MILWAUKEE — Donald Trump on Tuesday mocked a reporter who brought simple battery charges against his campaign manager, saying she had changed her story about the incident.
At a town hall on CNN moderated by Anderson Cooper, Trump said he would not fire the aide, Corey Lewandowski, saying he stood by his people, and disputed the woman’s initial account of the incident earlier this month in which she said she almost fell to the ground.
“She’s not a baby. In her own words, ‘I was jolted backwards’ … She wasn’t ‘yanked down,'” Trump said, referring to a statement made by the reporter Michelle Fields, who worked at the time for Breitbart News, which he said was not reflected in scenes shown on a security tape that has since emerged.
The charges against Lewandowski have prompted fresh criticism of Trump’s campaign and came a week ahead of the Wisconsin primary, which is shaping up as a huge night in the bid by the billionaire’s rivals to deprive him of the GOP nomination.
The feud between Trump and Cruz turned even more personal last week when the real estate mogul took aim at the Texas senator’s wife.
Cooper at one point challenged Trump for tweeting what appeared to be an unflattering picture of Cruz’s wife Heidi, after a super PAC that the billionaire accused of working with Cruz used a revealing picture of his wife, Melania, a former model. There’s no evidence, however, that the super PAC worked with Cruz, which would be illegal.
“I didn’t start it,” Trump, said.
Cooper replied, “Sir, with all due respect, that is the argument of a five-year-old.”
“I didn’t start it,” Trump insisted, adding that he would prefer to talk about nuclear proliferation than candidates’ families.
Cruz also argued that the Trump campaign was behind a salacious report published in the National Enquirer that alleged the senator had multiple extramarital affairs. But he said he wanted to discuss issues with the billionaire.
“What I am not interested in doing is what Donald’s pattern has been. It’s personal attacks, it’s attacking family members,” he said.
Last week, Trump took exception to an ad by a super PAC unaffiliated with Cruz featuring a risque picture of his own wife, Melania, a model, and threatened to reveal unspecified information about Heidi Cruz, prompting a furious response from the Texas senator.
Cooper asked about Cruz’s willingness to support Trump following the recent dust-up, on which he equivocated and said he could not support someone who attacked his wife and family.
“Donald is not going to be the GOP nominee. We are going to beat him,” Cruz said, adding that nominating the current front-runner would be a “train wreck” and hand the White House to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Trump said that, despite his earlier pledge, he would not commit to supporting the Republican nominee whoever it is.
“No,” Trump said, when asked by Cooper if he would support the eventual nominee if it was not him.
“I have been treated very unfairly,” Trump said, hitting out at the “RNC, the Republican Party, the establishment.” He also said that he is not looking for chief rival Ted Cruz’s support either.
“He does not have to support me,” he said. “I am not asking for his support.”
Cruz, who preceded Trump at the town hall, hedged when asked whether he would support Trump if he became the Republican nominee, though he did not categorically refuse to back the billionaire.
Addressing the incident involving Fields, Trump alleged that she was in fact pushing Trump as he tried to leave a press conference and was brandishing a pen, which he said could have alarmed Secret Service agents protecting him.
He said that Lewandowski had been “unjustly accused.”
“It would be so easy for me to terminate this man, ruin his life, ruin his family … and say you are fired. I have fired many people, especially on ‘The Apprentice,'” Trump told moderator Anderson Cooper. “The problem is everybody dumps people when there is a sign of political incorrectness.”
In contrast, GOP opponent Ted Cruz said earlier at the town hall that he would “of course” ask his campaign manager to resign if he were charged with battery.
“It shouldn’t be complicated,” Cruz said. “Members of the campaign staff should not be physically assaulting the press.”
He added, “I will say it is consistent with the pattern of the Trump campaign. The culture of the campaign has been a campaign built on attacks and insults.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the final candidate to appear at the town hall, was also asked whether he would fire Lewandowski.
“Of course I would,” he said.
