Donald Trump is only the latest politician whose thin skin Chris Wallace has managed to excavate, but it’s his Fox News colleague Megyn Kelly who has—so to speak—drawn blood.
Two days before Thursday night’s Fox News-sponsored Republican presidential debate in Iowa, the frontrunner’s campaign manager announced that Trump will be a no-show because of Kelly’s role as a moderator.
Wallace, the host of Fox News Sunday, talked to The Daily Beast about the debate before Tuesday’s developments, when Trump’s participation seemed a sure thing.
Trump has been slamming the prime-time star of The Kelly File periodically since she grilled him about his sexist insults of women during the last Fox News debate in August. “She had blood coming out of her wherever,” he famously said on CNN the next night, a comment many took to be a snide reference to Kelly’s menstrual cycle.
In recent days, the reality television billionaire has been raising the possibility of skipping the final debate before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses if Kelly is there, and Fox News has staunchly insisted that she will be.
Before the Trump campaign’s announcement, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes said in a statement that “Megyn Kelly is an excellent journalist, and the entire network stands behind her. She will absolutely be on the debate stage on Thursday night.”
In words that sounded distinctly Ailesian, the cable outlet then issued a statement mocking the frontrunner: “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. 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.”
When Trump saw the Fox News press release, “I said, ‘Bye bye,’” he recounted, according to The Washington Post. “They’re dealing with someone who’s a little bit different. They can’t toy with me like they toy with everybody else,” he added.
“He’s definitely not participating in the Fox News debate,” Trump operative Corey Lewandowski told The Post on Tuesday after the candidate announced at a press conference that “he probably won’t be doing the debate.”
“His word is his bond,” Lewandowski added, saying that while his rivals are trading barbs on cable television, Trump will instead host a fundraiser for wounded warriors and other veterans organizations.
Late Tuesday night Fox News issued a lengthy response:
“As many of our viewers know, FOX News is hosting a sanctioned debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday night, three days before the first votes of the 2016 election are cast in the Iowa Caucus. Donald Trump is refusing to debate seven of his fellow presidential candidates on stage that night, which is near unprecedented. We’re not sure how Iowans are going to feel about him walking away from them at the last minute, but it should be clear to the American public by now that this is rooted in one thing—Megyn Kelly, whom he has viciously attacked since August and has now spent four days demanding be removed from the debate stage. Capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards, as do threats, including the one leveled by Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski toward Megyn Kelly. In a call on Saturday with a Fox News executive, Lewandowski stated that Megyn had a ‘rough couple of days after that last debate’ and he ‘would hate to have her go through that again.’ Lewandowski was warned not to level any more threats, but he continued to do so. We can’t give in to terrorizations toward any of our employees. Trump is still welcome at Thursday night’s debate and will be treated fairly, just as he has been during his 132 appearances on FOX News & FOX Business, but he can’t dictate the moderators or the questions.”
Wallace—who apparently equaled Kelly, per Trump, in the “blood pouring out of his eyes” department for grilling the reality show billionaire about his business failures during the now-legendary August debate—was looking forward to a second chance in the ring on Thursday with his colleagues Kelly and Bret Baier, the host of the network’s 6 p.m show Special Report.
“You’re only human. You don’t enjoy that,” Wallace told The Daily Beast about his own fractious encounters with various political figures. “On the other hand, if you’re going to be in this game, this is hardball. You’re going to be throwing tough questions at them, and you have to be ready to take tough answers.”
Notably, Wallace confronted an infuriated former president Bill Clinton, who, during a riveting September 2006 skirmish over his failure to take out Osama bin Laden, hectored Wallace: “You got that little smirk on your face. You think you’re so clever.”
Then there was GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who, during an August 2011 debate in Iowa, accused Wallace of “playing Mickey Mouse games,” and even incited the crowd of 3,000 to boo him, after Wallace asked the former speaker of the House, “How do you respond to people who say that your campaign has been a mess so far?”
The night after the Cleveland debate in August, Trump phoned in to CNN anchor Don Lemon’s program—the one on which the candidate made his arguably misogynistic remark about “blood coming out of her [Kelly’s] wherever”—and did his best to demean the 68-year-old Wallace with an invidious comparison to his famous father.
“The great Mike Wallace was a friend of mine,” Trump told Lemon, referring to the 60 Minutes star. “And the son is only a tiny fraction of Mike, believe me. There’s a big difference between Mike Wallace and Chris Wallace, because I watched him last night—you know, blood pouring out of his eyes, too.”
“It’s not personal,” Wallace said, although Trump’s invective sounded uncomfortably personal. “You understand that they’re doing it because they think they’ll win some support. No politician ever got in trouble for attacking a reporter. But does it feel good? Not at the moment it’s happening.”
Wallace—who, unlike Kelly, has normalized relations with the Republican frontrunner, having conducted three Sunday show interviews with him since the great debate—is agnostic on whether Trump’s repeated denials that he was referring to menstruation (denials that are widely disbelieved within Fox News) are to be credited.
“I don’t have a clue,” he said. “I wouldn’t ever presume to try to read Donald Trump’s mind.”
Wallace is more skeptical about Trump’s insistence that, in making fun of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski during a campaign rally in South Carolina, he never intended to mock Kovaleski’s physical disability, a chronic condition called arthrogryposis, which deforms and restricts the movement of his hands and arms.
“I think that’s a harder one to deny,” Wallace said.
Alone among Sunday show anchors, to say nothing of almost everyone else on cable, he has steadfastly refused to allow Trump to phone it in.
