2016 GOP frontrunner and billionaire Donald Trump already won his war with the Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly.
She’s exposed as having a point of view, rather than being a purely impartial arbiter of news. Now he’s just having fun as a larger war between him and the network’s powers-that-be looms.
In exposing Kelly, he’s employed at least parts of an unwritten playbook for political warfare his former, longtime aide–legendary GOP trickster Roger Stone–has laid out mostly informally over the years called “Stone’s Rules.” Stone hasn’t actually published the “Rules” anywhere, though some appear littered throughout his Twitter account and in a profile that the Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash wrote of him in 2007.
Stone, ironically, is a Fox News Contributor. He left the Trump campaign operation a few weeks ago—Trump says he fired Stone, while Stone says he quit—but he’s become one of the Donald’s biggest supporters on the outside in no time at all appearing on virtually every television show he can to tout Trump’s candidacy. “Never miss the opportunity to have sex or be on television, as Gore Vidal said,” Stone told the New York Times for a fashion profile on him this week.
Stone has worked in Republican politics for decades and helped Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan win elections. There’s no indication he’s involved in this Trump play against Kelly in any way, shape or form—he says he quit the Trump campaign because Trump insisted on this fight with Kelly—but his decades of influence on Trump, and his style, are clearly on display here.
“Hit it from every angle. Open multiple fronts on your enemy. He must be confused, and feel besieged on every side,” probably the most important of “Stone’s Rules” reads, according to the Labash profile. That’s exactly what Trump has done to Kelly, and as she’s been “confused” amid a barrage of attacks, she’s made the critical mistake Trump had been hoping she’d make: she showed her hand, abandoning impartiality with people other than him.
In the past two days, contrasts between her interviews with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Univision’s Jorge Ramos have thrust into public display a willingness on her part to allow a liberal narrative forward while crushing a conservative narrative. Technically speaking, most of the individual questions—with the exception of one to Cruz—she asked of both of them were all independently acceptable questions. However, the way she handled the interviews as a whole in the context of the political debate indicates she is a journalist who has made up her mind about the 2016 election, and that she has a decided and clear point of view about the presidential candidacy of Trump.
Her point of view is one more fitting of a pundit, television personality, or opinion leader than that of a journalist or straight-down-the-middle news anchor or reporter—and she’s using her position on the Fox News Channel to further that point of view rather than acting as an impartial arbiter of the 2016 presidential race. There’s nothing wrong with that—opinion journalists exist everywhere in media from online outlets like this one to television stations of all stripes, including on the Fox News Channel in folks like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, among others. But it’s clear from the narrative she’s pushing on her show that Kelly wants to take Trump out. Kelly will do everything within her power to undermine Trump’s candidacy. In response, Trump has been taking his battle axe driving public opinion to chop Kelly’s carefully crafted impartial public image to pieces.
The advocacy style of Kelly—who values being seen in mainstream media circles as a respectable journalist, a somehow neutral arbiter of the news—that Trump has exposed is toxic in the long run for her career and for her network. As she’s risen as a popular anchor, the network for which she works has worked overtime and spent millions of dollars to present her as a modern Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow. They’ve painted a picture of Kelly as a news woman who tells America the truth, no matter what it is, in a fair and balanced manner.
But what Trump has done in a truly special manner is expose that fallacy. It’s not that Trump’s war with Kelly isn’t petty—it is, and it is probably counterproductive to be fighting with a television personality for weeks on end as he’s soaring in the polls. He could be fighting with the Mexican or Chinese governments or with Democrats or his fellow GOP candidates—all of which would be more conducive to helping him earn more supporters—but Trump isn’t someone who backs down easily–and since Kelly came after him, not the other way around, he feels like he needs to win. Well, in the regard of whether or not Kelly is in fact impartial, Trump has a decisive victory.
That doesn’t mean that Kelly will see a drop in ratings or a loss of status in the media. She’s still the top dog on the Fox News Channel, and her show still gets incredible ratings. Until a credible competitor emerges—CNN and MSNBC certainly haven’t been able to make the cut—she’ll remain there, just like O’Reilly and Hannity have. But Trump has taken one thing away from her that she and her bosses at Fox can never replace, no matter how much time or money they spend on it: the appearance of impartiality.
What’s perhaps most important here—as has been the case with every behemoth in politics and media that candidate Trump has conquered from rivals like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to GOP titans like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to pundits like George Will or Frank Luntz and more—is that Kelly fired first. It wasn’t at the debate where Kelly fired her first cheap shot at Trump, either.
