With just five days until Fox News airs the final GOP debate before the Iowa Caucuses, Donald Trump is reigniting his war with Megyn Kelly. “Based on @MegynKelly’s conflict of interest and bias she should not be allowed to be a moderator of the next debate,” Trump tweeted while campaigning in Iowa on Saturday.
Trump’s feud with Kelly has been one of the most memorable storylines of this raucous GOP primary. In recent weeks, it has heated up. In a lengthy Vanity Fair profile this month, Kelly boasted of writing the now-famous debate question about Trump’s history of misogynistic comments, which ignited the feud this summer. And last week, Kelly sarcastically brought up Sarah Palin’s Trump endorsement, as well as hosted National Review editor Rich Lowry to promote the National Review’s anti-Trump issue.
Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, indicated that Trump could walk away from the debate if Fox won’t exclude Kelly. “Let’s see what happens,” he told me. “It’s fair to say Mr. Trump is a significant ratings driver for these debates. If we aren’t on stage for some reason, they wouldn’t have the record 24 million viewers and would be back with 1-2 million people.”
In the past, the Republican National Committee has banned media it deems unfair. It canceled a debate on NBC, and excluded the Manchester Union Leader and National Review after both outlets attacked Trump. But in this case, the RNC won’t be getting involved. “It’s up to Fox,” Sean Spicer, the Republican National Committee chief strategist, told me.
In a statement to reporters, Fox News spokesperson Irena Briganti said: “Megyn Kelly has no conflict of interest. Donald Trump is just trying to build up the audience for Thursday’s debate, for which we thank him.”
For Fox News chief Roger Ailes, Trump’s threat of a debate boycott raises the stakes in a war that Ailes has struggled to develop a playbook for. Historically, Ailes’s strategy in situations where his stars are attacked is to follow a version of the Powell Doctrine: Apply overwhelming force. But Trump’s popularity with the GOP base — that is, Fox viewers — has forced Ailes to make a choice between his audience and Kelly. In the wake of the first debate, Ailes was said to be rattled by the volume of anti-Kelly emails Fox News received from Trump supporters. Kelly told people she was receiving death threats, and Fox did not have a ready response. Ailes, who is less of a presence at Fox, now has to make another choice, which could result in the GOP front runner walking away.
Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, told me Trump could stage his own televised town hall on Thursday night and let Fox’s rivals air it. “That would be a great idea,” he said.