The feud between Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly heated up again Monday night as Kelly returned to air after a 10-day vacation. Trump took to Twitter saying he liked the show better while Kelly was away and suggesting her vacation was the result of their previous dust up (something Fox denies). Trump also retweeted others criticizing Kelly, including one person who wrote, “The bimbo back in town. I hope not for long.”
The war of words escalated Tuesday with Fox’s Roger Ailes criticizing Trump in a statement: “Donald Trump’s surprise and unprovoked attack on Megyn Kelly is as unacceptable as it is disturbing.” Ailes also called on Trump to apologize. Trump responded a short time later saying, “I do not think Megyn Kelly is a quality journalist.”
Some have suggested that the Trump-Kelly feud is all build-up for a future blockbuster interview, but multiple sources told Gabriel Sherman at New York magazine the feud is real and not about to be conveniently resolved with a primetime special.
Regardless of whose side you gravitate towards in the underlying disagreement, here are three strategic reasons why restarting a war of words with Kelly is bad strategy for Trump:
1) A war on Fox is counter-productive in the long run – One of the reasons Trump is doing so well in polls is that he is completely dominating the media. Trump scored more evening news air time than all 16 of his Republican rivals combined. Trump has also been dominant on Fox, especially on shows like Hannity, where he has been featured multiple times since the debate.
But the Fox megaphone could be pulled back if the feud with Kelly drags on. After his tweets last night, Fox hosts rallied around Kelly in what some described as a coordinated pushback. Even Geraldo and Hannity got in on the action, saying it was time for Trump to back off the personal attacks. The tweets read like a warning, one that comes with an implied “or else.” If the feud continues, Fox could move to limit Trump’s air time and the questions put to him could become a lot more pointed than they have been so far.
Granted, Trump is in a position to go to CNN or anywhere else in the near term. And as the leading candidate, Fox can’t stop covering him no matter how management feels about him. But long term Fox News remains the top cable network and the most important channel for any candidate hoping to reach out to conservative voters. So making a personal enemy of Fox’s top star and daring them to pull back seems counter-productive. With more than a year to go before the election, even a partial throttling of Trump’s coverage could add up to a “yuge” opportunity cost over a relatively trivial personal vendetta.
2) It makes Trump look petty – Trump was clearly angered by the questions he got in the GOP debate, and his comments about Kelly afterwards seemed like lashing out. Some observers felt Kelly had been out of line and that Trump was owed some pushback. The question is when is it enough?
Long time adviser Roger Stone left the campaign over what he considered the ill-advised focus on the spat with Kelly. That should be a clear heads up that even people who support Trump (as Stone still does) think he was wandering off track.
And that goes double for returning to the same attacks two weeks later. Lashing out at Kelly on Twitter again in the same personal way suggests Trump is unable to let it go. At a certain point, people expect the candidate, who if elected would become the most powerful man in the world, to display a measure of self-control. Right now, Trump seems to be showing us the opposite.
3) The feuds of today are the campaign commercials of tomorrow – Trump continues to lead in every major poll and is still gaining ground in early primary states. Once considered a vanity candidate, polls say he is now a real contender for the nomination. But beyond the nomination is the general election, where Trump could face the powerful Clinton machine backed by a billion dollars.
Hillary is a terrible candidate. That’s the good news for the eventual GOP nominee. The bad news is that she’ll have lots of money and and an army of surrogates to carry her message. And looking down the road a bit, it’s not hard to guess what that message is going to be. Hillary is going to frame her candidacy as a chance to vote for the first woman President and her opposition as trying to stop that, a kind of implied misogyny.
Knowing that could be in his future, Trump ought to be more careful about handing Clinton ammunition for future use. Every “bimbo” tweet directed at Kelly now is an arrow in Hillary’s quiver for later. The ad practically writes itself.
Perhaps Trump thinks he can just shrug off whatever War on Women strategy Hillary cooks up. But, knowing those attacks are coming, it would be best if this issue was settled long before the general election. If it’s not, he’s really handing Hillary (and her media allies) a club to beat him with every day until November.