The complicated dynamics that were in play in so many past GOP debates have given way to a much simpler question: Can Donald Trump be stopped?
Thursday night’s Republican debate on Fox News, moderated by Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, is bound to have its key moments, and perhaps will prove to be a turning point in the race for the GOP nomination.
Hanging over this event is the fact that the GOP establishment is frightened that the party is coming apart, as was shown by Mitt Romney’s anti-Trump tirade earlier on Thursday and the increasing number of longtime conservative voices who believe that they are seeing a “great political party shatter before our eyes.”
That said, the drama of the moment may bring in gangbuster ratings, and boon for the news networks and, in the eyes of Trump, what it is all about anyway. “I go on one of these shows and the ratings double,” he told Time in an interview published on Thursday. “They triple. And that gives you power. It’s not the polls. It’s the ratings.”
Follow along here for updates from the Detroit debate — the “Motown showdown.”
9:05 pm ET: Romney’s remarks. Trump is asked right off the bat about Romney’s attack speech. “He was a failed candidate. He should have beat President Obama very easily,” Trump says. He says of Romney, “obviously he wants to be relevant. He wants to be back in the game.” Getting to one of Romney’s substantive claims — that Trump is anti-free trade, Trump contends that he believes “in free trade also.” But “every other country we are doing business with, we are getting absolutely crushed on trade.” Trump again insists that he has disavowed David Duke and the KKK.
9:12 pm ET: Size matters. Yes, he said it. Trump notes that Marco Rubio has been talking about the size of his hands, an innuendo about the size of Trump’s private part. Trump cannot let that go unchallenged. To a national debate audience, Trump holds up his hands to prove they are not small. Then, when it comes to the size of his private part, he can’t let it go unchallenged. “I guarantee there is no problem,” he says. “I guarantee you.”
9:19 pm ET: ‘Little Marco.’ Rubio hammers Trump for having his clothing line manufactured in Mexico and China. “He can start tonight by saying all the Donald J. Trump clothing will no longer be made in China and Mexico,” Rubio says. Trump blames it on the countries’ devaluation of their currencies. But it ignites a back and forth that has Rubio and Trump talking over each other, with Trump referring to his rival as “little Marco.”
9:25 pm ET: ‘Waste, fraud and abuse.’ Wallace presses Trump on his pledge to cut federal spending using the familiar phrase that cutbacks can be found in “waste, fraud and abuse.” Trump pledges to cut the Department of Education, Common Core and the “department of environmental protection.” But Wallace notes that those cuts would only make up a fraction of the deficit, and even presents a graphic to underscore the point. Trump cites supportive comments he has gotten from Larry Kudlow.
9:35 pm ET: Trump for Hillary. Cruz hammers Trump for writing four checks to support Clinton’s bid for the presidency in 2008. Trump says he did, but that he’s supported candidates of both parties.
9:38 pm ET: Hello, Megyn. “You are looking well,” Trump says to Kelly in their first exchange of the evening. She asks him if he will release a recording of an off-the-record conversation he had with the New York Times in January. Buzzfeed reported on speculation that Trump told editors that he would negotiate a far-less hardline immigration policy. Trump says that “there is give and take. There is always negotiation,” but insisted that he is still strident about the border. Despite being pressed repeatedly by his rivals, he said he will not authorize the release of the New York Times tape, saying “I would never release off the record conversations. I don’t think it is fair to anybody.”
Rubio, however, says that it is “not up to the New York Times” to decide. “That is up to you Donald.”
“I have too much respect for that process to say, ‘Just release everything,'” Trump responds.
Cruz, too, presses him. “I’ve given my answer, lyin’ Ted,” Trump responds.
9:52 pm ET: Commander in chief. On “Real Time with Bill Maher” on Friday, former CIA director Michael Hayden suggested that the military would not follow the orders of a President Trump is they violated the law, like an order to engage in torture. “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me,” Trump says.
He cites the brutality of ISIS.
“We should go for water boarding and we should go tougher than water boarding,” Trump says.
On the idea of going after terrorists’ families, Trump says that when it comes to the 9/11 hijackers, “the wife knew what was happening.” More on that claim here.
Cruz characterizes Trump as “rash.” “I think America understands that yelling and cursing people won’t make you a tough guy,” he says.
