Trump sits out Republican debate for interview with Tucker Carlson

Republican front-runner largely reiterated well-worn grievances on domestic matters, but briefly touched on foreign policy issues

A viewer watches former president and current Republican candidate Donald Trump's interview with Tucker Carlson on the social media platform X. EPA
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Former US president Donald Trump was the elephant not in the room at the first Republican debate of the 2024 election cycle, instead turning to an interview with alt-right media figure Tucker Carlson to have his say.

The pre-recorded 45-minute discussion failed to provide any new insight into Mr Trump's posture or beliefs.

His main points were clear, but well-worn: his top priority is the southern border, the media is “corrupt”, the establishment Republicans are out to get him and the 2020 election results were a “fraud”.

The former president briefly addressed his administration's 2020 killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force commander Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani.

“We killed many using the CIA. I have to say this bad, very bad actors. Were very good at it,” Mr Trump said, before backtracking on his comments that the CIA was seriously involved in the Iranian military leader's killing.

“That was really us [the White House] … Not so much CIA, but we did some very good work with the CIA.”

The assassination of Maj Gen Suleimani in Iraq set off an escalating war of words between Tehran and Washington. In its aftermath, Iranian politicians voted to designate all US forces around the world as “terrorists”.

Later in 2020, Iran sentenced a man to death over allegations that he provided information on Maj Gen Suleimani to US and Israeli intelligence agencies.

Mr Trump aimed a number of foreign policy-related barbs at US President Joe Biden and said that Washington would be a stronger competitor against China with the Republican back in office.

Most of Donald Trump's rivals would still support him if he was convicted of a crime

Most of Donald Trump's rivals would still support him if he was convicted of a crime

When Carlson asked Mr Trump what he believed leaders of rival nations, namely Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, thought of Mr Biden, he replied: “I think they can't believe it … they had great respect for our country. They respected me, they had great respect for our country.”

On the war in Ukraine, he called Mr Biden “incompetent”.

“That's a war that should end immediately … it would have never started if I were president,” he said.

Mr Trump was accused of cozying up to Moscow during his time in office and even faced impeachment over allegations he attempted to coerce Ukraine into handing over damaging information about the Bidens, threatening to pull military aid.

In a 2018 meeting in Helsinki, Mr Trump failed to challenge Mr Putin on any major issue and blamed the decline in relations on both sides, saying: “The United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish … We’re all to blame.”

One analyst at Brookings wrote following that summit: “In a matter of minutes in Helsinki, and in front of the entire world, the Kremlin won the narrative and Russian President Vladimir Putin strutted out of his joint press conference with President Trump with the glow of victory.”

The Wednesday night discussion with Carlson at times waded into much darker waters, sidelining kitchen-table policy issues in favour of discussing the potential for his own assassination, the possibility of civil war and conspiracies around convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The interview was streamed at the same time as the first Republican debate, held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and hosted by Fox News.

Mr Trump declined to participate in the Fox News debate, citing his high polling numbers.

It was an awkward absence for the main debate stage; the former president is well ahead in the polls, with none of his challengers so far posing a substantial risk to his achieving the Republican nomination.

Adding to the irony is Carlson's own interest in outcompeting the network debate event.

He was fired from his primetime slot on Fox News earlier this year, less than a week after the network agreed to pay $787.5 million to Dominion Voting Systems to settle a defamation lawsuit, during which a series of concerning text messages sent by Carlson around the time of the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection were revealed.

The interview was streamed hours before Mr Trump was due to turn himself in for his indictment in Georgia over allegedly attempting to reverse his loss in the state in the 2020 presidential election.

Updated: August 24, 2023, 12:19 PM