How Roger Ailes Picked Trump, and Fox News’ Audience, Over Megyn Kelly

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In the fallout since the first GOP debate, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes has found himself caught between Donald Trump, who has the full backing of Fox’s misogynist audience, and Megyn Kelly, the star anchor whom Ailes has nurtured and sees as the key to reaching younger viewers. For a few days, Ailes didn’t know how to handle Trump’s full-throated attack on Kelly, who accused Trump of sexism during the debate. Eventually, as I reported yesterday, he made the same choice he always does: follow the ratings, and mend fences with Trump. But that process has meant that Fox has had to mute its defense of Kelly, who is now watching uneasily as the Fox audience turns on her: According to one high-level source, Kelly has told Fox producers that she’s been getting death threats from Trump supporters.

While Trump barnstormed rival media outlets over the last few days, dissing Kelly and Fox at virtually every turn, Ailes remained surprisingly restrained in his response, even after Trump told CNN on Friday that Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” during the debate. Paralyzed by the volume of pro-Trump emails from Fox’s loyal viewers, Ailes’s only statement, released a day after the debate, said that he was “extremely proud of all of the moderators.” Fox’s famously aggressive PR apparatus has not gone after Trump to defend Kelly, and although Kelly’s executive producer Tom Lowell did send out an email to colleagues thanking them for their support in recent days, that support has been private.

Trump is now back in Fox’s fold, but the lengths that Ailes went to in order to win Trump back revealed a rare moment of weakness for the Fox chief. Since Trump’s “blood” comment on Friday, some Fox executives have wanted Ailes to personally call Trump and broker a truce. But, according to a Fox source, Ailes and his lawyer Peter Johnson Jr. felt that calling Trump was a risk they couldn’t take, given Trump’s erratic behavior on the campaign trail. What if Trump leaked the conversation on Twitter like he did with Lindsey Graham’s cell-phone number? (When reached by email about this story, Johnson responded: “The reporting is false and obviously fabricated.”)

Ailes’s unwillingness to pick up the phone meant that Fox was flying blind. “They didn’t know what Trump was thinking,” one source explained. It was left to emissaries to try and discern Trump’s next move. But, after Trump told Sean Hannity in a weekend phone call that he was “never doing Fox again,” appeared on four non-Fox public-affairs shows on Sunday, and did interviews with Today and Morning Joe on Monday, Ailes raised the white flag and picked up the phone on Monday morning. “Roger wanted a friendly relationship,” the source explained.

Ailes offered Trump the chance to do a special on Kelly’s prime-time show to clear the air — an offer Trump flatly refused. “Donald was sufficiently pissed off that there was no way that was happening,” a person familiar with the call told me. According to the source, Trump’s ire was especially stoked after Howard Stern called to tell him about a 2010 interview in which Kelly joked about her breasts and her husband’s penis. (Update: On his radio show, Stern says he didn’t call Trump.) Ailes offered other shows, and Trump agreed to appear on Fox and Friends and Hannity, two venues that have been loyal boosters of his candidacy.

Ailes’s next order of business was getting Trump to disarm publicly. According to a source briefed on the negotiations, Ailes called Trump “multiple” times yesterday morning “begging” him to tweet out that they had made peace. Trump refused at first, but finally consented. “Roger Ailes just called,” he tweeted at 10:35 a.m. yesterday. “He is a great guy & assures me that ‘Trump’ will be treated fairly on ‪@FoxNews. His word is always good!” (Irena Briganti, Ailes’s spokesperson, did not respond to a call for comment. The Trump campaign declined to comment.) Last night, Ailes put his own spin on it and released a statement. “We had a blunt but cordial conversation and the air has been cleared,” he said, adding that Kelly is a “brilliant journalist.” For her part, Kelly addressed the controversy only briefly on her show, saying simply: “I certainly will not apologize for doing good journalism.”

This morning, Ailes got his wish: Trump returned with a chatty segment on Fox and Friends. “I’m glad we’re friends again,” co-host Steve Doocy said at the opening of the segment. “We’ve always been friends,” Trump replied, disingenuously.

But resecuring Trump access could prove to be a temporary victory for Ailes. Having backed down to the GOP front-runner and all but sacrificed one of his biggest stars to appease the conservative base — a.k.a. Fox viewers — Ailes has set a dangerous precedent. The message is clear: Fox reports, but the audience decides.