Stephen K. Bannon warned Roger Ailes that Megyn Kelly was going to be a problem—and Ailes, at first, did not take him seriously, a new book reveals in the course of multiple explosive sections over two chapters.
Bannon is the former executive chairman of Breitbart News Network who went on to become the CEO of President Donald Trump’s successful campaign and now White House Chief Strategist in Trump’s administration. The revelations about Ailes and Kelly—which recount Breitbart News’s coverage critical of Kelly’s performance at the first GOP presidential primary debate in August 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio—come in a new book by Bloomberg’s Josh Green titled Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.
In Chapter 8, Green writes about how the GOP base had a vehemently anti-Fox News reaction to Kelly’s performance in that Cleveland debate, in which she badgered Trump with over-the-top questions. Green writes:
Bannon and the Breitbart editors had the same reaction and immediately turned on Megyn Kelly, with a fusillade of negative articles. She became the newest Breitbart narrative: the back-stabbing, self-promoting betrayer-of-the-cause. And Breitbart became the locus of pro-Trump, anti-Fox conservative anger. Between Thursday night, when the debate took place, and Sunday evening, Breitbart published twenty-five stories on Kelly, and the site’s editor in chief, Alex Marlow, went on CNN to accuse Fox News of ‘trying to take out Donald Trump’ and staging ‘a gotcha debate.’
After a number of pieces from Breitbart News exposing Kelly’s agenda—including a lengthy one that exposed her lack of objectivity and open point of view being anti-Trump—Kelly was “furious” and begged then Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes to intervene. Ailes has since passed away, but before he did he stepped down as chairman and CEO of Fox News. Bannon and Ailes—who were previously very close—did not speak again for “almost a year” after Ailes begged Bannon unsuccessfully on Kelly’s behalf to hold back Breitbart News criticisms of her transgressions against journalistic integrity.
Green writes on the subject:
Word spread through the building that Kelly was furious and had personally complained to Ailes. By Sunday, the attacks against her showed no sign of letting up, as other conservative opinion makers, such as radio host Mark Levin, agreed that her questions to Trump had been ‘unfair.’ In a panic, Ailes called Bannon and begged him to call off the attacks. ‘Steve, this isn’t fair, and it’s killing us,’ Ailes said. ‘You have to stop it.’ ‘Fuck that, that was outrageous what she did!’ Bannon retorted. ‘She pulled every trick out of the leftist playbook.’ ‘You’ve gotta knock this crap off, Steve.’ ‘Not until she backs off Trump—she’s still going after him on her show.’ ‘She’s the star of this network! Cut it out!’ The call ended without resolution. Bannon and Ailes would not speak again for almost a year.
Bannon, Green added, was “irritated” by the “sudden outpouring of support Kelly was receiving from people whom he considered sworn enemies of the conservative cause” like “Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the ‘whole fucking cast’ of CNN, and—most gallingly—Hillary Clinton, who he felt never met a gender controversy she wouldn’t exploit for political gain.”
Green then points to a jointly-bylined piece by Bannon and Breitbart News editor-in-chief Alex Marlow ripping Kelly apart in a “point-by-point indictment of Kelly’s alleged transgressions.”
The headline was “The Arrogance of Power: Megyn Kelly’s ‘Good Journalism.’”
“While it was an unvarnished depiction of Breitbart editorial sentiment, the piece served a double purpose: it kept the fight going,” Green wrote. “As Bannon confessed to an associate, “The [Web] traffic is absolutely filthy!””
Later, Fox News tried again to get Breitbart News to back off Kelly—something Bannon would not do. He “remained a problem,” Green wrote, because “Breitbart wasn’t relenting.” At that time, Bannon warned Ailes nearly a year before she actually did so that Kelly was going to turn on him.
