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There’s no detente in sight for the war of words between Donald Trump and Fox News with Thursday night’s Republican debate just hours away.
The billionaire real estate mogul isn’t giving up ground in his vow to boycott the Iowa debate — a move he thinks will torpedo the network’s ratings. Fox News chief Roger Ailes isn’t wavering in his defense of Megyn Kelly, the star host in Trump’s social media crosshairs.
Maybe there’s no end to this political grudge match between the Republican party’s poll-leading candidate and the right wing’s favorite news outlet. But one thing is certain: Trump has once again hijacked the news cycle.
“Trump is out there winning the pre-debate, the debate, the post-debate,” says Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor and Republican strategist who is not a Trump supporter. “Donald Trump is transforming politics and political communication.”
There’s little doubt that Trump has upended the conventions of political campaigning, turning it into a reality TV spectacle with his penchant for controversy, surprise twists, personal insults and sound-bite putdowns. That’s something Ailes hasn’t been able to resist despite a fraught relationship with Trump since the candidate threw his hat into the 2016 ring.
Last September, Trump announced he was boycotting Fox News to protest Kelly’s aggressive coverage of his campaign. That didn’t last. Trump acquiesced and became a frequent Fox guest, and he took the pole position at debates helmed by Fox News and Fox Business.
Even this week’s Trump battle cry didn’t keep him off Fox. He guested in a pre-taped interview late Wednesday on Bill O’Reilly’s marquee Fox show, using it as a bully pulpit to rail against Kelly mere minutes before Kelly’s own show aired on the network.
Trump said he has “zero respect” for Kelly even as O’Reilly attempted to persuade the candidate that not showing up to the debate isn’t “good for America.” It was a point echoed by a succession of guests on Fox News, including Newt Gingrich on O’Reilly’s show, and GOP candidates Marco Rubio and Rand Paul on Kelly’s program.
Later, at a campaign stop held inside a South Carolina tree farm barn, Trump dispensed a speech full of his patented self-flattery. He will spend debate night at a fundraiser in Des Moines for wounded veterans — at the exact same time the Republican debate is being held across town.
For Fox insiders, the political circus commanded by Trump was not unexpected.
“Candidates sometimes like to work the refs,” Fox debate moderator Chris Wallace told THR during an interview on Monday, before the war of words had escalated. “The feeling is if I’m tough, if I accuse them of bias ahead of time, maybe they’ll go a little easier on me in the debate. I think that’s what Trump is up to.”
Everything coming from Fox News and Ailes confirmed that presumption. He issued a statement of support for Kelly earlier this week: “Megyn Kelly is an excellent journalist, and the entire network stands behind her … She will absolutely be on the debate stage on Thursday night.”
And the network gleefully mocked Trump in that statement that he says sent him over the edge: “We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president. A nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”
Ailes‘ signature withering humor was on full display; it’s hard to imagine a statement like that coming from any news organization other than Fox News.
“What is the most powerful force in contemporary American politics? Most people would say it’s Fox News,” says Castellanos. “Candidates kneel before Fox News hoping to sip a little airtime from its chalice. And Trump does not kneel. That makes all the other candidates look awfully small and demonstrates a huge amount of power.”
Ailes has his own power, though.
“I don’t believe that Roger’s been co-opted here,” says news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “Teasing Trump like that, Roger didn’t have to do that. He knows what he’s doing. That’s what makes it all look like pro wresting. These are the sorts of insults you hurl at one another in the pregame. Maybe he’s thinking, none of the candidates are taking him on, so it’s got to be me then. Someone’s got to be the grown up.”
Pro wrestling aside, Kelly has another theory about why Trump started calling for her removal as a moderator. He may be protecting himself from scrutiny.
“At this point in the cycle these candidates have a record,” Kelly told THR last Friday, before Trump fired his first broadside in his renewed war with her and her network. “So there’s a long list of statements that we have gone through. And we are ready to discuss exactly how they compare to one another.”
Trump is seen as particularly vulnerable on his previous support for abortion — just the type of red-meat issue that scores with conservative voters. If Trump is protecting himself from scrutiny and debate-stage attacks from his biggest rival — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has built momentum in Iowa — he also may be squandering an opportunity to effectively rebut his detractors.
With this latest Trump twist, there are three key things politicos and media watchers will be scrutinizing:
The first will be how overnight ratings shake up between the debate and whatever network or networks might air Trump’s separate event on Thursday night. The second — and most important — will be how Iowans caucus on Monday. The third: Could Trump stroll on the debate stage in some last-minute brokered deal with Ailes?
“I’m not guaranteeing he’ll turn up in the debate,” says Tyndall. “But if he wants to, if he’s gamed it out, he’ll find a way to do it. Either both of them are really clever or they’ve both been pushed further than they’ve ever been pushed before.”
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