10 p.m. ET: Let’s go to the videotape. Fox News shows a series of videos where Trump contradicts himself — the suggestion being that he’s flip flopping. Among them: a video where he says that the U.S. made a “terrible mistake” in going into Afghanistan, a video of Trump saying that the U.S. should accept Syrian refugees for humanitarian reasons, and a video in which Trump says that President George W. Bush “lied” in the buildup to the war in Iraq.
Trump says that when it came of Afghanistan, “I meant Iraq.” He said that he changed his position on Syria after learning more information about the crisis.
Kelly presses him on how his switching position squares with his image as someone who “tells it like it is.”
“I have never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible,” Trump says.
John Kasich says that a reason for distrust of Washington are politicians who say one thing to one crowd and another thing to a different group to win support. He doesn’t mention Trump by name.
10:13 p.m. ET: Trump University. Rubio seizes on the opportunity to bring up Trump University, which is the subject of a class action fraud lawsuit. Trump insists that the university has gotten a high grade from the Better Business Bureau, but Kelly challenges that, noting that it got a D-. (Some background on who’s right here.)
Rubio calls the university a “scam” and tries to connect it to the election. “He’s trying to con people into giving him their vote, just like he conned these people,” Rubio says.
Trump calls it a “minor case” and says that will play out in the courts. “Let’s see what happens at the end of three years,” he says. He says that Rubio who has “defrauded the people of Florida.”
After this extended sparring, Kasich says, “Let’s stop fighting.”
10:30 p.m. ET: Gay marriage. At the last debate, Kasich suggested that business owners had to recognize that they performed a service to the public, and couldn’t just decide not to cater to a same-sex couple. Pressed on the issue of religious liberty, Kasich says that there’s a difference between baking a cake and being asked “to participate in something you don’t like. That is a whole other issue.”
But he says that it also comes down to “common sense” — if a photographer doesn’t want to shoot a wedding, choose someone else.
“I’d rather have people figure this out without having to put another law on the books,” he says.
Cruz says that issues of same-sex marriage and adoption should be left up to the states. But he says that the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of same-sex marriage was the “illegitimate and wrong decision.”
10:40 p.m. ET: Breathe, breathe. Cruz has been particularly patronizing to Trump. “Breathe, breathe, breathe,” he says, as Trump tries to interrupt him.
10:47 p.m. ET: Flint. Trump makes a reference to the Flint water crisis, the suggestion being that less money should be spent on war and more on domestic projects.
Rubio earlier said that the “politicizing” of the crisis is “unfair.” That will not be the sentiment on Sunday, when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debate in Flint.
10:55 p.m. ET: The Pledge. It’s full circle now, as Fox News finishes up by asking the candidates if they would support Trump if he is the nominee. At the first debate in August, the first question was whether the candidates would support the nominee, whoever it is.
Rubio: “I will support the Republican nominee.”
Cruz: “Yes, because I gave my word that I would.”
Kasich: “Yes, but I kind of think before it is all said and done, I will be the nominee.” He does admit that “sometimes he makes it a little bit hard, but you know.”
Then Trump is asked if he would support the nominee if it is not him.
“The answer is, yes I will,” he says, despite the notion that he would wage an independent bid if that happened.
For the record, you can still buy “Never Trump” merchandise on Rubio’s website.
11:03 p.m.: More Trump. Trump tells Bill O’Reilly that he thought that the debate was “tough, but fair.” Trump not only has dominated debate time, he also dominates post-debate time. O’Reilly expresses some surprise when Trump
“You have been fair but I think you get a little bit carried away with your self,” he says.
11:06 pm ET: That’s It. Not that anyone was expecting some extended, substantive discussion about issues, but I don’t whether they tuned in thinking they’d hear about the Trump clothing line, yoga and the GOP front runner’s penis size. That said, we are going to hear much more about Trump University, the New York Times tape, and Hillary Clinton’s donations.
Fox’s moderators were pretty good when it came to challenging Trump and the other candidates on facts and contradictions. Kasich tried to stay above the fray, distinguishing himself from other candidates. Rubio and Cruz were able to bombard Trump with a series of attacks. But their dire warnings about Trump pack less punch when they also say that they will still support him if he ends up as the nominee.