On July 27, as The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak and Brandy Zadrozny published a subsequently quickly-proven-false hit piece alleging that Trump raped his ex-wife Ivana Trump—with whom he had three children, Ivanka, Eric and Donald, Jr.—Kelly rushed it onto her show and into the political narrative. The story was posted online at 8:35 p.m. that evening on The Daily Beast’s website, too late for Kelly to have vetted it herself before going on air to read it—which she did gleefully that night, just leaning on the normally reliable Daily Beast to be able to use it on her show.
“We got to get to this because this is just breaking on the Daily Beast—the headline is: ‘Ex-Wife: Donald Trump Made Me Feel ‘Violated’ During Sex,’” Kelly said on air. “The next line is: ‘Ivana Trump once accused the real estate tycoon of “rape,” although she later clarified: not in the “criminal sense.””
As a photo of Ivana appeared on the right side of the screen and Stirewalt split the left with Kelly, Kelly continued: “And the essence of this piece, I’m just reading this literally as we are on the air, is that during their divorce proceeding—which was ugly—she accused him of a ‘violent assault,’ pulling back her arms, pulling out fistfuls of her hair, and then ‘raping’ her in a vicious manner.”
“Donald Trump has previously—this is back in 1989 this allegedly happened—he has denied it previously, years ago, saying it is obviously false and going after the guy who wrote it as a vindictive and jealous man,” Kelly said before eventually turning to Stirewalt. “Somebody who speaks for Donald Trump has come out and denied it as well and added that legally, he says, you cannot rape your spouse—although I’m not sure about that as a legal matter, we’ll leave that for another day—but what does this tell us now? What does this tell us? It’s getting ugly for one thing.”
“It’s getting ugly, for one thing,” Stirewalt replied, echoing Kelly before providing his analysis on the spot about the piece. “Number two, it’s old.”
“Very,” Kelly interjected.
“But in the case of Donald Trump, you have decades—reaching back to the 1980s—of a public life, and a colorful one at that,” Stirewalt continued before Kelly jumped in to talk over him and seemingly back the odd logic behind the Daily Beast publishing this old piece.
“But this is how you get around that, Chris—they start the article, all right, they start the article by saying, ‘Donald Trump introduced his presidential campaign to the world with a slur against Mexican immigrants, accusing them of being “rapists” and bringing crime into the country.’ And then they say this is ‘unfortunate turn of phrase for’ him and then they get into the matter from 1989 in a divorce proceeding—where the audience needs to understand, often both sides say very ugly things that may or may not be true,” Kelly said.
At the end of the segment, Kelly seemingly warned Trump about what she planned to do to him at the upcoming debate: “We see this happen, we see this happen a lot, you run for president, man, they will go after everything.”
The next morning, Trump and his team turned the tables on the Daily Beast hit piece—albeit in an unlikely manner. His ex-wife Ivana–unprompted, he later told Breitbart News–issued a statement to CNN backing him up.
“I have recently read some comments attributed to me from nearly 30 years ago at a time of very high tension during my divorce from Donald,” Ivana said. “The story is totally without merit. Donald and I are the best of friends and together have raised three children that we love and are very proud of. I have nothing but fondness for Donald and wish him the best of luck on his campaign. Incidentally, I think he would make an incredible president.”
By midday, Trump and his campaign—although truly a bit shaken for the first time this cycle at how low some folks in media like the Daily Beast and Kelly would go—were back on offense targeting the political establishment and growing their lead in the polls.
That night, in what appeared to be an effort to distance herself from the piece she previously rushed on air the night before, Kelly completely changed her tune as she badgered the Daily Beast’s Mak on her show. “Tim, you are under fire for writing a piece about a man’s divorce—allegations made in it—from three decades ago,” Kelly asked Mak. “Why did you think this was relevant?”
From there, however, with the first debate in Cleveland looming a fortnight away, Kelly was out of the closet in her desire to see Trump’s head on a platter rather than his name as the GOP nominee on a ballot against whoever wins the Democratic nomination. Trump smelled Kelly’s plan a mile away and backed out of a pre-scheduled interview with her before the debate.
But the two were destined to clash on the debate stage. Like clockwork, on it, Kelly aimed to stump Trump. But Trump was ready for her.
“Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter,” Kelly asked him on the Quicken Loans Arena stage in Cleveland with 24 million people watching back home. “However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.’”
