Yesterday, a trio of NY Times Trump-watchers wrote about how Trump pretended— to Fox— to be considering the first GOP primary debate while he was setting up his own counter-programming. “For months,” reported Jonathan Swan, Jeremy Peters and Maggie Haberman, “Fox had been working Trump privately and publicly. He was keeping them guessing, in his patented petulant way. But even as he behaved as if he was listening to entreaties, Trump was proceeding with a plan for his own counterprogramming to the debate.” Señor T had confided in his cronies that he had no intention of being part of their debate and that he was going to combined his own star-power with that of Tucker Carlson’s to outshine the official GOP debate. “Upstaging Fox’s biggest event of the year would be provocation enough. But an interview with Carlson— who was Fox’s top-rated host and is at war with the network, which is still paying out his contract— amounts to a slap in the network’s face by Trump. The decision is a potential source of aggravation for the Republican National Committee chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, who privately urged him to attend, including in her own visit to Bedminster last month. But Trump’s primary motive in skipping the debate is not personal animosity toward McDaniel but a crass political calculation: He doesn’t want to risk his giant lead in a Republican race that some close to him believe he must win to stay out of prison.
But that’s not the only reason. Trump’s relationship with Fox— a long-running saga that has been both lucrative and, more recently, extremely costly for the network— is the other issue that looms large in his thinking about the debate, people close to him said.
His professed hatred of Fox— and the animus he often privately expresses about the chairman of Fox Corporation, Rupert Murdoch— is mixed with his recognition of Murdoch’s power and a grudging acknowledgment that the network can still affect his image with Republican voters.
“Why doesn’t Fox and Friends show all of the Polls where I am beating Biden, by a lot,” Trump posted on his website, Truth Social, on Thursday morning, venting about the network’s morning show. He added: “Also, they purposely show the absolutely worst pictures of me, especially the big ‘orange’ one with my chin pulled way back. They think they are getting away with something, they’re not.”
…Trump has tried to use his leverage to get friendlier coverage. During his dinner with the two Fox executives, [Jay] Wallace and [Suzanne] Scott, Trump needled them about the network’s coverage of him. He told them he was skeptical that Murdoch— whom Trump has known for decades— was not dictating the daytime political coverage that the former president found egregious.
Trump, who has often complained about what he contends is Fox’s glowing coverage of Gov. Ron DeSantis, dismissed a recent interview Baier conducted with DeSantis as “soft.” Trump also told the Fox executives he couldn’t believe they had fired Carlson.
Trump may have convinced himself he was the apple of Vladimir Putin’s eye, but he has learned he’s no longer the apple of Rupert Murdoch’s eye. In fact, Friday the Washington Post ran another story— this one by Laura Vozzella, Sarah Ellison and Maeve Reston— about how Murdoch has been trying to lure Glenn Youngkin into the race as the not-Trump candidate, now that DeSantis has completely flopped in the role. They reported on a pair of face-to-face meetings and assert that “Youngkin continues to lay the groundwork for a potential last-minute White House bid and as Murdoch outlets hyped his presidential prospects this month with a mix of sober Wall Street Journal analysis and buzzy Page Six blurbs. “Murdoch,” reported the trio, “has long felt that the seeming obsession of former president Donald Trump with the results of the 2020 election will only serve to drag the Republican Party down in a general election. He is also keenly aware of the damage that Trump’s message about the election cost his own company, which was forced to pay nearly $788 million to Dominion Voting Systems in a settlement in a defamation action earlier this year.”
