Donald Trump declined to commit to attending the first Republican Party primary debate on Fox News in an interview which aired Tuesday evening, even denouncing the channel as “hostile” during a contentious interview with Bret Baier.
The former president was clearly unhappy with Baier’s unmoving explanation of his 2020 election loss, which the former president has long contested despite having been proven wrong in his countless conspiracies about election fraud and malign activity.
During his discussion with Baier, Mr Trump grew increasingly frustrated as the Fox anchor refused to accept his incorrect version of events and made a potential threat to boycott the first debate — an obvious message to Fox’s executives that he did not want to be challenged on his conspiracies by the network’s reporters.
“[W]hy would I allow a hostile network [to host a debate]?” he said, quipping: “Pretty hostile.”
He also seemed to indicate that he didn’t want to participate in any debates with low-polling candidates.
“Why would I allow a hostile network and then allow people that are polling at zero?” he asked. “Why would I let these people take shots at me?”
The president’s remarks show what a tight space the Fox News network finds itself in. Any attempt by the network’s news side to push back against the former president’s lies and conspiracies about 2020 is met with immediate hostility from the man himself and, more importantly, their millions of viewers. Meanwhile, the network’s opinion side and the respective inability of its various hosts to recognise the consequences of endorsing those lies led to a record settlement in which the network agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to a voting machine company that sued it for defamation.
As such, hosts and journalists on the network find no clear path forward, faced with spiralling ratings in the wake of the firing of star primetime lead (and election denier) Tucker Carlson.
The former president will likely attend most if not all of the Republican debates as he did in 2016, for the simple fact that the alternative is letting his opponents go unchallenged in front of a national audience of GOP voters. In particular, skipping the Fox debate would be a steep price to pay for Mr Trump, given the conservative bent and size of the Fox audience.
He could also throw one or more of his signature counter-rallies during the televised contests, a move that would draw a massive audience of Republicans to him in person in whichever state it was held, though the effectiveness of this tactic has diminished thanks to the rallies being carried live only by a handful of far-right networks. The mainstream channels, having learned lessons from 2016 and 2020, typically cover his rallies in short clips during or after the fact.
The first GOP debate is set to be held on 23 August; as of now, the threshold for participation in the televised event will require contenders to be registering support at 1 per cent or higher in three national polls or two national polls plus one statewide survey. A candidate can also qualify if they have more than 40,000 individual donors to their campaign.
The relatively low threshold for the first contest means that Mr Trump, should he attend, will almost certainly face most if not all of the prominent Republicans running for the nomination, including his former vice president, Mike Pence, and ex-New Jersey Gov Chris Christie.
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