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6 Top Takeaways From Trump’s Debate-Skipping Town Hall

Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, via Wikimedia Commons

By Fred Lucas, The Daily Signal | January 10, 2024

Donald Trump again counterprogrammed a Republican presidential debate Wednesday night, skipping another opportunity as the front-runner to take on his GOP challengers. 

“Remember this: Our ultimate retribution is success,” Trump said during one memorable moment as he appeared live on Fox News Channel for town hall-style questions from an audience while CNN aired a fifth official debate.

This time, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sparred with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, as two of CNN’s three qualifying candidates. Trump decided not to appear, although both events occurred in Des Moines ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

A fourth remaining Republican presidential candidate, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, did an online event with podcaster Tim Pool. Another contender, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, suspended his campaign earlier Wednesday.

Here are six big takeaways from Trump’s debate-skipping town hall. 

1. ‘You Have Chaos Now’

Trump was asked about concerns and accusations that he would be the “chaos” candidate. 

“You have chaos now,” Trump responded, referring to the Biden administration. “We have chaos at the border.”

He later added: “We now have the worst border in history. We had the best border.”

Trump also talked about the various investigations, past and present, targeting him. 

“Most of the chaos was caused by the Democrats constantly coming after me,” Trump said, pointing to the “Russian collusion” accusations and his impeachment over a phone call to Ukraine’s president. 

Trump said there was less chaos in the world when he was in the White House. “I didn’t have any wars,” he said.  

“I think bedlam is Joe Biden,” he said.

2. ‘Not Going to Be a Dictator’

Trump also sought to tamp down Democrat attacks that he would become a dictator if elected to another term. 

Fox’s town hall event with the former president was hosted by news anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. In a similar event Dec. 5 hosted by popular Fox host Sean Hannity, Trump joked about being a dictator only on his first day back as president, but not after that. 

“We are closing the border and drilling, drilling, drilling. Other than that, I am not a dictator,” Trump told Hannity.  

Democrats and some in the media seized on the sound bite.

Trump was more clear during the Wednesday night forum. He blamed the media for distorting a joke.

“The press picks it up, I say, ‘I’m going to be a dictator for one day,’” Trump said. “They cut it to say, ‘I’m going to be a dictator.’ But they cut the rest of the sentence.”

He continued:

I am not going to be a dictator. I am going to manage, like we did.

We were so successful that the country was coming together. It was actually coming together and coming together well. It was a beautiful thing to see, and we’re going to do that again.

Baier brought up President Joe Biden’s insistence in a speech Friday that Trump declined to say that political violence isn’t acceptable. 

“Well, of course that’s right,” Trump quickly responded to the idea that there is no place for political violence in America. 

3. ‘Didn’t Actually Have a Shutdown’ During COVID-19

An audience member who identified herself as the owner of a small business asked Trump if he would ever shut down the economy, similar to what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Trump asserted that he didn’t favor a national shutdown of the economy during the pandemic, but allowed states and their elected officials to decide what to do. 

“I’m a federalist in a sense, because that’s the federalist way,” Trump said of his deference to the states. “No, I didn’t actually have a shutdown, despite the fact that some people wanted to and some people didn’t want to. But we had some great governors. The governors that did the best job were Republican governors, and they were the ones that didn’t shut down.”

Trump also denied that he listened that much to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who advised the Trump administration on COVID-19 and took on a greater role in the Biden administration. 

Many conservatives criticized Trump for following Fauci’s advice. 

“Dr. Fauci was not a huge focus in my administration,” Trump said. “He wasn’t a big factor with me. He was a really big factor, after I left, with Biden.”

Also on the economy, Trump said his administration would have begun paying down the national debt had not COVID-19 surfaced and required an infusion of government spending to avoid a depression.

He used energy policy as an example of how he would help businesses as well as individual taxpayers.

“I’m going to cut their energy prices in half,” he said of businesses, by not buying into what he called “the crazy electric car mandate” and “the green new scam.” Instead, he promised to focus on achieving “energy dominance” rather than only “energy independence.”

4. ‘Happen to Be for Exceptions’ on Abortion

One audience member praised Trump for his role in the Supreme Court’s overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that nationalized abortion on demand. But she pressed the former president on criticizing Iowa’s heartbeat law and asked for clarity on the life issue. 

“They were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated and I did it, and I’m proud to have done it,” Trump said, to applause. 

However, Trump said, he was for exceptions to allow abortion. 

“I happen to be for exceptions—like Ronald Reagan—the life of the mother, rape, and incest,” he said. 

“We still have to win elections. Otherwise, we will be back where we were,” Trump added of the divisive abortion issue. 

Biden targeted Trump on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, for taking credit for overturning Roe v. Wade.

“Just like he said: he did it,” Biden posted.

5. ‘Largest Deportation Effort’

Trump got a question from the audience about illegal immigration and border security. At one point, he said that “18 million people” will have entered the U.S. unlawfully by the time Biden’s four-year term ends.

“It’s not sustainable for our country,” the former president said. “We have millions and millions of people here. It is not sustainable. Did you see in New York City where they are getting the regular students out [of school] and they are putting migrants in their place?”  

“We are going to have the largest deportation effort in the history of our country. We are bringing everybody back to where they came from. We have no choice,” Trump said to applause. 

Trump added, in response to a question, that so-called sanctuary cities and counties will go away because Democrat mayors and county executives can’t sustain them. He referred to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat who has been critical of federal immigration policies under Biden and the number of illegal aliens who have arrived in his city. 

6. ‘Ultimate Retribution Is Success’

Baier pressed Trump about previous references to “retribution” against political opponents, asking how much of a second term “would be about looking forward?”

Trump first defended the notion of retribution. 

“Look at what they did: the Russia-Russia-Russia hoax, the FBI-Twitter hoax, the 51 intelligence agents hoax. All of these different hoaxes that they did,” Trump said. “A lot of people would say that’s probably quite normal.”

But the former president quickly said he would focus on the economy if elected again. 

“I’m not going to have time for retribution,” Trump said. “We’re going to make this country so successful again, I’m not going to have time for retribution. And remember this: Our ultimate retribution is success.”

At one point, Trump said a depression could occur if Biden wins reelection. 

“I think if I wasn’t leading, the stock market would be 25 points lower,” Trump said. 

A crash would not happen on his watch, he said, referencing President Herbert Hoover, who was in office during the stock market crash of 1929 that led to the Great Depression. 

“I don’t want to be Herbert Hoover, and I won’t be Herbert Hoover,” Trump said. 

Fred Lucas is chief news correspondent and manager of the Investigative Reporting Project for The Daily Signal. Lucas is also the author of "The Myth of Voter Suppression: The Left's Assault on Clean Elections."

Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.

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