Fox has helped make Youngkin a national figure, at least among Republicans. He’s not that well known among normal people outside of Virginia. “A political newcomer and former Carlyle Group executive who plowed $20 million of his own money to fund his 2021 gubernatorial campaign, Youngkin swiftly vaulted from national obscurity to lists of potential Republican presidential contenders the moment he flipped seemingly blue Virginia red. A recent Virginia Commonwealth University survey found Virginians favor Youngkin over President Biden for president 44 percent to 37 percent in a hypothetical head-to-head contest, but Youngkin barely registers in national Republican primary polls. Nevertheless, White House buzz around him has persisted. Some political insiders see a path for Youngkin based on his ties to the donor class and a personal fortune that Forbes estimated at $470 million at the time of his election; appeal to evangelicals as someone who started a church in his basement; and ability to wage MAGA culture wars in the style of the friendly dad next door… As he focuses on the Virginia elections, Youngkin continues to prepare for a potential White House run. The governor courted billionaire Republican megadonors early this month in the Hamptons at the home of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. He is due in Atlanta on Saturday to serve as the closing speaker at a conference that Republican commentator Erick Erickson has organized to showcase several declared Republican presidential candidates.” Trump isn’t attending.
Former Trump White House adviser Stephen Bannon, grumbling in a radio interview Monday that Murdoch outlets were trying to “give some life” to Youngkin’s presidential hopes, said MAGA voters in Virginia should consider staying home in November since Republican wins would make Youngkin a bigger threat to Trump.
“Why should they set up another competitor to Trump?” Bannon asked rhetorically to radio host John Fredericks, who was the Virginia chairman of the Trump campaign in 2016 and 2020. Fredericks pushed back against that strategy, calling it “crazy” and “Machiavellian” even as he echoed Bannon’s complains about glowing Youngkin coverage. Youngkin is Murdoch’s “new flavor of the month after his DeSantis gamble blew up in his face,” Fredericks said later an interview with The Post.
Some observers see all this as not much more than the initial skirmish in the battle for the GOP Trump-free 2028 nomination. The Times reporters noted that “Senior members of Trump’s team— Chris LaCivita, Jason Miller and Mr. Cheung— all plan to attend the debate. The Trump campaign has arranged for prominent surrogates, including members of Congress, to visit the ‘spin room’ after the debate to make Trump’s case. But as of Friday, Trump appeared to have lost interest in attending the debate, according to people with knowledge of his thinking. And he is now planning to attempt to upstage the event by participating in the interview with Carlson, though the exact timing and online platform remain unclear.
Yesterday, DeSantis may have committed political suicide by referring-- deplorables-like, to MAGAts as "listless vessels." Interviewed back him in Florida, the goof-ball governor said "A movement can’t be about the personality of one individual. If all we are is listless vessels that’s just supposed to follow, you know, whatever happens to come down the pike on Truth Social every morning, that’s not going to be a durable movement."
Fox talking heads Brett Baier and Martha MacCallum are still planning to make Trump part of the show in absentia. “The Fox team has prepared questions to ask Trump rivals about his most recent criminal indictment… [and is] considering integrating video of Trump into their questioning, according to people familiar with the planning.
The questions will begin immediately. Candidates will not be allowed to make opening statements. They will, however, be allotted 45-second closing statements. Each answer will be limited to one minute, with a sound like a hotel front desk’s bell alerting candidates that their time has expired. (Fox has retired the doorbell-like chime it used in the last debates after it sent some dogs into barking fits.)
Unlike when Trump skipped a Fox debate in Iowa in January 2016, just before the caucuses there, Fox has had more time to prepare for Trump’s absence.
This year, the Republican National Committee updated its rules to require candidates to sign a pledge no later than 48 hours before the debate, including commitments to support the party’s nominee regardless of who it is and to not participate in any future debates not sanctioned by the RNC.
Trump has not signed the pledge. RNC officials have told people that no candidate, including Trump, will be allowed onstage without signing it. But Trump is far from principled on the matter. He has already signed a similar pledge vowing to “generally believe in” and “intend to support the nominees and platform” of the GOP in 2024 in order to qualify for the South Carolina primary ballot, according to a party official in the state.
In 2016, Fox did not know until the last minute possible that he was not going to show up. And even once the debate started, the hosts and producers were bracing for the possibility that he might arrive in the middle of the broadcast and demand to be allowed on the stage.