Round Two of Donald Trump vs. Megyn Kelly turned out to be not much of a fight. During the prime-time debate Thursday night, Kelly landed a series of blows that seemed to leave the GOP’s front-runner reeling.
The candidate and the cable news host he seems to love to hate mixed it up for a second time since August at the Republican debate in Detroit. This time, Kelly put the party’s front-runner on the defensive with tough questioning about his failed for-profit school, Trump University, and by airing a series of video clips in which Trump made contradictory statements about accepting Syrian refugees, the war in Afghanistan and President George W. Bush’s record on the Iraq War.
“How is this telling like it is?” asked Kelly, the co-moderator at the event, after showing Trump on both sides of the issues — in one instance, as Kelly noted, in the course of a single day.
It was, in some respects, almost a payback performance by Kelly, whom Trump has savaged since the first Republican debate during the summer. In that encounter, Trump objected to Kelly’s opening question about his history of making disparaging comments about women. He later suggested that Kelly was biased and angry: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her — wherever,” he said, in a comment many interpreted as vulgar and sexist.
Trump then began a long campaign of taunting Kelly on Twitter, calling her “a lightweight reporter,” “so average in every way,” and suggesting she was “a bimbo.”
Kelly has remained professional throughout Trump’s attacks on her, generally refusing to respond at all. The pair haven’t spoken since the first debate; he has appeared on several Fox News programs since then but not her prime-time program.
On Thursday, Kelly, who is an attorney, came prepared to challenge Trump with a series of nearly prosecutorial questions and factual statements that countered Trump’s assertions.
At one point it appeared that the debate was between Kelly and Trump, not among Trump and rivals Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
When Trump argued that the Better Business Bureau had given Trump University an “A” rating for its business practices, the Fox host pointed out that its last rating — in 2010 — was “a D-minus” as a result of numerous complaints from former students.
“Let’s bring the viewers up to speed,” said Kelly over Trump’s objections. “Let me set the record, then you guys can have at it. Trump University, a business that you started, was marketed to many people, and now there is a class-action [lawsuit] of over 5,000 plaintiffs against you, Mr. Trump.”
When Trump countered that the lead plaintiff was abandoning the suit, Kelly fought back.
“Okay, stand by,” she said. “What happened in that case was you countersued her. The court threw out your countersuit, made you pay her legal fees.”
Once more, Trump attempted to object, but Kelly kept at it. “Stand by,” she ordered again. “This is what the court of appeals found. They said the plaintiffs against you are like the Madoff victims,” a reference to convicted financial felon Bernard Madoff.
Fox News then cut to a screen shot of the U.S. appeals court ruling, with a quote reading, “victims of con artists sing the praises of their victimizers until they realize they have been fleeced.”
The Detroit debate was supposed to be the third encounter between Kelly and Trump, but the second meeting never happened. The billionaire businessman boycotted the last Fox News-sponsored Republican debate a few days before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. Trump objected to having Kelly as a moderator and walked away after Fox issued what he deemed to be disrespectful comments defending her participation.
Trump’s absence from that event seemed to hurt Fox. The Iowa forum, sans Trump, attracted just 12.5 million viewers, or only about half the 24 million who tuned in to see Trump and Kelly in the August debate. The August event was the highest-rated primary debate ever.
Trump greeted Kelly pleasantly when Thursday’s debate began, saying, “You’re looking well tonight” when she addressed him for the first time. There was no mention of the earlier unpleasantness between the candidate and the journalist, or Trump’s on-again, off-again feud with Fox News.
But Kelly seemed to succeed in rattling the hyper-confident Trump later in the evening when she rolled out the video clips of Trump’s contradictory comments — the kind of package that Fox News deployed against Rubio and Cruz in the January debate that Trump skipped.
In response, Trump said he likes to be “flexible” and is willing to change his mind in the face of new facts.
Kelly offered a withering retort: “You change your tune on so many things. People are saying, what is his true core?”
“I have never seen a successful person who didn’t have a certain degree of flexibility,” Trump responded. “You have to be flexible because you learn.”
On the issue of accepting Syrian refugees, for example, he said he changed his position because “the number had increased significantly.” Trump has advocated a complete ban on immigration to the United States by Muslims.
But Trump’s response opened him up to an attack from Rubio. “There’s a difference between flexibility and saying whatever you want to get [people] to do what you want,” Rubio said.