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Trump’s Fox Politics & a CNN Tickle

Trump concluded that there was no advantage to sharing his spotlight with lesser-known rivals—nor to making himself more legally vulnerable with an errant gaffe. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
August 23, 2023

Over the last several weeks, as Bret Baier was preparing to co-moderate tonight’s Republican primary debate on Fox News, he held multiple calls with Donald Trump to gauge whether or not the G.O.P. frontrunner intended to participate. As The New York Times reported, Baier’s overtures were part of a united effort by network executives and talent to persuade the former president to engage in a forum where he increasingly saw little upside. Fox News C.E.O. Suzanne Scott and president Jay Wallace also traveled to Trump’s private golf club in Bedminster to make their case to the candidate over dinner. In the end, Trump concluded that there was no advantage to sharing his spotlight with lesser-known rivals—nor to making himself more legally vulnerable with an errant gaffe—and instead opted to give a pre-recorded interview to Baier’s old colleague, Tucker Carlson.

In an already chaotic and unconventional campaign season, Trump’s decision has fueled a compelling political-media subplot: Can Fox News maintain its standing as the dominant Republican media ecosystem if the dominant Republican candidate refuses to play ball with them, counterprograms them, and even attacks them on the campaign trail? Eight years ago, Trump’s inaugural Republican primary debate delivered a record-setting 24 million viewers to Fox News. Tonight’s debate was never going to match those numbers, with or without Trump—his novelty has worn off, of course, and the linear market is smaller—but it’s reasonable to assume that his presence, and the fanfare around it, would have delivered an audience at least half as big. Instead, most of the political media insiders I talk to anticipate an audience somewhere around six or seven million, at best.