On the foreign policy front, Trump also then went on to defend his statement that Japan and South Korea should consider developing nuclear weapons to defend themselves from North Korea rather than relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Experts have warned that such a move could result in an arms race in Asia and elsewhere. But Trump said that America could no longer afford to be solely responsible for defending its allies.
“Maybe it is going to have to be time to change,” he said.
Kasich, however, took issue with Trump’s statement that NATO is “obsolete” because it was set up to combat the Soviet Union, a threat that no longer exists.
“That’s absurd” Kasich said, getting a smattering of applause. But the Ohio governor said that Washington would always want its allies to do more and blamed too much “socialism” and political correctness for shortcomings among American partners.
Trump also complained that in the state of Louisiana, which he won, he appears to have been awarded fewer delegates than Cruz due to the vagaries of election law.
“I won the election, and then it is all about the delegates,” Trump said. “Then I find out that I got 10 delegates less than the guy that lost. I beat him,” Trump said.
Cooper challenged Trump, saying that the Louisiana developments were well within the rules and suggested that it was all down to a superior ground game by the Cruz campaign.
“I don’t call it ground game. I call it bad politics,” Trump replied.
Kasich has maintained that he’s the only adult in the GOP race and, despite having won only one primary to date, the sole remaining Republican who could emerge from a possible contested convention to beat Clinton.
Kasich said that he would refuse to stoop to the levels of campaign rhetoric that he blamed Cruz and Trump for adopting. Asked about a tweet by a senior campaign aide that was critical of the Texas Senator, Kasich disavowed it.
“Sometimes, he gets a little tweet-happy, and I don’t like that, and I will have a word with him about it.” Kasich said of his aide.
Cruz earlier in the night ruled out any alliance with Kasich to maximize their chances of stopping Trump. Such an arrangement could in theory force the Republican front-runner to face only one candidate in each state for the rest of the campaign and coalesce opposition against him, complicating his hopes of winning the 1,237 delegates needed to claim the nomination.
“It makes no sense at all. John Kasich has no path to winning. We are competing to win, we are not competing to stop Trump. John Kasich went 0 for 27. He lost 27 states in a row,” Cruz said.
Cruz said his “preferred option” was to win 1,237 delegates, though he said it was entirely possible that a contested convention could unfold if no one reached that number. But he argued that the only two names on the ballot in that situation would be himself and Trump.
The Texas senator was repeatedly asked to justify his call last week after the Brussels terror attacks for greater surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods in the United States.
Cruz said that he took it as a badge of honor that President Barack Obama, Clinton and New York police authorities had attacked him after he made the comment, despite their claims that such programs had not worked in New York City.
“If you want to stop radical Islamic terrorism, the answer is not to go hang out in random neighborhoods, it is instead to focus on communities where radicalization is a risk,” Cruz said, before suggesting that Democrats and political correctness would consign the U.S. to the same problems in enforcing law in Muslim communities that he said Europe faces.
“America should not make the same mistakes as Europe,” he said. “We should have law enforcement actively engage to stop radicalization.”
In a more personal moment, Cruz, who has angered some of his colleagues in Washington with his uncompromising tactics, was asked by a member of the audience to describe his greatest failure and what he had learned from it.
“I’m a pretty driven guy,” Cruz answered, saying he had a passionate commitment to free market economics and the Constitution. “At times, I am hard-charging, I have stepped on some toes … maybe I should have pulled back some in some circumstances … it is a strength and a weakness.”
Both Kasich and Cruz need a big victory over Trump to secure most if not all of Wisconsin’s 42 Republican delegates next week. They are trying to stop the former reality TV star short of the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination outright and open the way to a contested convention.
But the fact that they are both competitive in Wisconsin risks splitting opposition to Trump, allowing him to march on to more favorable contests next month in the Northeast with his large delegate lead untrimmed.
The town hall event is airing on CNN, CNN International and CNN en Español, and is being streamed live online and via CNNgo.