Donald Trump and Bill O'Reilly have a complicated relationship involving tough questions, baseball games and milkshakes. But things got uncomfortably testy — even by their standards — during an interview immediately following Thursday's Republican presidential debate in Detroit, when Trump suggested that the Fox News Channel host should seek the counsel of a mental health professional.
O'Reilly began by observing that the GOP front-runner looked "tired" — an appraisal Trump rejected — then followed with rapid-fire questions about a speech delivered earlier in the day by Mitt Romney, who excoriated Trump as a candidate, businessman and person. Trump seemed to take the inquiries in stride, at first, before suddenly veering into a passive-aggressive attack.
TRUMP: You've become very negative, I do think.
O'REILLY: Me? Why? Why would I do that?
TRUMP: I don't know. Who knows? You'll have to ask your psychiatrist. But I think you've become very negative.
O'REILLY: Toward you?
Trump avoided eye contact throughout the exchange and seemed to catch O'Reilly off-guard. Trump tried to break the tension by bringing his wife, Melania, into the conversation, but O'Reilly was determined to figure out what was bothering his interview subject.
O'REILLY: I want to get back to this. I think I've been very fair to you — very fair.
TRUMP: You've been fair, but I think you get a little bit carried away with yourself, frankly.
O'REILLY: You wanna give me an example?
TRUMP: No, I'm not gonna give you an example.
O'REILLY: Come on.
TRUMP: It's not worth it. We just a finished a debate, which I hear I just won, based on all of the polls. I've won a lot of debates. But I really had a good time tonight.
O'REILLY: All right.
O'Reilly then moved on to the prospect of an independent run. But as he closed the interview, O'Reilly — still seemingly surprised by Trump's sour mood — made a final request: "If I'm being unfair, you come on and tell me; you give it to me, man."
It sure looked like Trump's coldness bothered O'Reilly more than anything else — like he could deal with the candidate's anger but hated the thought that Trump might not even come on his show to express it.
Later, after interviewing the three other Republican candidates, O'Reilly delivered a special message to his viewers.
O'REILLY: My job here is to be fair — to be fair to all the candidates, not to root for anyone. There's too much rooting, particularly on cable news. All right? There's a lot of deals made. "Come on my show. I'll do this, say that, I'll say this." We never do that — ever do that. Some guys are mad at me tonight. They'll be mad at me next week. I can't help it. What I have to do to you is to show you who the candidates are. ... Anyway, we appreciate you — our ratings [are] through the roof. We appreciate you guys watching us every night. We hope you got something out of the debate. It's done very well by Fox News. And we really appreciate you watching the "Factor" live from Detroit, Mich., tonight. Have a good evening. We'll see you soon.
It was as if O'Reilly wanted to be sure that all the Trump fans in his audience don't turn on him — that they understand he has a job to do and is looking out for them. It was actually a Trump-like argument, in the sense that O'Reilly cast himself as something of an outsider who doesn't play the typical cable news game.
O'Reilly was wildly successful long before Trump ran for president, so it's probably an exaggeration to say that he needs the former reality star. But there's no denying that O'Reilly's uncommon rapport with Trump has been a valuable asset during the campaign. Though he has been hard on Trump, at times — such as when he blasted the real estate mogul's plan to block all Muslims from entering the United States — he clearly has Trump's respect. Or at least he did before Thursday's acrimony.
When Trump briefly boycotted Fox News in September, he ended the hiatus by appearing on "The O'Reilly Factor." And in January, when Trump announced he would skip a Fox News debate, he nevertheless kept a commitment to be a guest on O'Reilly's show.
That's the kind of access no host would want to lose.