As the audience laughed, Kelly attempted to continue: “Your Twitter account…”
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump joked, disarming Kelly.
The audience roared in laughter.
“No, it wasn’t,” Kelly tried to correct Trump. “Your Twitter account…”
The audience erupted in applause for Trump.
“Thank you,” Trump thanked them.
“For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell,” Kelly interjected.
“Yes, I’m sure it was,” Trump replied.
“Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks,” Kelly continued her question. “You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump answered, earning resounding applause from the audience.
“I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness,” Trump continued. “And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody. And frankly, what I say, and oftentimes it’s fun, it’s kidding. We have a good time. What I say is what I say. And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.”
The crowd roared again.
“But you know what, we — we need strength, we need energy, we need quickness and we need brain in this country to turn it around,” Trump finished his answer. “That, I can tell you right now.”
After the debate, Trump told CNN’s Don Lemon that he was very displeased with Kelly.
“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” Trump said in the Lemon interview.
Many–including Fox News Contributor Erick Erickson of RedState, who disinvited Trump to his annual gathering of candidates and activists outside Atlanta–took that Trump comment to be a reference to Kelly menstruating. None of them, of course, even listened to the full interview—each of them took it out context—since Trump also referred to Chris Wallace, one of the other moderators from the Fox News Channel and a male, having blood coming out of his eyes. Trump noted that in a later interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on State of the Union.
Kelly, on her first post-debate show and the first show since all of this, addressed the controversy for the first time. “Apparently Mr. Trump thought the question I asked was unfair and felt I was attacking him, I felt he was asked a tough but fair question,” she said. “We agree to disagree.”
After that, she somewhat praised Trump in an effort to bury the hatchet.
“Mr. Trump is an interesting man who has captured the attention of the electorate,” Kelly said. “That’s why he’s leading in the polls. Trump, who is the front-runner, will not apologize, and I certainly will not apologize for doing good journalism. So I’ll continue doing my job without fear or favor, and Mr. Trump, I expect, will continue with what has been a successful campaign thus far. This is a tough business and it’s time now to move forward, and now let’s get back to the news.”
Fox News Channel president Roger Ailes called Trump to work out a truce. A Trump attorney, Michael Cohen, appeared on Hannity, then Ailes worked it out with Trump to appear on his network on other shows throughout the week. Publicly, it appeared the truce would work.
But what was at play here? One other of “Stone’s Rules”: “Never do anything till you’re ready to do it.” Trump took advantage of Fox’s desire for a cease fire to recuperate, rebuild his energy and sit back waiting until the time was right.
Everything went rocky again as Kelly went on an unannounced 11-day-long vacation. Due to conservative blowback on Fox for her behavior during the debate, many, including Trump, speculated that Kelly’s previously unannounced vacation was meant as a cooling off period for her—or as some kind of punishment for her actions.
Fox fired back hard at Trump.
“The conspiracy theories about Megyn Kelly’s vacation rank up there with UFO’s, the moon landing and Elvis being alive,” a Fox spokesperson said in a statement.
Megyn is on a pre-planned, annual summer vacation with her family, which is much deserved. To imply otherwise as Donald Trump and his campaign operatives have is not only wildly irresponsible, but downright bizarre. Perhaps Mr. Trump thinks it’s advantageous to his poll numbers to keep talking about Megyn, but that doesn’t change the fact that Roger Ailes has fully supported her and her tough journalistic questioning since day one and is thrilled with the added exposure from the debate which resulted in even higher ratings of The Kelly File this week. Anyone who knows Roger is aware of how historically and consistently loyal he is to all of his talent and how he protects them at all costs. As Governor Terry Branstad said today, “when you’re a candidate, you’ve got to basically answer the questions. You can’t just attack the person asking the questions. That doesn’t work.”
The statement, as Breitbart News noted at the time, did not refer to Kelly as a journalist, a news anchor, or a reporter. It referred to her as “talent,” exactly what Trump has wanted to expose her as being to the public.
Then things cooled down a little bit. Trump—adhering still clearly to “Stone’s Rules”—sat back and waited while Kelly enjoyed her previously unannounced vacation. But the night she came back, Trump threw her some serious criticism again. In a series of Tweets, Trump lit into Kelly’s credibility.
Kelly, he tweeted, “must have had a terrible vacation, she is really off her game. Was afraid to confront Dr. Cornel West. No clue on immigration!”
