December 7, 2023

On a cool August evening on the crowded patio of his personal membership in New Jersey, former President Donald J. Trump held up his cellphone to his dinner companions.

The Republican front-runner was having dinner with a Fox Information contributor and columnist, Charlie Harm, when a name got here in from one other member of the Fox group. The person on the opposite finish of the road, Mr. Trump was delighted to indicate his visitors, was Bret Baier, one of many two moderators of the primary Republican debate on Wednesday, in line with two folks with data of the decision.

It was Mr. Trump’s second Fox dinner that week. The evening earlier than, he had hosted the Fox Information president, Jay Wallace, and the community’s chief government, Suzanne Scott, who had gone to Bedminster, N.J., hoping to influence Mr. Trump to attend the controversy. Mr. Baier was calling to get a really feel for the previous president’s newest considering.

For months, Fox had been working Mr. Trump privately and publicly. He was retaining them guessing, in his patented petulant means. However whilst he behaved as if he was listening to entreaties, Mr. Trump was continuing with a plan for his personal counterprogramming to the controversy.

The previous president has advised aides that he has made up his thoughts to not take part within the debate and has determined to put up a web based interview with Tucker Carlson that evening as an alternative. The interview with Mr. Carlson has already been taped, in line with an individual with direct data of the occasion.

Upstaging Fox’s largest occasion of the 12 months could be provocation sufficient. However an interview with Mr. Carlson — who was Fox’s top-rated prime-time host and is at struggle with the community, which continues to be paying out his contract — quantities to a slap within the community’s face by Mr. Trump. The choice is a possible supply of aggravation for the Republican Nationwide Committee chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, who privately urged him to attend, together with in her personal go to to Bedminster final month.

However Mr. Trump’s main motive in skipping the controversy shouldn’t be private animosity towards Ms. McDaniel however a crass political calculation: He doesn’t need to threat his large lead in a Republican race that some near him consider he should win to remain out of jail.

However that’s not the one purpose.

Mr. Trump’s relationship with Fox — a long-running saga that has been each profitable and, extra lately, extremely costly for the community — is the opposite situation that looms massive in his fascinated about the controversy, in line with folks aware of the president’s conversations. They spoke on the situation of anonymity as a result of they weren’t approved to talk for the marketing campaign.

His professed hatred of Fox — and the animus he typically privately expresses concerning the chairman of Fox Company, Rupert Murdoch — is blended together with his recognition of Mr. Murdoch’s energy and a grudging acknowledgment that the community can nonetheless have an effect on his picture with Republican voters.

“Why doesn’t Fox and Associates present the entire Polls the place I’m beating Biden, by rather a lot,” Mr. Trump posted on his web site, Reality Social, on Thursday morning, venting concerning the community’s morning present. He added: “Additionally, they purposely present the completely worst photos of me, particularly the large ‘orange’ one with my chin pulled means again. They suppose they’re getting away with one thing, they’re not.”

The Fox group engaged on the controversy has ready two units of plans for Wednesday evening: One for if Mr. Trump reveals up and one other for if he doesn’t. Mr. Baier has spoken to Mr. Trump at the very least 4 instances over the cellphone to make his case. Mr. Trump has defined his reluctance, however all the time left the door open to a late change of plans, in line with the folks aware of the calls.

Fox executives anticipate the viewers for Wednesday’s debate to be decrease than the document 24 million who watched the primary Republican debate in August 2015, even when Mr. Trump reveals up, although his presence would nearly actually increase curiosity.

“President Trump is rankings gold, and everybody acknowledges that,” mentioned Steven Cheung, the Trump marketing campaign’s communications director.

Mr. Trump has tried to make use of his leverage to get friendlier protection. Throughout his dinner with the 2 Fox executives, Mr. Wallace and Ms. Scott, Mr. Trump needled them concerning the community’s protection of him. He advised them he was skeptical that Mr. Murdoch — whom Mr. Trump has recognized for many years — was not dictating the daytime political protection that the previous president discovered egregious.

