“We always appreciate you coming on. Thank you,” Bill O’Reilly purred to Donald Trump on Tuesday night—the Republican presidential frontrunner’s first appearance on the Fox News Channel since he was placed at the top of Roger Ailes’s no-book list.
Given the amiable, softball treatment Trump received on The O’Reilly Factor, it’s nearly impossible to believe that only two weeks ago, Fox News Chairman Ailes called him “unacceptable,” “disturbing,” “crude,” and “irresponsible” for his relentless, arguably misogynistic, attacks on Megyn Kelly over her tough, entirely fair questioning during the August 6 GOP debate in Cleveland. (Trump has denied that his crack about “blood coming out of her wherever” was a reference to Kelly’s menstrual cycle—a denial regarded with near-universal disdain inside Fox News.)
But as candidate Trump has amply demonstrated, this is an exceedingly strange election cycle, in which un-poll-tested bombast from a celebrity outsider (or, for that matter, a soft-spoken yet eccentrically briefed retired neurosurgeon) seems more appealing to angry voters than carefully focus-grouped messaging from career politicians.
Hence Trump—a self-avowed “ratings machine” who conspicuously rejected Ailes’s advice that he apologize to the star of 9 p.m.’s The Kelly File, to say nothing of a tweet storm from Kelly’s colleagues demanding that the ungentlemanly candidate lay off—was welcomed back on the channel as though he’d never been banished.
Actually Trump never was banned, since he has been an endless topic of Fox News punditry and chatter. The conservative-leaning network even accorded live coverage to one of his campaign speeches last week, just as he has been a constant presence on every other cable outlet since Ailes drew his now-invisible line in the sand.
Beyond the mere fact of Trump’s 10-minute interview on The Factor—by remote, from the now-familiar lobby of Trump Tower less than 10 blocks from the Fox News studios, with the blue-suited, American flag-pinned, red-tied aspiring commander-in-chief framed by T-shirted tourists hanging out in the background and more of them riding an upward-bound escalator—the news value of the reality TV mogul’s star turn was negligible.
He did, however, seemingly contradict his supposedly hard-eyed anti-immigration stance by suggesting, under interrogation, that he’d be OK with the United States accepting some of the thousands of desperate refugees streaming into Europe out of war-ravaged Syria.
“On a humanitarian basis of what’s happening, you have to,” Trump opined.
When O’Reilly attempted mildly to get some specifics of what a President Trump would have done to prevent the disaster in Syria, the real estate so-called billionaire responded with salesman-like generalities.
“Probably, in retrospect, they...should have done something with Assad,” Trump ventured, then wriggled away from the subject without letting himself be pinned down on what precisely that “something” should have been.
On other issues, Trump expressed happiness that the anti-gay marriage county clerk in Kentucky had been released from jail a few hours earlier but repeated his assertion that she was duty-bound as a government official to follow the Supreme Court ruling and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
He attacked the “Black Lives Matter” movement, saying “they’re looking for trouble,” and twitted former secretary of state Colin Powell for supporting the movement on Sunday’s Meet the Press.
“He’s wrong. He’s totally wrong. All lives matter,” Trump said.
He condemned President Obama’s nuclear containment deal with Iran and offered some bluster about how he’d redo the agreement, using his famous negotiating skills, after attaining the White House.
He re-affirmed his intention to deprive Planned Parenthood of federal funding as long as the women’s health organization performs abortions, and briefly squabbled with O’Reilly over whether he’d ever said the opposite. (Which he certainly did, or at least caused enough confusion to lead folks to believe he had, forcing him to do some post-gaffe cleanup.)
Trump being Trump, he told O’Reilly: “You read the wrong reports, Bill. You have bad researchers. What can I tell you?”
And did O’Reilly stoutly defend his hardworking employees against his guest’s uncouth insult?
“We’ll take care of the people who did that,” the usually obstinate host promised his aggrieved guest.
When it comes to playing the cable news game, The Donald holds most, if not all, of the cards.