Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh took part in Tuesday's unsanctioned GOP primary debate, which not only didn’t feature the president, but didn't even have the third candidate running in the primary, Mark Sanford, who sat out the festivities to campaign in Iowa.
The event, hosted by Business Insider, took place Tuesday night in New York City.
While Trump may not have been in the room, he still dominated the night, as Walsh and Weld spent the majority of their time on stage peppering the president over issues ranging from impeachment, to tweets, to immigration. At one point the former congressman bluntly pivoted away from talking policy to declare: “It's not about the issues, it's about Trump.”
“I'm not debating Bill Weld,” Walsh said. “The problem is an unfit president in the White House who took a divided country and is it is dividing that.”
It also didn’t take long for both candidates to throw their support behind the newly announced impeachment inquiry.
“Let me start like this. The president of the United States will be impeached very, very soon. The president of the United States will deserve to be impeached very, very soon,” Walsh said during his opening statement.
And when the conversation veered toward policy, Walsh reiterated that he launched his candidacy for one reason alone: “It's not about the issues, it's about Trump.”
While the debate saw Walsh and Weld get an opportunity to share an alternate vision of a party that’s been consumed by Trump and Trumpism, it mostly featured the pair targeting the president, at times dipping into the same ad hominem attacks they were decrying.
“Let's just be clear, let's not mince words. Donald Trump is a horrible human being,” said Walsh, who has acknowledged that he himself has made racist comments on Twitter, for which he recently apologized. “Only a very broken political system and a very divided country would produce that.”
Tuesday's GOP debate began just hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced House Democrats were moving forward on impeachment amid swirling questions around a formal complaint filed by a whistleblower over a phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s president that suggested Trump had pushed him to investigate former vice president and current political rival Joe Biden.
Trump campaign officials declined to comment following Tuesday night’s debate, and have remained unconcerned regarding developments around their primary challengers. In response to Walsh jumping into the fray last month, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh gave ABC News a blunt single-word response: “Whatever.”
However, behind the scenes the Republican Party is working to ensure full support for the president with the cancellation of a number of nominating contests in 2020, including those in Nevada, Kansas and Arizona. And while the Republican National Committee argues the cancellations are routine cost-saving measures, Trump’s challenges are up in arms, with Walsh vowing to fight them in court.
“The Republican Party brand sucks, and it sucks because of him,” Walsh argued. “Young people can't stand the party, women can't stand the party, black people who live in the suburbs can't stand it.”
But while the candidates railed against Trump’s takeover of the GOP, ultimately it's Republican voters who are standing behind the president. According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, more than 80% of Republicans approve of the president.
So how do these long-shot challengers break through?
“Here's how I beat him in the primary," Walsh said. "When I say that Donald Trump is a horrible human being, when I say that I'm tired of his drama … When I say that publicly, like I do as a candidate every day -- I firmly believe most Republican voters privately believe in the objective of this campaign.”
“And let's not forget what happened today,” Walsh added. “The president's going to be impeached.”