In her blockbuster New Yorker article, Jane Mayer revisits an issue that was also raised in Megyn Kelly’s 2016 memoir: the likelihood that Donald Trump was told in advance about Megyn Kelly’s now infamous debate question. Possibly Bret Baier’s as well.
KELLY: You’ve called women you don’t like "fat pigs," "dogs," "slobs" and "disgusting animals."...
Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.
Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?
Lost in the Trump/Kelly feud that followed was Bret Baier’s lead-off question:
BAIER: Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person.
Again, we’re looking for you to raise your hand now — raise your hand now if you won’t make that pledge tonight.
Mayer wrote (my emphases added):
Trump has made the debate a point of pride. He recently boasted to the Times that he’d won it despite being a novice, and despite the “crazy Megyn Kelly question.” Fox, however, may have given Trump a little help. A pair of Fox insiders and a source close to Trump believe that Ailes informed the Trump campaign about Kelly’s question. Two of those sources say that they know of the tipoff from a purported eyewitness. In addition, a former Trump campaign aide says that a Fox contact gave him advance notice of a different debate question, which asked the candidates whether they would support the Republican nominee, regardless of who won. The former aide says that the heads-up was passed on to Trump, who was the only candidate who said that he wouldn’t automatically support the Party’s nominee—a position that burnished his image as an outsider.
These claims are hard to evaluate: Ailes is dead, and they conflict with substantial reporting suggesting that the rift between Trump and Fox was bitter. A former campaign aide is adamant that Trump was genuinely surprised and infuriated by Kelly’s question. A Fox spokesperson strongly denied the allegations, and declined requests for interviews with employees involved in the debate.
Kelly also declined to comment, but she broached the subject in her 2016 memoir, “Settle for More.” She wrote that the day before the debate Trump called Fox executives to complain, saying he’d heard that Kelly planned to ask “a very pointed question directed at him.” She noted, “Folks were starting to worry about Trump—his level of agitation did not match the circumstances.” When this passage stirred controversy, Kelly tweeted that her book “does not suggest Trump had any debate Qs in advance, nor do I believe that he did.” Yet her account does suggest that Trump had enough forewarning to be upset, and that he contacted Fox before the debate.
In an interview today on MSNBC, Mayer said she did not think Kelly knew of the tip off. But she sounded a bit more definitive that Ailes had given Trump the questions in advance:
MAYER: According to several sources at Fox, Trump was tipped off in advance to this. And we do know for sure that he [Trump] called Fox the day before the debate and he was agitated and was upset that he heard there was going to be a tough question, spoke to someone and, according to two sources who were Fox insiders, one of whom - there’s also an eyewitness, that Ailes tipped off Trump to [Kelly’s] question.
Even if Mayer’s sources are mistaken (or lying), there is other evidence that Fox put its thumb on the scale for Trump during the primary season. Kelly sat on the news until after the election when she revealed in her book that Trump had threatened her before the debate over an on-air segment about his alleged rape of his first wife, Ivana Trump. When asked why she had not come forward before the election, Kelly hinted it was because she had been afraid of the consequences:
KELLY: I didn’t want to be the story, but Trump kept making me the story and I certainly didn’t want to add fuel to that fire. I didn’t want to run out there and do a boo-hoo, like look at what this is doing to my life. I just wanted to move on, wanted to stand him down, I didn’t want to aggravate his supporters anymore over whom Trump has an enormous effect. Anything I say in this book was not going to bring Trump down. If you think the Access Hollywood bus and the 12 female accusers coming forward and all the other stuff didn’t bring Trump down, you think my book would, I think you’re deluding yourself.
Kelly had already branded herself as some kind of “intrepid gal reporter,” as The New York Times put it, and she tried to cast herself as a “no whining” professional in that comment. Yet she remained mum about a presidential candidate’s very un-presidential behavior on a par with the Stormy Daniels hush money story that Fox had later spiked. Then she defended her decision by saying it wouldn’t “bring Trump down,” as if that were a legit guiding principle.
But what’s also clear is that at least some of the Trump supporters Kelly feared were the ones she worked with or for. Otherwise, she would surely have sallied forth with what would have been a big story, knowing a news operation had her back.
I’m not here to impugn Kelly’s moxie. Clearly, that was required for both the “Ivana rape” discussion and the debate question. But it’s just as obvious that she knew she was a cog in a pro-Trump political operation embedded in or enmeshed with a news network. And to at least some extent, she was willing to be part of that operation.
Watch Mayer discuss the symbiotic relationship with Trump and Fox below, from MSNBC’s March 5, 2019 Andrea Mitchell Reports.