On a cool August evening, former President Donald Trump held up his phone to his dining companions on the crowded patio of his New Jersey private club.
The Republican frontrunner was having dinner with a Fox News contributor and columnist, Charlie Hurt, when a call came in from another member of the Fox team. The man on the other end of the line that Trump was happy to show his guests was Bret Baier, one of two moderators of the first Republican debate Wednesday, according to two people with knowledge of the call.
It was Trump’s second Fox dinner that week. The night before, he had hosted Fox News president Jay Wallace and the network’s CEO Suzanne Scott, who had gone to Bedminster, New Jersey, hoping to persuade Trump to attend the debate. Baier called to get a sense of the former president’s latest ideas.
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For months, Fox privately and publicly worked on Trump. He kept them guessing, in his patented petulant way. But even as he acted as if he were listening to pleas, Trump proceeded with a plan for his own counterprogramming of the debate.
The former president has told aides he has decided not to participate in the debate and has decided to post an online interview with Tucker Carlson that evening. The interview with Carlson has already been recorded, according to a person with direct knowledge of the event.
It would be provocation enough to spotlight Fox’s biggest event of the year. But an interview with Carlson — who was Fox’s top-rated primetime 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 chagrin for Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who privately urged him to attend, including during her own visit to Bedminster last month.
But Trump’s main motive for skipping the debate isn’t personal animosity toward McDaniel, but gross political calculation: He doesn’t want to risk his gargantuan lead in a Republican race that some close to him say must win to stay out of prison.
But that’s not the only reason.
“They purposely show the absolute worst pictures of me”
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 looming large in his thinking about the debate, according to people familiar with the talks of the president. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign.
His outspoken hatred of Fox—and the animus he often expresses in private about Fox Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch—is coupled with his acknowledgment of Murdoch’s power and a grudging admission that the network can still improve its image with Republican voters. affect.
“Why don’t Fox and Friends show all the polls where I beat Biden a lot,” Trump posted on his website Truth Social Thursday morning, while airing the network’s morning show. He added: “They also purposely show the absolute worst pictures of me, especially the big ‘orange’ one with my chin pulled way back. They think they’re getting away with something, but they’re not.”
The Fox team working on the debate has prepared two sets of plans for Wednesday night: one for if Trump shows up and another for if he doesn’t show up. Baier has spoken to Trump by phone at least four times to plead his case. Trump has explained his reluctance, but has always left the door open for a belated change of plans, according to those familiar with the calls.
Fox executives expect the audience for Wednesday’s debate to be lower than the record 24 million that watched the first Republican debate in August 2015, even if Trump shows up, though his presence would almost certainly boost interest.
“President Trump is going gold, and everyone is recognizing that,” said Steven Cheung, the Trump campaign’s director of communications.
Trump has tried to use his influence to get friendlier coverage. During his dinner with the two Fox executives, Wallace and Scott, Trump teased 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 blatant.
Trump, who has often complained about what he says is Fox’s glowing coverage of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, dismissed a recent interview Baier conducted with DeSantis as “soft.” Trump also told Fox executives that he couldn’t believe they fired Carlson.
Baier, who helped moderate and golf with Trump’s first-ever political debate in August 2015, has a complicated relationship with the former president.
Baier, who will co-host Wednesday’s debate with Martha MacCallum, interviewed Trump in June, a meeting Trump first called “fair” but then complained that he was “unfriendly.” That change of mind came after the news coverage pointed to the harm Trump may have legally done himself with his answers on matters related to one of the federal cases against him.
A spokesperson for Fox News, Irena Briganti, said the network “looks forward to hosting the first debate of the Republican presidential primary season, offering viewers an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the candidates’ positions on a variety of issues. issues, which is essential to the electoral process.”
‘Maybe I should just go’
Trump’s top advisers are resisting his participation in the debate to prevent his rivals from having a chance to elevate themselves at his expense and close the wide gap between them in the polls.
But until earlier this week, Trump was privately still toying with the idea of attending. In one conversation, Trump had said, “Maybe I should just go,” said a person with knowledge of the conversation.
The former president has been questioning confidants lately about whether he should debate. He’s fixated on former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is expected to be his harshest critic on stage. And he has expressed particularly intense contempt for low-profile former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, privately suggesting that it would be almost insulting to share a stage with him, according to one person who spoke with Trump.
Senior members of Trump’s team – Chris LaCivita, Jason Miller and 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 plead Trump’s case.
But as of Friday, Trump appeared to have lost interest in attending the debate, according to those with knowledge of his thinking. And he now plans to try to top the event by participating in the interview with Carlson, though the exact timing and online platform remain unclear.
Trump’s presence, despite his absence
Baier and MacCallum plan to make Trump a major figure on the two-hour program — whether he shows up or not.
The Fox team has prepared questions to ask Trump rivals about his most recent criminal indictment, which was handed down by a Georgia grand jury. They are also considering integrating video of Trump into their interrogation, according to people familiar with the planning.
The questions start immediately. Candidates are not allowed to make opening statements. However, they are allotted a 45-second closing statement. Each answer is limited to one minute, with a sound like a hotel reception bell alerting candidates that their time is up. (Fox has turned off the doorbell-like ringer he used in the latest debates after it sent some dogs into barking fits.)
Unlike when Trump skipped a Fox debate in Iowa in January 2016 just before the primary there, Fox has had more time to prepare for Trump’s absence.
This year, the RNC 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 candidate, no matter who it is, and not to participate in future debates which are not approved by the RNC.
Trump did not sign 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 in this area. He has already signed a similar pledge pledging to “generally believe in” and “intend to support the nominees and platform” of the GOP in 2024 to qualify for the South Carolina primary, according to a party official in the state.
In 2016, Fox didn’t know until the last minute that he wouldn’t show up. And even once the debate got underway, the hosts and producers braced themselves for the possibility of him arriving mid-air and demanding to be allowed on stage.
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