Donald Trump, the Republican 2024 frontrunner and quadruply indicted former president, will show up during Wednesday night’s GOP presidential primary debate—but there’s a catch.
Despite the twice-impeached ex-president very publicly skipping the debate and looking to upstage Fox News with a pre-taped Twitter interview with fired Fox star Tucker Carlson, the network still plans for Trump to have a heavy (non-physical) presence at the event.
“If he’s not there, he’ll still be there,” Bret Baier, the debate’s co-moderator, told Politico last week. “There may be sound bites, there may be elements where ‘this is what the leader of the primary says about this issue.’ He’ll be there, even if he’s not there.”
Indeed, multiple people familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that the network has committed to a plan to “beam Trump in” by playing clips of him throughout the debate and having the candidates respond. The move partly satisfies the network’s need for an active, lively debate with the frontrunner somehow involved, as well as its post-2020 core operating principle to “respect the audience”—in particular, the MAGA base that craves all things Trump. But it would also satisfy Fox’s desire to effectively counter-program the Carlson interview.
The ex-president’s sitdown with Carlson was taped last week at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey golf club. Their chat will run for two hours, which is also the expected length of Fox’s debate. “MY INTERVIEW WITH TUCKER CARLSON WILL BE AIRED TONIGHT AT 9:00 P.M. ‘SPARKS WILL FLY.’ ENJOY!” Trump bellowed in a quintessentially all-caps Truth Social post on Wednesday morning.
According to people familiar with the interview, their friendly chat will feature no explicitly tough questions or contentious moments—just two ideologically aligned men looking to exact revenge on Fox and its debate. Sources with knowledge of the chat said the pair bonded over their shared hatred of Fox founder Rupert Murdoch, though not on camera. Much of the interview will center around foreign policy and Ukraine.
While Trump’s physical presence on the debate stage would have undoubtedly provided the massive ratings bonanza that Fox desires, in the end, people familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast, the network had multiple contingency plans in the event he bailed. Although management is not surprised by his decision, they are still “pissed,” sources said.
Fox News declined to comment.
Trump had strongly suggested for months that he wouldn’t show up to the first primary debate, citing his massive polling lead in the Republican primary, which only seems to grow with each additional criminal indictment. Furthermore, his growing animosity towards Fox over the network’s perceived lack of loyalty was also a significant factor.
In fact, just before publicly confirming he would not show up in Milwaukee, Trump fumed that his longtime favorite morning show Fox & Friends was showing the “worst pictures” of him, “especially the big ‘orange’ one with my chin way back.” Trump has also repeatedly complained that the right-wing network has turned on him, especially as it seeks to find a Trump alternative to boost among the crowded GOP field. Murdoch has reportedly encouraged Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to jump in the race, and the channel was seemingly all-in on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis before throwing its weight behind “anti-woke” entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Multiple people familiar with the situation tell The Daily Beast, however, that Trump’s mind was made up earlier this month after Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and President Jay Wallace dropped in for dinner at Bedminster as part of a full-court press to convince Trump to participate in the debate. Following that visit, the ex-president decided he didn’t need the conservative cable giant.
While Trump and Carlson had informally discussed for months the idea of competing with the Fox News debate with their own event, the conversation only became serious after the dinner with Scott and Wallace. The Washington Post first reported that the interview needed to be filmed last Wednesday because the ex-Fox host would be in Europe this week to interview Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban.
“Trump did not want it to become public that he had taped the interview and instructed his team to keep it a secret, advisers said,” the Post reported. “Trump’s team tried to keep signaling he might still attend the Fox debate, with aides refusing to confirm he was considering sitting for a Carlson interview that he had already recorded. Even then, he kept polling people on whether he should attend the debate.”
Carlson, like Trump, has publicly and privately feuded with Fox News for months now. Once the top-rated host in all of cable news, Carlson was shockingly ousted just days after the right-wing channel settled Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit for nearly $800 million. At the same time, though, Fox will not release Carlson from his contract and has accused him of breaching the terms of his employment by launching his show on Twitter, the social app now branded as X.
With Trump essentially slapping Fox News in the face with his Carlson sitdown, the network is making sure that the ex-president’s presence will still be largely felt on its airwaves Wednesday night.
All along, Fox has been going into the debate with two plans in place—one featuring Trump attending, and one with him not showing up. Trump stringing them along, even after he’d already made up his mind earlier this month to ditch the debate, led Fox to keep the contingencies in place until basically the last minute.
According to one well-placed Fox News insider, the network had been working “overtime” recently to make sure the prevailing story around this debate isn’t that the network failed to get Trump, even though that appears to be the dominating narrative surrounding the event.
“They’re panicked. And tried everything they could to get him to attend. But obviously, it didn’t work,” the source added. “Their assumption is the ratings will be fine, but nowhere near where they would be if Trump was there.”