With the first 2016 votes set to be cast in less than a week, Fox News finds itself in the unprecedented position of being in open warfare with the GOP front-runner. Tonight, Donald Trump is continuing to leave people guessing about whether he will be onstage at the Fox debate on Thursday, should Roger Ailes refuse to yank Megyn Kelly from the moderator panel. “I’m not 100 percent, I’ll see,” Trump told CNN earlier today, echoing a threat he first made on Saturday. “If I think I’m going to be treated unfairly I’ll do something else. But I don’t think she can treat me fairly, actually. I think she’s very biased and I don’t think she can treat me fairly.”
Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told me tonight that Trump could very well boycott Fox. “We haven’t said he’ll be there, and we haven’t said he won’t be there,” he said. “The bottom line is Megyn Kelly shouldn’t be rewarded for her media bias.”
Behind the scenes, Trump has pressured Ailes to remove his fastest rising star. While campaigning in Iowa today, Trump told the Boston Globe’s James Pindell that he spoke with Ailes by phone and said Kelly should “recuse herself.”
Fox isn’t backing down. Tonight, the network released another carefully worded statement: “Sooner or later Donald Trump even if he’s president, is going to have to learn that he doesn’t get to pick the journalists. We’re very surprised he’s willing to show that much fear about being questioned by Megyn Kelly.”
The timid response — by Ailes-ian standards — is more evidence that the Fox chief is struggling to draft a playbook to deal with Trump. According to a Fox source, Ailes’s senior executives convened an emergency conference call on Sunday to discuss Fox’s Trump strategy. Two more sources told me that Ailes is becoming increasingly worried about leaks from inside Fox. He’s tasked his lawyer Peter Johnson Jr. with running an investigation to ferret out sources.
It makes sense that Ailes would be worried. While it remains highly unlikely that Trump actually won’t show up on Thursday, he continues to threaten the relationship between Fox News and its viewers. During his CNN interview, Trump played on Ailes’s leak anxiety, hinting that he has dirt on Kelly and is willing to use it. “Maybe I know too much about her,” he said.