“It wasn’t so much that I enforced it, but I was shocked when the other shows suddenly started doing phoners,” Wallace said. “I had never heard of that, to the best of my knowledge, in the long history of Sunday talk shows. I understand why some of my competitors did that. You get a cheap, quick ratings hit by having Donald Trump on, even if it’s a phoner, but I think it kind of devalues the currency…
“The Sunday talk show is the place where you’re supposed to get in-depth, hard-hitting, well-researched interviews, where you see the back and forth between the interviewer and the guest, and you can’t do that if you don’t know whether a politician is in his pajamas or has his talking points in front of him.”
Most of the heat surrounding the upcoming debate, of course, was attached to the media’s expectation—make that hope—of fireworks between the Republican frontrunner and Fox News’s prime-time star, Kelly.
Since her brief on-air statement 5½ months ago defending her debate questions, she has chosen not to respond to the candidate’s occasional swipes—and is perhaps the nation’s only television anchor who has not interviewed the candidate since August. Over the weekend, Trump tweeted: “Based on @MegynKelly’s conflict of interest and bias she should not be allowed to be a moderator of the next debate.”
The network retorted: “Megyn Kelly has no conflict of interest. Donald Trump is just trying to build up the audience for Thursday’s debate, for which we thank him.”
On Monday night Trump doubled down, warning CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he might even skip the debate if Kelly participates—prompting Fox News to respond that politicians don’t get to pick which journalists question them, and that of course Kelly will be front and center.
The notion that a man who aspires to be commander in chief and Leader of the Free World would spend so much time and effort trash-talking a television personality—or, for that matter, that a reality TV star would dominate a presidential nomination race—simply attests to the strange and unpredictable nature of the 2016 campaign.
Trump “has become quite an effective politician,” said Wallace, who has been covering presidential campaigns since 1980 and joined Fox News in 2003 after a career at NBC and ABC. “You can agree with him or not. You can think he’s more of a showman than a serious statesman. But the fact is, in terms of going out on the stump or running a campaign…he’s a very effective politician, and I didn’t quite appreciate that from the start.”
Wallace initially subscribed to the Beltway conventional wisdom that Trump was, at best, a passing fancy. But he began to see him as a credible contender after interviewing him in October.
“I didn’t appreciate his standing with a lot of the American public,” he said. “He really has a very attractive brand for a lot of voters. They see him as a tough guy, a straight shooter, somebody who—even though he’s a millionaire—kind of shares their sense of frustration with politics as usual.”
Wallace said he’s “just as shocked, maybe even more shocked,” by the rise of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Brooklyn-accented Democratic Socialist—and a 74-year-old Jewish guy, to boot—who has been giving Hillary Clinton fits in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“I think it’s a testament to a couple of things,” Wallace said. “Clinton is not the most galvanizing candidate we’ve ever seen. And I think the steady drumbeat of scandals involving the emails and the Clinton Foundation have taken their toll. And the same sense of frustration that’s propelling Trump is also propelling Sanders.
“As we saw in 2008, if people have a choice between change or experience, unless they’re really happy—and they aren’t right now—they are going to choose change. In the Democratic campaign at this moment, Sanders represents change, and she represents experience.”
Back in the last century during the Clinton administration Wallace was close enough to the Clintons’ trusted lawyer, David Kendall, to share family vacations with him (a friendship that apparently has faded over time). Wallace says Hillary Clinton, a ubiquitous presence on the Washington public affairs shows on the other networks, has yet to accept any of his weekly invitations to appear on Fox News Sunday.
“I don’t know, ask Brooklyn,” he said, referring to the location of Clinton’s campaign headquarters, when asked why he believes he’s been spurned (especially since she was happy to appear during the 2008 campaign against Barack Obama).
In contrast to Fox News’s conservative reputation, Wallace is a registered Democrat—a pragmatic choice he made so that his vote would count in the heavily Democratic District of Columbia, where he lives and pays taxes.
That might come as a surprise to President Obama and his minions—about whom Wallace once remarked: “They are the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington.”
While Obama continues to use Fox News as a foil in speeches and interviews, Wallace says relations with the White House have measurably improved since he made his complaint in 2009, when then-White House communications director Anita Dunn had declared a cold war on the cable channel.
“They finally came to their senses and realized we aren’t going anywhere,” he said, noting that administration officials regularly appear on his Sunday show—most recently White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. “Peace has broken out.”
Still, no other media outlet has the clout of Fox when it comes to Republican politics, and Thursday’s debate, even in Trump’s absence, is likely to have a huge impact on the race.
The last Fox News debate attracted a record 24 million viewers—multiples of the audiences for such events in previous presidential election cycles—but Wallace declines to predict whether Thursday’s program will match or even exceed that eye-popping rating.
If Trump is the “ratings machine” he claims to be, Thursday’s viewership could be a lot smaller.
“This is very different from last August,” said Wallace, who has been spending the past couple of weeks honing debate questions with Kelly and Baier. “We get together and kind of mercilessly go over each other’s questions,” he said.
“Last August was the first time all of these candidates were on the stage, so you were really kind of exploring where they on issues, where potential conflicts between those candidates on those issues were, and now we’re right in the heat of the campaign—having a debate that will take place four days before the voting starts in Iowa.”
Unlike in August, when an unwieldy group of 10 candidates took the stage, this one, which airs at 9 p.m., will feature a more manageable six to eight candidates, invited to participate based on an average of national and statewide polls.
“To a certain degree, you’re trying to be a consumer reporter here,” Wallace said about the moderator’s job, “and help voters who are trying to make a choice in Iowa and New Hampshire [whose primary will be held Feb. 9] do some comparison shopping.”