Trump's GOP rivals needle him about showing up to debate days after 4th indictment
Pence and DeSantis said all candidates should show for Wednesday's GOP debate.
Just days after a grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, indicted former President Donald Trump on charges related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, most of his GOP primary rivals converged on the same county for a conservative conference, with several calling on him -- directly and indirectly -- to show up at the first GOP primary debate on Wednesday.
They spoke just before sources familiar with the matter told ABC News that Trump is planning on not attending the debate in Milwaukee and is strongly considering sitting down for an interview with Tucker Carlson that day instead, confirming a development first reported by The New York Times.
"I always stood loyally by President Donald Trump until my oath to the Constitution required me to do otherwise," former Vice President Mike Pence told conference moderator, syndicated talk show host Erick Erickson, at what's called The Gathering. "But my differences with the president go far beyond that fateful day, and I hope to have a chance to debate them with him. Look, we have real differences about the future of the country as well. Sometimes people ask me, 'How do you envision debating Donald Trump?' I say, 'I've debated Donald Trump 1000 times, just not with the cameras on,'" Pence said, a standard campaign line.
After Pence spoke, ABC News Senior Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott asked him, "You made it clear that the Georgia election was not stolen. What impact do those false claims have on the Republican Party going forward?"
"I think Republican primary voters aren't interested in looking in the rearview mirror," he answered. "There's too many challenges facing American families today, whether it's the inflation at a 40-year high, mortgage rates at a 20-year-high as of yesterday, maybe going higher, whether it be gasoline prices still 60% over what they were when we left office, a crisis at our border, a steady assault on the traditional values of American families and parents -- and that's where the American people are focused today," he continued. "And we'll let these other issues work themselves out in a manner consistent with the rule of law, but for my part, we're going to continue to remain focused on where the American people are focused -- and I can't wait to get to that debate stage. And I hope everybody shows up."
Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis told the conference everyone who's qualified for the debate stage should show up, adding, "if you don't "people are not going to look kindly on that."
But he, too, suggested he doesn't want Trump's indictments to dominate next week's event in Milwaukee.
"I hope that we will be focused on the future of the country rather than some of the other static that's out there right now," DeSantis said.
The Gathering is co-sponsored by Hardworking Americans, a PAC founded by Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp -- who earlier this week again flatly denied Trump's claim the state's presidential election was stolen.
Kemp himself took the stage and insisted Republicans shouldn't focus on the past election if they want to win the presidency in 2024.
"Through the whole 2020 election, there was a lot of things said, a lot of things done. At the end of the day, I followed the law and the Constitution. I was subpoenaed for the special grand jury so I'm sure I will be a witness in whatever goes forward," Kemp said.
Kemp famously broke with Trump when the former president made advances for help in subverting the result in Georgia. After Trump was charged on Monday in an indictment that accuses him of heading up a "criminal enterprise" to overturn the last election, Kemp reverberated his stance that "The 2020 election in Georgia was not stolen," on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
On Friday, Kemp also predicted that the Georgia trial, "despite what dates anybody's asking for or anything else," won't happen before voters go to the polls next year.
"Regardless of what you think about the indictment, when I came out, I guess it was two days ago now, and tweeted that the election wasn't stolen here and that we need to stay focused on the future, one thing is certain about these indictments in my mind and my opinion: this trial, despite what dates anybody's asking for or anything else, it is not going to happen before the election. And the Democrats want us to be focused on things like this so we're not focused on Joe Biden's record," Kemp continued.
"It should be such an easy path for us to win the White House back, but if we are looking in the rearview mirror – and this is what my message has been to every candidate in the race, including former President Trump... is that we have to be focused on the future, not something that happened three years ago. We don't need to be focusing on stupid things that aren't going to happen before this election. We can deal with that later, after we win," he said.
Former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley kept up the theme when she spoke at the conference on Friday afternoon.
"I think that President Trump was the right president at the right time. I agree with so many of his policies. But at the end of the day, we have to win in November. And it is time to put that negativity and drama behind us. We can't keep talking about the past," she said.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy were slated to deliver remarks on Saturday.