Trump's GOP Debate Gamble: Why The Donald's 'War' With Fox News Is Kind Of Brilliant
In a campaign that kicked off with a media frenzy inducing speech (you know, the one about Mexicans) and has featured near constant coverage from both sides of the media spectrum, with shock waves from such outbursts as discussing a female political opponent's attractiveness and bragging that he could shoot someone in public and not lose support, Donald Trump may have made his biggest political gamble yet: Saying he'll skip tomorrow night's Republican Debate on Fox News and instead host his own town hall with proceeds to benefit wounded veterans.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2016
It's the culmination of a months-long feud with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who drew Trump's ire during the first GOP debate on the conservative network back in August with some grilling questions that he felt singled him out.
A video posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on Jan 26, 2016 at 10:04am PST
The move is amazingly bold and runs counter to political common sense. Avoiding a major television debate just DAYS before the Iowa caucus? That's insane!
Or is it?
As soon as the news began making the rounds last night, savvy political news junkies everywhere saw it as something other than Trump's latest public tantrum--the opening salvo to negotiations with Fox News over terms for attending the debate.
Prediction: Trump changes mind, ends up doing Fox debate, but successfully makes 2 days of news cycle all about whether he does the debate — James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) January 27, 2016
As Vox's Andrew Prokop points out, it's an admitted Trump negotiating tactic, threatening to leave the deal before it begins. According to Prokop, while speaking at a rally in Iowa earlier this month, Trump described how he would have handled the nuclear negotiations with Iran. His first move? Make a demand (in this hypothetical case, the release of all American prisoners) and then walk away when it's not met.
The person who can probably best give an understanding of Trump maneuver is New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman. Sherman has made a reputation for covering Fox News (hell, he wrote THE book on the cable news giant) and has also been covering Trump and his supporters (along with the rest of the primary election season).
Based on Sherman's reporting, Trump's boycott looks almost for sure to be a negotiating tactic. Earlier this week he was on New York Public Radio's Brian Lehrer Show and predicted that Kelly would be preparing the most contentious questions for Trump. And that very day was when Trump stepped up his threat to not show up unless Kelly was dropped as a moderator (something he fist began hinting at on Sunday).
Then, after his boycott announcement, Sherman tweeted that Trump was refusing to deal with Fox News head Roger Ailes, demanding instead to speak to fellow mogul and Fox owner Rupert Murdoch.
Trump source says Trump isn't taking Ailes calls. Hannity just tried calling trump as an emissary. Trump only wants to deal with Murdoch now — Gabriel Sherman (@gabrielsherman) January 27, 2016
Per Trump source: Trump's position now is he is chairman of his company and he will only deal with Murdoch at a chairman-to-chairman level — Gabriel Sherman (@gabrielsherman) January 27, 2016
According to Sherman, Trump's exit from Thursday's debate has thrown Fox News "into chaos" and may even be turning some senior executives against Ailes. For Fox, the effect of a debate without Trump would likely be a massive loss in ratings. But the precedent at having given into a candidate, especially one so reviled by the conservative establishment, could put the network in a precarious position.
Meanwhile for Trump, boycotting the debate is a win-win. If Fox capitulates, he dodges all of Megyn Kelly's tough questions and shows he can dictate terms to an opponent. If Fox refuses to play ball, Trump gets days worth of media coverage--essentially canceling out the negative effect of not participating in a debate right before a primary--and signals strength to his supporters and potential voters.
For now, the negotiating is still at a standstill, but it's not looking good for the news network. It seems Trump has Fox News right where he wants them.
Ailes and Trump still have not spoken this morning. "It's war" sources on both sides say. — Gabriel Sherman (@gabrielsherman) January 27, 2016