Mr. Trump, who has typically complained about what he contends is Fox’s glowing protection of Gov. Ron DeSantis, dismissed a latest interview Mr. Baier performed with Mr. DeSantis as “gentle.” Mr. Trump additionally advised the Fox executives he couldn’t consider they’d fired Mr. Carlson.

Mr. Baier, who helped reasonable Mr. Trump’s first-ever political debate in August 2015 and has golfed with him, has an advanced relationship with the previous president.

Mr. Baier, who will co-host Wednesday’s debate with Martha MacCallum, interviewed Mr. Trump in June, an encounter Mr. Trump first known as “honest” however then complained was “unfriendly.” That change of coronary heart got here after information protection identified the hurt Mr. Trump might have brought about himself legally together with his solutions about issues associated to one of many federal circumstances in opposition to him.

A Fox Information spokeswoman, Irena Briganti, mentioned the community “seems to be ahead to internet hosting the primary debate of the Republican presidential main season providing viewers an unmatched alternative to be taught extra concerning the candidates’ positions on quite a lot of points which is crucial to the electoral course of.”

Mr. Trump’s high advisers oppose his participation within the debate to keep away from giving his rivals an opportunity to raise themselves at his expense and shut the large hole between them within the polls.

However till earlier this previous week, Mr. Trump was nonetheless privately toying with the thought of attending. In a single dialog, Mr. Trump had mentioned, “Perhaps I ought to simply go,” in line with an individual with data of the decision.

The previous president has been quizzing confidants recently about whether or not he ought to debate. He has fixated on former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who is anticipated to be his harshest critic on the stage. And he has expressed a very intense disdain for the low-polling former governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, suggesting privately that it could be nearly insulting to share a stage with him, in line with an individual who spoke to Mr. Trump.

Senior members of Mr. Trump’s group — Chris LaCivita, Jason Miller and Mr. Cheung — all plan to attend the controversy. The Trump marketing campaign has organized for outstanding surrogates, together with members of Congress, to go to the “spin room” after the controversy to make Mr. Trump’s case.

However as of Friday, Mr. Trump appeared to have misplaced curiosity in attending the controversy, in line with folks with data of his considering. And he’s now planning to try to upstage the occasion by collaborating within the interview with Mr. Carlson, although the precise timing and on-line platform stay unclear.

Mr. Baier and Ms. MacCallum plan to make Mr. Trump a significant determine within the two-hour program — whether or not he reveals up or not.

The Fox group has ready inquiries to ask Trump rivals about his most up-to-date felony indictment, which was handed down by a grand jury in Georgia. They’re additionally contemplating integrating video of Mr. Trump into their questioning, in line with folks aware of the planning.

The questions will start instantly. Candidates is not going to be allowed to make opening statements. They may, nonetheless, be allotted 45-second closing statements. Every reply will likely be restricted to 1 minute, with a sound like a resort entrance desk’s bell alerting candidates that their time has expired. (Fox has retired the doorbell-like chime it used within the final debates after it despatched some canines into barking matches.)

In contrast to when Mr. Trump skipped a Fox debate in Iowa in January 2016, simply earlier than the caucuses there, Fox has had extra time to arrange for Mr. Trump’s absence.

This 12 months, the Republican Nationwide Committee up to date its guidelines to require candidates to signal a pledge no later than 48 hours earlier than the controversy, together with commitments to help the get together’s nominee no matter who it’s and to not take part in any future debates not sanctioned by the R.N.C.

Mr. Trump has not signed the pledge. R.N.C. officers have advised those that no candidate, together with Mr. Trump, will likely be allowed onstage with out signing it. However Mr. Trump is much from principled on the matter. He has already signed a similar pledge vowing to “usually consider in” and “intend to help the nominees and platform” of the G.O.P. in 2024 so as to qualify for the South Carolina main poll, in line with a celebration official within the state.

In 2016, Fox didn’t know till the final minute doable that he was not going to indicate up. And even as soon as the controversy began, the hosts and producers had been bracing for the chance that he may arrive in the course of the published and demand to be allowed on the stage.

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