Trump’s debate counterprogramming got weird

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BEDMINSTER, N.J. — Donald Trump’s attempt to dominate the Republican presidential debate from afar Wednesday night veered into dark and occasionally bizarre territory as he mused with commentator Tucker Carlson about potential civil war, the manner of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s death in prison and whether he’s concerned about potential assassination attempts.

Carlson, a keen Trump sympathizer and former Fox News host, steered Trump toward each of those topics in a 45-minute taped conversation that started streaming on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter, just five minutes before Trump’s top eight GOP rivals took the debate stage in Milwaukee.

Trump’s decision to sit down with Carlson at his Bedminster club — instead of engaging with GOP rivals in one of the country’s most tightly divided swing states — illustrated his position in the 2024 Republican primary campaign and, more broadly, his position in his reshaped version of the Republican Party.

When Trump skipped a GOP primary debate in 2016 just before the Iowa caucuses, he cloaked the decision in a rally ostensibly raising money for veterans. Now, with the former president enjoying double-digit leads in both national and early-state polls, Trump tried to maneuver around Carlson’s questions about Epstein. But ultimately, they were the type of questions he decided to face instead of facing his primary opponents.