of Kentucky to campaign with him in Iowa. She called Massie the most “most anti-Israel Republican in the state,” criticizing his vote against a Republican resolution condemning antisemitism on college campuses.
DeSantis called her attack of Massie “cheap garbage.”
Differences on abortion
At the Fox town hall, asked to “reassure” a Republican voter about his record on abortion, Trump said he was responsible for the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a legal right to abortion.
But he called for some moderation in any potential limits, noting that early-pregnancy bans are unpopular with many voters.
“A lot of people say if you talk five or six weeks, a lot of women don’t know if they’re pregnant at five or six weeks,” he said. “I want to get something where people are happy. You know this has been tearing the country apart for 50 years … I love where you’re coming from but we still have to win elections.”
Trump appointed three justices to the court who all voted to overturn Roe, a fact that abortion rights groups and Democrats have sought to exploit.
Earlier Wednesday, a coalition of abortion rights groups and the Biden campaign highlighted the Republican field’s positions on the issue in a call with reporters.
Trump, DeSantis and Haley all posed serious threats to abortion rights, Biden campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez said.
“When we say Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans are coming after every single American woman’s reproductive freedom, this isn’t just some abstract threat,” she said. “Donald Trump appointed the Supreme Court justices that overturned Roe.”
“It’s not just Trump,” she added. “Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis each have their own extreme anti-abortion records. As governor, they both signed anti-abortion bans that threatened doctors with jail time and had no exceptions for rape or incest.”
On the debate stage, DeSantis touted the six-week ban he signed into law – and a similar measure Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed that is still pending a court review – and questioned Trump’s commitment to restricting abortion access.
“Donald Trump has attacked what they did under Gov. Reynolds here in Iowa,” he said. “I don’t know how you square that. He was at the March for Life when he was president.”
Trump criticized Florida’s ban last year, prompting Reynolds, a Republican who has endorsed DeSantis, to chide the former president.
DeSantis also questioned Haley’s anti-abortion history, saying she has been “confused” on the issue and in trying to appeal to too many groups has not made her position clear.
Haley responded that she is “unapologetically pro-life,” and criticized her male rivals for their tone.
“These fellas don’t know how to talk about abortion,” she said. “The Democrats put fear in women on abortion and Republicans have used judgment. This is too personal of an issue to put fear or judgment.”
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