Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) went where the Democratic Party is unwilling to tread on Monday, participating in a lengthy town hall interview on Fox News. The questions posed by Fox anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum aimed at poking holes in Sanders’s political rhetoric, but, by the time the event had ended, it was Fox News’s bubble that had been pierced.
Rest assured: The damage was quickly repaired as the network’s programming continued over the course of the evening.
Sanders came prepared to battle both his Democratic primary opponents and his hosts. The first question, posed by a member of the audience, centered on Sanders’s just-released tax returns, showing that his income had crossed the million-dollar mark after the 2016 election. (The person asking that question was a member of the conservative group Turning Point USA.)
“I guess on Fox News you said that it benefited from Trump’s tax bill,” Sanders said to Baier during his response. “Did you tell people I voted against Trump’s tax bill?”
"Sure," Baier replied, "but you did benefit from it."
"But I voted against it," Sanders continued. He noted that Trump had claimed the bill wouldn't benefit the wealthy. "Whether it's me or you are anybody else," he continued, "I think wealthy people and large corporations that are making billions of profits should start paying their fair share of taxes."
"So why not say I'm leading this revolution, I'm not going to take this?" Baier asked a bit later.
“Come on,” Sanders replied. “I pay the taxes that I owe, and by the way, why don’t you get Donald Trump up here and ask him how much he pays in taxes?”
Baier said they would.
“The president, I guess the president watches your network a bit, right?” Sanders then said. “Hey, President Trump, my wife and I just released 10 years. Please do the same. Let the American people know.”
That was the pattern. Baier or MacCallum would ask a question targeting Sanders’s rhetoric, and he would parry. The audience was largely sympathetic to his arguments, leading to an awkward moment when Baier asked whether attendees would be willing to give up their private insurance in favor of a government-run plan — and being greeted with loud cheers.
At times, the hosts seemed to be back on their heels.
“How can you challenge the idea that socialism is bad in the minds of the public?” one audience member asked Sanders.
"You want to ask them, not me," he replied, indicating Baier and MacCallum.
"Is this going to be a constant thing?" Baier replied.
No, Sanders replied: "You ask me fair questions, I will give you fair answers." He noted that Fox "does not necessarily have a great deal of respect in my world, but I thought it was important for me to be here and have a serious discussion about serious issues."
Baier’s next question: “Back on the taxes briefly. When you wrote the book and you made the money, isn’t that the definition of capitalism, the American Dream?”
It wasn't, Sanders said.
“What we are fighting for, Bret, is a society not where just a few people can make a whole lot of money but a society where everybody in this country has the opportunity to live in security and dignity,” he said.
Baier later asked whether Sanders’s policies wouldn’t drive up the national debt.
"I think you're asking the wrong guy," Sanders said. "Trump gave a trillion-and-a-half dollar tax break to the top 1 percent and large profitable corporations," he later added, "and I find it so ironic that my Republican colleagues in the Senate talk all the time about the high — the debt. They don't have a word to say about that."
Sanders regularly challenged the basis for the interviewer’s questions, noting out at one point that he had not advocated a higher marginal tax rate on the wealthiest Americans of 70 percent. At times he was dismissive, as when MacCallum asked him to respond to criticism that he supported voting rights for felons only because it would help him personally. Each time the hosts tried to trip him up, he seemed to fairly easily sidestep their efforts.
The transcript notes 72 points at which the audience applauded.
At one point, after Sanders criticized Fox and other media outlets for focusing on presidential personalities instead of policies, Baier's patience seemed to run out.
“I do want to say we understand, and we’re very grateful that you’re here,” he said. “We are giving you an hour of substance and talk on our airwaves, so we can get over the Fox thing. If you’re all right with that.”
Sanders later acknowledged his combative approach to the interview.
"I hope I wasn't too hard on you," he said.
"It’s all right," Baier replied. "We can take it."
In a broad sense, that was unquestionably true. After Sanders completed his closing statement, no doubt feeling confident that he had managed to shift the channel’s focus for an hour — justifiably — the heavy machinery of Fox News swung into motion as the network transitioned into MacCallum’s nightly show.
MacCallum interviewed the network's politics editor, Chris Stirewalt. The two discussed the focus of a number of the anchors' questions: How Sanders would pay for his proposals. They agreed that it was a weak spot in his rhetoric.
MacCallum then spoke with two guests, economist Art Laffer and businessman Andy Puzder. Laffer is a prominent voice in conservative economic policy who wrote a book called “Trumponomics” which celebrated Trump’s economic policies. Puzder was briefly nominated for a position in Trump’s Cabinet until questions about domestic violence and his hiring an undocumented housekeeper prompted him to withdraw.
Both Laffer and Puzder were disparaging of Sanders’s arguments.
The next guest? Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law and representative of his reelection campaign. Remember when Baier promised Sanders that they would ask Trump for his tax returns? MacCallum asked Lara Trump.
"Oh, my gosh. We’re back to the tax returns!" she replied. She noted that there was no law requiring that returns be made public, which is true. "His counsel told him he could not release his tax returns. They advised him against it. I think he listened to them, quite smartly. ... The people, in 2016, of this country did not care about it. I don’t think they care about it now."
“It seems to be a good talking point, though, for the Democrats, because Russia was not sticking, as we saw,” she added.
“So no change on that front,” MacCallum replied, laughing. “We’ll report back to Bernie: no change.”
An hour later, Sean Hannity's program began.
"We saw Crazy Bernie on the air tonight," Hannity said. "Whew. That was hard to watch. Bernie Sanders for two hours! Wow. Gee, let's hear every Communist idea we possibly can."
Hannity then transitioned to his standard patter: The Democrats must be held accountable for the Russia investigation.
The Sanders Fox News moment was over.