“I liked The Kelly File much better without” Kelly, he said in another Tweet. “Perhaps she could take another eleven day unscheduled vacation!”
Other Tweets which he retweeted included ones that called Kelly a “bimbo,” as having come back from her vacation “looking like Nancy Grace,” and the real dagger, that her program has “become an opinion show.”
Ailes ripped Trump in a statement responding to him that defended Kelly. He called on Trump to apologize. Trump fired back that he wouldn’t apologize, that he disagreed with Ailes’ statement, and that he does not think Kelly is a “quality journalist.” He told people to watch his speech that night, Tuesday of this week, in Iowa on CNN—a full-blown heckle to Fox that Trump would send viewers to a Fox competitor with consistently lower ratings.
In play here? Another one of “Stone’s Rules”: “Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.” Trump refused to apologize, denied all wrongdoing, and lit into Fox—particularly Kelly—again.
That night, Kelly—still clearly visibly upset with everything happening in the feud with Trump, and as the earlier-mentioned one of “Stone’s Rules” would say, “confused,” as she’s been besieged from every direction—had Sen. Cruz on her program.
The interview with Cruz started off fine. She asked him first why he opposes birthright citizenship for illegal aliens’ anchor babies in the United States. He answered clearly. She asked him second to reconcile that viewpoint with comments he made about the 14th Amendment years ago—a tough but fair question—and he handled it with ease. Then she pushed the conversation down the road of deportation. It was here where for several minutes she badgered Cruz, a back-and-forth in the middle of which Cruz even noted that she was asking “mainstream media liberal” questions.
“If you have a husband and a wife who are illegal immigrants, and they have two children who are here who are American citizens, would you deport all of them? Would you deport the American citizen children?”
“Megyn, what I’ve said is we should approach immigration in a staged matter,” Cruz answered. “We should start with focusing on areas of bipartisan agreement. Where is there bipartisan agreement? On two major areas. Number one, that we should do everything possible to secure the border and stop illegal immigration. And number two, to improve and streamline legal immigration.”
“That doesn’t sound like an answer,” Kelly cut him off. “Mr. Trump answered that question explicitly last night on ‘The O’Reilly Factor.’ Will you do so now?”
“Well, Megyn, what I’m doing is answering what I think Congress should do,” Cruz answered again. “What Congress should do, and I introduced legislation to do exactly this, triple the Border Patrol. Increase fourfold the fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft to monitor the border, put in place a strong biometric exit/entry system, because 40% of illegal immigration doesn’t come across the border, it’s visa overstays. Put in place a strong E-Verify system. And then this final piece is critical, actually have the federal government enforce the law.”
“Senator, I understand all that, and you’ve outlined your plan, but you’re — unlike you, you’re dodging my question,” Kelly replied. “You don’t want to answer that question. He says he would.”
After some more back and forth, Cruz then laid out how the question Kelly asked is one that liberals push.
“Megyn, I get that that’s the question you want to ask, that’s also the question every mainstream media liberal journalist wants to ask,” Cruz told her.
Kelly asked if the question was “unfair,” to which Cruz replied it is “a distraction from how we actually solve the problem. You know, it’s also the question Barack Obama wants to focus on.”
Kelly, ever persistent, then asked Cruz why it was “so hard” for him to “just say yes or no.”
Throughout the day Wednesday, Kelly faced another round of hits for the Cruz confrontation—and she has started to wither under the pressure. Grassroots GOP voters agreed with Cruz that Kelly framed her questioning to reinforce the liberal and GOP establishment narrative that the opponents of amnesty want to sweep through the barrios, kick down doors, and haul people away at night–thus raising the specter of a totalitarian regime, which Univision’s Jorge Ramos would reinforce in his interview with Kelly that evening.
During Kelly’s show on Tuesday night, Trump was in Iowa fighting with Ramos—the incident in which Trump’s team escorted him out of a press conference for being unruly then let him back in after he agreed to play by the rules. On Wednesday night, Kelly hosted Ramos on her program. After playing a video of the exchange for her viewers, she asked Ramos a question she knows the answer to: “What is it like to be caught in the crosshairs of a billionaire presidential frontrunner?”
“Well you know it feels,” Ramos said before offering his condolences to the victims of the Virginia shooting.
“You the only thing I wanted to do is to ask a question,” Ramos continued.
