The most remarkable development in a wild political season isn’t that Donald Trump is still leading in the polls. It’s that he got in a fight with right-wing media titan Fox News – and he seems to be winning, against all predictions.
Trump has survived brawls that would have killed other candidates, but his Fox feud was supposed to be different. He was supposed to be hurt by calling undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “immigrants” in his campaign kickoff. He wasn’t. It cost him money, but gained him GOP supporters. There was widespread conviction that Trump would pay for attacking Sen. John McCain’s war record; the Washington Post’s Dan Balz suggested it could be Trump’s “Waterloo.” (I publicly said it wouldn’t be.) It wasn’t.
But there was near-consensus that Trump couldn’t win a battle with Fox News, in the wake of his contentious debate performance on the network Thursday night. Trump immediately began battering the Fox hosts, particularly Megyn Kelly, and complaining about his treatment. It seemed a dangerous move. “Donald Trump won’t win a war against Fox News,” Fivethirtyeight.com’s Nate Silver predicted. To be honest, this time I wasn’t sure.
But it looks like Silver was wrong, too. Not only has Trump remained at the top of the polls in the wake of his debate performance and Fox feud, that feud is over – and Fox’s Roger Ailes waved the white flag.
It’s astonishing. Trump’s attacks on Megyn Kelly got increasingly vile over the weekend, as he implied she was tough on him because she was menstruating and again suggested she was a “bimbo” (he told NBC “you can make that case.”) But the feedback to Fox from Trump’s supporters was overwhelmingly hostile, and that made Ailes scurry to defend not his marquee anchor, but the bully who insulted her.
While Trump’s comment about Kelly having “blood coming out of her wherever” dominated other networks, and led far-right Erick Erickson (a Fox contributor) to disinvite the conservative favorite from his Red State gathering, Fox only mentioned the controversy once over the weekend – on the order of Ailes, according to the always reliable Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine.
On Monday Sherman reported that Ailes called Trump, after the GOP frontrunner spent the weekend bashing Fox on other networks (including MSNBC) while the Fox audience besieged Ailes with complaints. “Roger was not happy. Most of the Fox viewers were taking Trump’s side,” a Fox source told Sherman. Trump also told Sean Hannity that he’d never appear on the network again – after he’d delivered an audience of 24 million on debate night.
It’s a rare occurrence, but I can see Trump’s side on this one. Fox thinks it made him, and thought it could bring him down (Mike Tomasky showed that the moderators were indeed tougher on Trump than any other candidate that night.) Clearly, Fox was wrong – the network needs Trump at least as much if not more than he needs it.
So Trump and Ailes kissed and made up. Typically, Trump announced it in a Tweet:
In a later statement, Ailes tried to spin the conversation as having involved a defense of Kelly:
"We discussed our concerns, and I again expressed my confidence in Megyn Kelly. She is a brilliant journalist and I support her 100%. I assured him that we will continue to cover this campaign with fairness & balance. We had a blunt but cordial conversation and the air has been cleared."
Indeed. Right after the phone call, Trump and Fox announced he’d start Tuesday with "Fox & Friends," and end the day with Sean Hannity. There remained the question of what Kelly would say about the mess on her show Monday night. But she barely touched it. She “decided not to respond” to the personal attacks, she told viewers, though she added “I certainly won’t apologize for doing good journalism.” Then she went back to “good journalism,” which involved having disgraced former Los Angeles homicide detective Mark Fuhrman on to discuss the unrest in Ferguson.
All’s right with the Fox world. Trump joined "Fox & Friends" this morning, where not a word was mentioned about his attacks on Kelly. On CNN, Trump called Ailes "an amazing guy and an amazing executive" and a "very good friend of mine." He went on: "I have no problems" with Fox.
Why should he? He won.