When Fox News star Megyn Kelly climbs back in the saddle Monday night—ending a scheduled 10-day vacation with her husband and three kids that prompted wacky conspiracy theories, social-media insults, paparazzi invasions, and even the odd death threat arising from the now-infamous Republican candidate debate—the craftiest thing she could do is invite Donald Trump.
It’s probably not going to happen instantly—feelings in both the Trump and Fox News camps still seem a little raw. Indeed, the aspiring commander in chief was still nursing a grudge on Monday evening, unable to resist tweeting to his followers: "I liked The Kelly File much better without @megynkelly. Perhaps she could take another eleven day unscheduled vacation!”
Never mind that there could be no Kelly File without its host and her holiday had been on Fox’s internal books since early July. Tuning in to play television critic, Trump also tweeted that Kelly "must have had a terrible vacation, she is really off her game. Was afraid to confront Dr. Cornel West. No clue on immigration!"
But if the combatants could suck it up, an on-camera encounter would surely make for riveting television, and a win-win-win for viewers, The Donald, and Kelly.
For one thing, it would demonstrate her savvy and professionalism in hosting the GOP front-runner on her 9 p.m. program The Kelly File—letting the media-political complex know that, per all those Godfather movies, it was business, not personal, when she dared to ask the reality show mogul to account for the torrent of misogynistic blather that had spewed over the years from his very own mouth.
It would also suggest that aspiring President Trump, for all his post-debate whining about the tough questions he was forced to field—to say nothing of his childish crack to CNN’s Don Lemon that many interpreted as a none-too-veiled reference to Kelly’s hormones—is a grownup of sorts who can play in the political NFL.
For another thing, it would—in the muggy doldrums of August, not traditionally a month for must-see TV—be a ratings bonanza, reasserting Kelly’s primacy in Fox News’s prime-time lineup.
Given the surprisingly ugly feedback from some viewers in the cable channel’s conservative base, will Kelly feel any pressure to go easy on Trump—or, for that matter, any of his Republican rivals? I doubt it.
A combative former litigator for a white-shoe Washington law firm, Kelly may or may not be as sympathetic to the Republican agenda as some of her on-air colleagues, but that hasn’t prevented her from skewering Karl Rove and Dick Cheney in a couple of notable close encounters.
Kelly has certainly betrayed no public signs of being intimidated—even though the nasty ad hominem attacks on Twitter and elsewhere couldn’t have been pleasant.
As she declared on her show the Monday after the August 6 debate, “I certainly will not apologize for doing good journalism…This is a tough business, and it’s time now to move forward.”
Nobody—least of all me—needs to tell Kelly’s boss and mentor, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, what makes for compelling showmanship, especially in the political sphere.
It was Ailes, let’s not forget, who, as George H.W. Bush’s media consultant, orchestrated the rhetorical roundhouse punch at Dan Rather during the 1988 campaign.
The then-CBS anchorman tried to nail the vice president on the Iran-Contra scandal, and Bush struck back (prompted by Ailes) with a brutal reference to Rather’s on-air tantrum and walk-out from the Evening News set—leaving seven minutes of dead air—because of an overlong tennis match.
Surely the famously pugnacious Ailes could offer some helpful pointers to Kelly for a Trump back-and-forth.
For similar reasons, I am skeptical of various accounts—notably Trump’s —that imply that Ailes has been especially conciliatory toward the front-runner in the aftermath of the dustup with Kelly.
Or—as per one intriguing scenario advanced by a source at a rival cable outlet—that Ailes has essentially surrendered to the real estate billionaire, allowing Trump to call the tune in his relationship with Fox News.
My experience with Ailes—over nearly three decades of covering him—is that he is fiercely protective of his marquee talent, whether political candidate or television personality, and he’d hardly be bent over a barrel by the likes of Donald Trump.
Indeed, years ago, after one of his paying clients, then-New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato, snapped at an Ailes employee during a strategy session in a Manhattan skyscraper, Ailes asked the senator: “Can you fly?”
“No. Why?” D’Amato replied.
“Because if you do that again, I’m going to throw you out of that window.”
It certainly wasn’t an olive branch when Fox News released a statement defending Kelly and slamming Trump and his supporters for spouting “the downright bizarre” and “wildly irresponsible” conspiracy theories concerning her now-concluded vacation.
“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,” the statement continued. “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.”
So, now that the air is properly cleared, let’s have the Kelly-Trump cage match.