"Hi! How ya doin'?"
That was how Megyn Kelly greeted Donald Trump at Thursday night's Republican presidential debate. The Fox News anchor and the GOP frontrunner hadn't encountered each other since their notorious clash way back in August of last year. (Yes, think about how long ago that was and weep.) Their reunion came midway through the debate. Things felt like they had somewhat recovered from the segment about Trump's penis size—which was so surreal that it virtually obliterated the next half hour from the collective consciousness—and Kelly looked like she was ready to get into it with her former tormentor. She promptly did.
Here's where I add the normal Kelly caveats: She can stir up a lot of nasty, racist stuff when she feels like it. But she takes her role as one of the vetters-in-chief for the Republican establishment very seriously, and she makes sure that she does her homework when she decides she's going to go for blood. Judging from her handling of Trump, she was hungry.
If Fox News has cooled on Marco Rubio, it certainly hasn't appeared to have warmed completely to Trump—or, at least, Kelly hasn't. Her questioning of him started soft but she soon began to deploy the prosecutorial ruthlessness she's become known for at the debates. In one extraordinarily lengthy section, she used a deadly video montage to point out Trump's propensity for lying—"What is [your] core?" she wondered aloud—and practically seized the debate away from Marco Rubio to grill Trump about his failed Trump University scam. "Stand by!" she kept shouting at Rubio as he tried to get a word in. Clearly, Kelly wanted to handle Trump herself. She even posted a quote all-but-directly referring to him as a con artist, one of Rubio's favorite recent anti-Trump lines.
Trump floundered predictably in the face of Kelly's relentlessness, but you could practically see him telling himself to keep his calm. After the debate was over, he told Bill O'Reilly that the questions had been "tough but fair," a far cry from the hissy fit he threw the last time she went after him.
If only the Fox News appetite for doggedness had extended to matters beyond Trumpland. In a fairly appalling demonstration of the network's priorities, the moderators devoted little over a minute to the water crisis in Flint—this at a debate being held in Michigan. They also managed to ask questions about "religious liberty" that focused entirely on what they called "gay marriage dissenters," instead of, say, persecuted Muslims. Alas, it was probably naive to suppose anything different would have happened.
Since Fox News is as much a political project as a journalistic one, we must judge whether or not it succeeded in the mission it had for the debate. The problem is, it's completely unclear what that mission was. New York's Gabriel Sherman reported earlier this week that, having decided Rubio can't cut it, the network is floundering around for a candidate to back. That indecisiveness was fully on display on Thursday. Straight after the debate, Trump, the man who Kelly had so clearly tried to take down, was being feted by Kelly's great Fox News rival, Bill O'Reilly. Once again, he'd managed to pull out a kind of victory.