Skipping debate, Trump touts millions raised for veterans

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives on stage before speaking during a campaign stop on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, in Gilbert, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is once again breaking all the rules of campaigning, holding his own protest event Thursday to coincide with the final GOP debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

Angry over an escalating feud with debate host Fox News, Trump is holding what his team is calling a “Special Event to Benefit Veterans Organizations” at a 775-seat auditorium at nearby Drake University instead.

In an interview with reporters on his plane before the rally at Drake University, Trump said his foundation already has raised $5 million. He said he’s putting up $1 million of his own money that many of his wealthy friends are giving large-dollar contributions as well.

He also reiterated that he had no intention of joining the debate.

Earlier in the day, Trump’s campaign was working to gather veterans to tell their stories at the rally.

Among those attending will be Joel Arends, chairman of Veterans for a Strong America, which has endorsed Trump. He stressed the group had no role in planning the event, but encouraged its network of supporters to attend.

“This is why we endorsed Trump in the first place, because he’s willing to go around the media gatekeepers and straight to the people,” Arends said, adding, “You shouldn’t need to have a private fundraiser to take care of our wounded vets.”

It was unclear which other groups would attend and which would receive money raised from the event. Earlier Thursday, Trump launched a new website for collecting donations: donaldtrumpforvets.com. Contributions to the site will go to The Donald J. Trump Foundation, Trump’s nonprofit charitable organization. The page says: “100 percent of your donations will go directly to Veterans needs.”

Trump representatives were reaching out to various groups, in some cases inquiring about their programs and finances. Among those contacted were the Green Beret Foundation, which provides care to veterans, and Fisher House, which provides free or low cost housing to veterans and military families receiving treatment at military medical centers.

K9s for Warriors, which trains rescue dogs to be service animals for veterans, received a call from a Trump campaign representative asking if the group was interested in accepting funds from the event, according to executive director Rory Diamond. Diamond said the group is non-partisan but would be happy to accept any contributions.

Trump will be joined at the event by two of his rivals, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Both men are scheduled to participate in the early, undercard debate for candidates whose poll numbers are too low to make it on the main stage.

Huckabee stressed the appearance should not be seen as an endorsement, but said on CNN that he’s “delighted to join with Donald Trump in an effort to salute veterans” and “didn’t have anything going on at 8:00 tonight.”

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