Like so many other Donald Trump maneuvers, his withdrawal from Thursday’s Fox News Channel debate is a contradiction. During the last presidential election cycle, he criticized Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann for refusing to participate in a December 2011 debate sponsored by Newsmax that Trump himself planned to moderate.
What’s more, he leveled that criticism during an interview with none other than — wait for it — Megyn Kelly, the Fox News host and debate moderator that Trump now derides and wants removed from the stage in Des Moines before he would participate.
“Not lots of courage,” Trump said of skittish candidates at the time. “You know, these Republicans, they’re supposed to be brave.”
Trump ultimately stepped down as moderator, saying he wanted to reserve the right to enter the race later. He didn’t. But he told Kelly in that interview that he wouldn’t be as good at moderating debates as she is.
“I could never beat you,” Trump said. “That wouldn’t even be close. That would be no contest. You have done a great job, by the way, and I mean that.”
Fox News, which critics often accuse of being in the tank for Republican candidates, has been consistently tough on Trump during the current presidential primary season, even as he dominates polls. Kelly’s opening question to the real estate mogul during the first GOP debate in August marked the beginning of an increasingly tense saga; she rattled off a series of disparaging remarks Trump has directed at women and asked whether he possesses the “temperament” to be president.
Irked by the inquiry, Trump memorably said the next day on CNN that “you could see she had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
Since then, Fox News — and Kelly, in particular — have been in Trump’s crosshairs. On social media, he frequently complains about coverage that he considers unfair. At one point in September, he announced a boycott of all shows on the cable channel; six days later, however, he was a guest on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
And so it went for the next several months, until Trump pulled out of Thursday’s debate. He would gripe about the way Fox News treats him, but he continued to engage with their talent. There appeared to be some kind of awkward agreement that enabled the relationship between candidate and network to function on a basic level.
That accord appears mostly broken — even though Trump did keep his commitment to appear on O’Reilly’s show on Wednesday. But it wasn’t so long ago that Trump, Fox and Kelly seemed downright friendly. And it wasn’t so long ago that Trump seemed to think candidates who duck debates are cowards.