Former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a 2024 presidential election campaign event in Summerville, South Carolina, September 25, 2023.
CNN  — 

Donald Trump will skip another Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night because no one will punish him for not being there.

No other Republican front-runner could so contemptuously snub his party’s second on-stage forum and do his own thing – in this case, a speech about the autoworkers dispute in Detroit as he cranks up a general election campaign months before the first primary votes are cast.

While getting away with it is the ex-president’s quintessential political skill, his talent for evading consequences is facing a grave challenge in another sphere – the courts. A New York judge on Tuesday underscored the growing threat to Trump from his mountain of legal challenges, ruling in a civil case that the ex-president and his adult sons were liable for fraud. The judgment, which poses a severe threat to the future of the Trump Organization, comes ahead of the ex-president’s four criminal trials in other matters.

Trump cannot control his legal fate, but his political destiny is still within his hands. He’s shattered the rules of politics as he takes aim at a second White House term that would strain the constitutional system of government more than the first. Trump has repeatedly reinvented his Republican Party and the way it picks its presidents, as well as crushing norms of presidential conduct. He’s defused the political fallout from multiple prosecutions – arising from his assaults on democracy and other alleged transgressions – by portraying them as examples of a weaponized government and justice system. The power of his political persona has cowed GOP critics and created a cult of personality that makes him invulnerable to attacks from within the party. Years of pouring scorn on the credibility of US elections convinced millions of his supporters he’s a victim of voter fraud.

So there’s very little risk for Trump in boycotting the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which honors the former president whose specter loomed over his party for decades until Trump’s populist nationalism chased it away. Since the first GOP debate last month in Wisconsin, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign has faded further while former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has picked up some buzz and a few percentage points. But there’s no sign that, with another precious month of campaigning gone, any candidate is emerging as a meaningful challenger to Trump and his massive lead in the primary polls.

It would be a major surprise if one of his rivals used the debate, which is effectively a showdown for second place, to launch the kind of searing criticism of Trump that could puncture his standing among GOP voters. Only candidates who barely register in most polls – like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who didn’t meet the RNC’s criteria to participate in this debate – have vigorously hammered Trump. While candidates like DeSantis and Haley have hit Trump on issues like abortion or tepidly over his electability, they’ve not risked a direct attack on the ex-president’s growing extremism. Mike Pence, the former vice president whom Trump’s supporters wanted to hang on January 6, 2021, has become more scathing – and has been rewarded with a sagging campaign.

Cassidy Hutchinson – an aide to ex-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows who has shown more courage in exposing Trump’s malfeasance on January 6 than most of the rest of the GOP – marveled at his influence on his party in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper Tuesday timed to the release of her new book. She included Republicans who will be on the debate stage on Wednesday night in her criticism of those who will not forcibly condemn Trump’s actions. “Donald Trump has such a grip on these people, and sometimes, I can’t put my finger on why,” Hutchinson told Tapper.

“Why is it so easy for these people to go along with this, why is it so easy for these people to say what he is doing is OK?” Hutchinson added: “In that moment they are conceding that they are OK with waging a war on our Constitution. That is not a Republican value, that is not an American value, (but) those are the types of candidates we are looking at in 2024, though.”

More of the same from Trump, but worse

Trump’s cloak of political impunity has been on display as he’s barged back to the center of the political stage in recent days.

  • Any other ex-president who suggested that the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, ought to face execution – as Trump did on social media last weekend – would be regarded as a national paria