In another excerpt from the book, Green writes:
In fact, its attacks on Kelly were growing more personal. ‘Flashback: Megyn Kelly Discusses Her Husband’s Penis and Her Breasts on Howard Stern,’ read a Breitbart headline on the one-week anniversary of the debate. Not knowing what else to do, Ailes dispatched his personal lawyer, Peter Johnson, Jr., to the Breitbart Embassy in Washington, D.C., to deliver a personal message to Bannon to end the war on Kelly. Bannon loathed Johnson, whom he referred to privately as ‘that nebbishy, goofball lawyer on Fox & Friends’—Johnson had leveraged his proximity to Ailes to become a Fox News pundit. When he arrived at the Embassy, Johnson got straight to the point: if Bannon didn’t stop immediately, he would never again appear on Fox News. ‘You’ve got a very strong relationship with Roger,’ Johnson warned. ‘You’ve gotta stop these attacks on Megyn. She’s the star. And if you don’t stop, there are going to be consequences.’ Bannon was incensed at the threat. ‘She’s pure evil,’ he told Johnson. ‘And she will turn on him one day. We’re going full-bore. We’re not going to stop. I’m gonna unchain the dogs.’ The conversation was brief and unpleasant, and it ended with a cinematic flourish. ‘I want you to go back to New York and quote me to Roger,’ Bannon said. ‘Go fuck yourself.’
Sure enough, Bannon was right again: Kelly, the following summer, turned on Ailes and accused him of sexual misconduct. Ailes was on the way down—but not before he turned back to Bannon to ask him for help one last time, a request that Bannon obliged. The political fireworks between Kelly and Ailes happened at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland—where the feud between Kelly and Trump first burst wide open a year before—and Trump was running into some issues with Fox News not having the credibility it once had as the Ailes scandal consumed the network.
Green writes, now in Chapter 9:
Trump was still banking on his ability to dominate news coverage, which was free. But here, too, a problem had emerged,” Fox News, which had dutifully fallen in line after Trump’s win, was engulfed in scandal after Gretchen Carlson, a longtime anchor, filed a lawsuit on July 6 charging Roger Ailes with sexual harassment. Three days later, New York published the accounts of six more women who claimed Ailes harassed them. The TV legend, once thought invincible, suddenly looked less so. Rupert Murdoch had always protected him. But Murdoch was eighty-five years old, and his sons James and Lachlan, both top executives at Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, took a dim view of Ailes. Desperate for allies who would aggressively defend him, Ailes reached out to Bannon through an intermediary. The two hadn’t spoken since their fight over Megyn Kelly the year before. But Bannon was sympathetic, believing that the timing of the lawsuit against Ailes was no accident—and was meant to overshadow Trump’s convention, set to begin on July 18.
Bannon obliged and called Ailes to help him out. Green wrote:
He called Ailes at his home and reached his wife, Beth. ‘Steve, I’m so glad you called,’ she said, passing the phone to her husband. Ailes was blunt: ‘I need air cover.’ Bannon was surprised at his desperation. ‘He was babbling,’ he later told an associate. ‘He was in the fucking mumble tank.’ The two men talked for an hour. In the end, Bannon agreed to put a reporter on the story and told Ailes he would ‘put up as spirited a defense as possible—typical Breitbart stuff.’ But when 21st Century Fox hired the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to conduct an investigation of the charges, Bannon decided that Ailes was finished and called to tell him so. ‘You know, it’s over now,’ he said. ‘What do you mean?’ Ailes asked. ‘They hired an outside firm,’ Bannon said. ‘They’re moving it out of the building—and you watch, Megyn Kelly will turn on you.’ Ailes scoffed. ‘Rupert’s got my back,’ he said. ‘The boys want to kill me, but Rupert won’t let me go.’ The next day, Ailes called back, less sure of himself. He had tried calling the elder Murdoch, who was vacationing with his wife in the South of France and didn’t take the call. ‘It’s too hard to get through; he’s on a boat,’ Ailes ventured. Bannon told him to get as much money as he could in a settlement and face up to the truth. ‘If somebody called him about a merger, he’d take the fucking call,’ Bannon told Ailes. ‘You’re done.’
Breitbart News ran a number of pieces that questioned Gretchen Carlson’s stories, and uncovered political connections and motivations of the attorneys involved. But it was not enough to stop the downfall of Ailes. And then, sure enough, the news came out shortly thereafter that Kelly turned on Ailes. Bannon was right all along.
“On July 19, the news broke that Kelly had indeed told the Paul, Weiss investigators that Ailes had sexually harassed her. Breitbart dutifully published Ailes’s last-ditch defense, a claim that Fox News’ entire prime-time lineup would quit if Ailes was forced out,” Green wrote. “That evening, New York reported, Ailes was banned from the Fox building, and his company e-mail and phone were shut down. On July 21, just hours before Trump was to formally accept the Republican nomination in Cleveland, Ailes agreed to a $40 million exit package. He was finished.”