Many weeks ago, I requested an interview with Mr. Donald Trump. I sent him a handwritten note with my cell phone. Instead of returning our phone calls or calling me, he published it online. He just didn’t want to give me an answer. However, there are many questions that we have on Mr. Donald Trump. How is he going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants? How is he going to deny citizenship for the children of those immigrants here? How is he going to build a 1,900-mile wall? So we needed answers, so we decided to go to Iowa, go to a press conference and ask those questions. And clearly Donald Trump didn’t like my questions and that’s what happened. He tried to silence me and in this country you cannot do that. I’m a U.S. citizen, I’m an immigrant, I’m a reporter and I have the right in this country to ask any question I want to whomever I want.
“What he said was—he was suggesting you were looking for a confrontation, that you were rude to the other reporters in the room because you didn’t wait your turn,” Kelly asked Ramos in a follow-up.
“No, I followed my turn,” Ramos responded. “Two reporters before me asked their questions and then I said I have a question on immigration and nobody else said anything. He was ready to listen to my question, and as soon as I started telling him that it was impossible—his immigration plan is full of empty promises—that it is impossible to do what he is saying what he is going to do, he didn’t like the question, then he called on another reporter trying to make sure that he would stop and he told me to sit down.”
That statement from Ramos—the video from the press conference shows—is demonstrably false. Trump had been set to call on another reporter in the front row, and while Ramos had been yelling out his question, Trump was never “ready to listen to” Ramos’ question. The sequence Ramos suggested on Kelly’s program that things happened in was also wrong. Trump told him to sit down before he even started coming out with his question. Kelly did not press him on any of his inconsistencies in her interview with him.
“Let me ask you this—clearly he’s not a fan of yours,” Kelly followed up with Ramos before Ramos cut back across her.
“I followed the rules and he just didn’t like the question,” Ramos said.
“Right, it’s not unusual for a reporter to jump up and start questioning,” Kelly defended Ramos’ behavior.
Again, that is not what Ramos did. Trump had specifically called on a separate reporter, and that’s when Ramos—something that is not normal press conference etiquette—kept shouting his question anyway. Ramos took what’s normal press conference etiquette above and beyond what’s acceptable behavior.
“It’s not unusual for a reporter to do what you did,” Kelly said to Ramos, nonetheless.
“However, let me ask you this, because he clearly is not a fan of yours and of Univision’s,” she continued.
“Neither of yours,” Ramos gestured back at Kelly. She smirked, before asking a question of Ramos that she could probably have posed to herself.
“So in his defense, why would he want to engage with you when you are on the record calling him the most hateful, divisive figure running for president right now?” Kelly asked Ramos.
In his answer, Ramos accuses Trump of being like a dictator—and Kelly let him use her program to do it. She didn’t interrupt to ask one follow-up question about that.
“Well, because, what he supports are dangerous and his views are extreme when it comes to immigration and when it comes to freedom of the press,” Ramos—a supposed newsman—bashed Trump. “I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and I’ve never been ejected from any press conference anywhere in the world. Those are the things that you see in dictatorships not in the United States of America. And it’s very important that he answers the questions—he hasn’t answered the questions.”
After some more back-and-forth where Kelly noted that Trump is suing Univision for canceling his Miss Universe broadcast contract and that an executive from Univision compared Trump to Charleston, SC murderer Dylann Storm Roof, Kelly asked Ramos another question she could have posed to herself. “Do you understand Trump’s side of it, which is: ‘This is not the outlet I want to take these questions from because their mind is made up about me?’” Kelly asked.
The whole episode has left Kelly exposed—she probably didn’t intend to expose herself like this—which means Trump has inadvertently won the war with her. What remains on the horizon, however, is a bigger war that’s brewing between Fox News—and the network’s backers, including Rupert Murdoch and his sons—and Trump.
Murdoch’s ideology is one directly opposed to what Trump believes, especially when it comes to the issues of trade and immigration. As the 2016 election cycle progresses, with one of its best players in Kelly on intellectual battlefield sidelines—she’ll keep hosting her program and getting high ratings, but she’s forever lost the claim to impartiality thanks to Trump—the Fox News Channel is likely going to escalate, on behalf of the Murdochs’ worldview on immigration and trade, the war with Trump. It’s worth noting, though, that Ailes and Trump are friends and mutual admirers so this seemingly inevitable war may yet be averted. There are also many other personalities at Fox friendly with Trump, so it may not escalate further. What happens next remains to be seen.