Why Is Trump Boycotting the Fox News Debate?

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Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Campaigns Throughout Iowa
Trump speaks at a rally in Marshalltown, Iowa, on January 26, 2016.Photo: Scott Olson/2016 Getty Images

After months of sniping from both sides, the war between Fox News and Donald Trump finally broke out in earnest on Tuesday night. Moments after the network revealed the lineup for Thursday’s Republican debate, Trump announced that he’s boycotting the event. “He will not be participating in the Fox News debate on Thursday” said campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, adding, “it’s not under negotiation.”

Rather than appearing at the debate moderated by Megyn Kelly, who he said is “very biased” and incapable of treating him fairly, Trump will hold a competing event on Thursday night. “We’ll have an event here in Iowa, with potentially another network, to raise money for Wounded Warriors and Fox will go from having probably 24 million viewers for the debate to, you know, 2 million viewers,” Lewandowski said.

In this latest round of the TrumpFox News feud, the candidate was demanding that the network choose between the ratings-grabbing front-runner and its biggest rising star. While there’s been bad blood between Trump and Fox News for some time, the public impetus for the spat was Kelly asking the real-estate mogul about his degrading comments about women at the first GOP debate in August. The next day Trump said Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever,” and the rest is history.

In the past, Fox News didn’t defend Kelly as vigorously as it could have, but from the start of this week’s skirmish, the network has been hinting that actually booting Kelly was a step too far. “Megyn Kelly has no conflict of interest,” Fox News spokesperson Irena Briganti said in the initial response. “Donald Trump is just trying to build up the audience for Thursday’s debate, for which we thank him.”

The network’s tone became much sharper as Trump continued to lob insults over the past few days. On three prior occasions, Trump’s threats resulted in debate hosts tweaking their rules or dumping participants, and on Monday he stepped up his anti-Fox rhetoric, hinting in a CNN interview that he might leak damaging information about Kelly if Fox chief Roger Ailes didn’t give in to his demands. First Fox quipped, “We’re very surprised he’s willing to show that much fear about being questioned by Megyn Kelly.” Then Ailes weighed in personally on Tuesday morning, saying, “Megyn Kelly is an excellent journalist and the entire network stands behind her — she will absolutely be on the debate stage on Thursday night.”

From there the situation escalated quickly. Trump condensed his gripes with Kelly into an Instagram video:

He later offered additional views in a tweet. 

Then polled his Twitter followers on whether he should participate in the debate:

As the Washington Post’s Callum Borchers noted, Trump isn’t a great debater, and up to this point he might have been trying to give himself some cover. Of course an incredible person such as Trump would never admit to be afraid of Kelly, but before going head to head with one of the few moderators able and willing to stand up to him, it might be nice to have a ready-made excuse about media bias.

However, it seems Trump was pushed over the edge by an unusually snarky statement Fox News issued on Tuesday afternoon. “We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president,” Fox said. “A nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”

At Tuesday afternoon’s press conference, Trump said he was outraged by the “wise guy” remarks. “I didn’t like the fact that they sent out press releases toying, talking about Putin, and playing games. I don’t know what games Roger Ailes is playing, what’s wrong over there? Something’s wrong,” Trump said. “Let’s see how much money Fox is going to make on the debate without me,” he added. “It’s time that somebody plays grownup.”

That’s certainly the pot calling the kettle childish — as underscored by this statement Trump released on Tuesday night:

But Trump needs an alternate narrative to fight Fox’s allegation that he’s afraid to face Kelly, particularly because his closest rival is already running with that explanation. “If Donald is afraid to defend his record, that speaks volumes,” Ted Cruz said while announcing Trump’s boycott at an event in Iowa. “Apparently Megyn Kelly is really, really scary.” Cruz then challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate, listing Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity as potential moderators. But he said he’d be willing to do it “90 minute, Lincoln-Douglas, mano-a-mano, Donald and me”style, if he finds the conservative hosts “too scary.”

By Wednesday morning, Ted Cruz’s campaign had finally found the pop-culture reference it wanted to use to sum up its latest battle with Trump. 

Fox News offered a new angle in this statement released late on Tuesday. The network claims the Trump camp repeatedly threatened Kelly, but they’re still not afraid to not have him at the debate.

On Wednesday morning, however, Lewandowski told MSNBC that Trump isn’t about to change his mind. “At the end of the day,” he said, “Mr. Trump is going to have the last laugh.”

On Tuesday night, Megyn Kelly was forced to acknowledge the messy situation on her show. “This controversy dates back to August 6 and the very first Republican debate, co-moderated by yours truly,” she said, per Business Insider. “Mr. Trump took issue with this question that I posed to him … In the months since, Mr. Trump has repeatedly brought up that exchange as evidence of alleged bias on my part. I maintain it was a tough but fair question and we agreed to disagree.”

Later on The Kelly File, she spoke with Michael Moore, who was far more interested in talking about the Trump fiasco than about his new movie, Where to Invade Next. “Plugging a movie?” he said, according to Mediaite. “No, that’s not why I’m here! I’m on Fox News!” 

Moore made many jokes about how he didn’t see why Trump was so afraid of the person sitting across from him — leading Kelly to jokingly tell him to stop so they could get on with the interview already.

Although Trump is mad as hell at Fox News right now and unwilling to take it anymore, not too long ago he had very different views on the network’s debates — and the skills of one of its moderators. As BuzzFeed pointed out today, Trump said that 2012 presidential candidates who declined to take part in his debate were “afraid to go into a debate” — which he interpreted as a sign that they would also be unable to handle China.

Back in August, when Trump first started complaining about Kelly, Mediaite found an old clip where the current front-runner told her that he could never be a better moderator than her. “You have done a great job, by the way,” he said. “And I mean it.”

This post has been updated throughout.