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Des Moines — Donald Trump ensured total control of his campaign message Thursday night by boycotting the Republican presidential debate and holding a protest event with four days until Iowa caucuses kick off the GOP nomination process.

Trump started the event at 9:20 p.m. by announcing he has raised nearly $6 million during the past day for unspecified veterans charities. He said he donated $1 million himself.

A website, donaldtrumpforvets.com, said the donations would go to the Donald J. Trump Foundation.

Trump rattled off some of the top donors, most of whom were fellow New York real estate developers. He also made a reference to why he wasn’t participating in the GOP debate.

“When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights,” he said to applause.

Earlier Thursday, Trump and Fox News CEO Roger Ailes negotiated about him showing up for the debate.

“Trump offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that Fox News contribute $5 million to his charities,” a Fox News spokesperson said in a statement. “We explained that was not possible. and we could not engage in a quid pro quo, nor could any money change hands for any reason.”

Former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the winners of the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucuses, respectively, joined Trump at the event after they participated in the earlier debate for lower-polling candidates.

Trump speculated what they would be doing otherwise.

“You’d probably go back to being depressed,” Trump quipped, in a swipe at Huckabee and Santorum’s single-digit poll numbers.

Huckabee thanked Trump for the opportunity to speak after he, Santorum, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore debated earlier.

“The easy (thing) for him to do is simply ignore that anybody else cares about veterans, but he’s not that kind of person,” Huckabee said. “I had nothing to do at 8 o’clock at night. This worked great for me.”

After a group of veterans spoke, Trump delivered his standard stump speech, complaining that American doesn’t “win anymore” militarily and economically and vowing to reverse a perceived decline in the country’s global standing.

“We’re going to win at every single level, and we’re not going to be laughed at around the world,” he said.

Instead of answering journalists’ questions for two hours and taking debate jabs from his chief rival, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump dedicated his hour-long event to veterans and praised fellow New York businessmen who donated to his veterans charity initiative.

“That was what was so wonderful about it,” said Bobby Wilson, a 70-year-old Des Moines woman who lost her husband in the Vietnam War.

About 700 Trump supporters packed into an auditorium at Drake University, less than three miles from Iowa Events Center, where seven of Trump’s Republican rivals were vying for more airtime in the absence of the outspoken billionaire.

“I thought this would be small,” Trump said. “I didn’t even know it would happen and it turned out to be a phenomenal night. ... You veterans are incredibly people. ... Without you, we would not be here tonight.”

Trump skipped the final debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses because of a feud with Fox News and anchor Megyn Kelly, whom he wanted the cable channel to boot from the debate stage. Fox News refused to cede to Trump’s demand and he bolted.

“He’s bigger than Fox News,” said Jarret Coon, 22, of Des Moines, as he stood outside with hundreds of people trying to get into the venue. The long line, Coon said, “shows his massive following and that he’s not even worried about it.”

“It’s more of a reason to vote for him,” Coon added.

Robert Thoms, a 59-year-old pilot from Port Huron, flew two friends to Iowa Thursday afternoon in an eight-passenger Beechcraft Air King plane from the St. Clair County Airport.

“We Trumped it out here,” Thoms said, referencing the jet-setting billionaire’s travel in his private 757 airplane.

Thoms said it was a spur of the moment trip to see Trump in Iowa after he announced Tuesday night he would skip the debate.

“He’s stirring it up,” Thoms said, pointing at the blocks-long line of people waiting on the university campus to get into the Trump event. “He can’t buy this kind of publicity.”

The three Michigan men donned Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign hats and arrived at the Des Moines airport less than two hours before the candidate took stage.

Adam Kettlewell, 33, of Lake Orion, described their following of Trump as “cultish.” A third man from Metro Detroit with Thoms and Kettlewell declined to give his name.

It’s unclear how many people couldn’t get into the Trump event. But earlier in the day, Drake University issued a statement saying “Sheslow Auditorium has been significantly over-ticketed by the Trump campaign.”

“Fire code limits occupancy of Sheslow Auditorium to approximately 700 persons,” the university statement said. “Therefore, based on our understanding of the number of tickets distributed, only a small percentage of ticket holders will be admitted into the auditorium.”

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