Donald Trump is obsessed with being in control.
He picks and chooses which journalists get interviews, often calling into news shows so that it is easier for him to talk through follow-up questions. All but two of his top campaign aides are forbidden to talk to the media, a rule that is strictly enforced. And he seems to relish throwing liberal protesters out of his private rallies.
At every turn, the GOP presidential front-runner tries to be the top boss. He rarely puts himself in situations where he is not in control — and Thursday night’s Republican debate in Des Moines was shaping up that way. So he backed out, sending Fox News Channel into a frenzy and putting him in control of the conversation again. Trump once again became the boss.
His staff members are hastily throwing together a Thursday night rally in Des Moines that could overshadow a major debate in the works for months. His devoted followers have promised to boycott Fox News, hurting ratings to support their candidate.
Trump has been threatening to do something like this for months, while negotiating for as much control as he can get. Unlike many of his rivals, some of whom are just grateful to still be on the main stage, Trump has been credited with bringing millions of new viewers to the GOP debates — and he has coyly suggested he should be compensated for that.
The first GOP debate in Cleveland in August was revealing: Trump was dramatically late. On stage, he was unpredictable and bombastic, to the delight of many viewers. And afterward, he and his supporters ripped apart moderator Megyn Kelly for the questions she asked.
With each debate, Trump seemed to angle for more control, even taking credit for reducing the length of a debate in late October from three hours to two. Everything is negotiable, he likes to say.
On Tuesday night, Trump walked away from negotiating with Fox News. Sure, it is a risky move, as his rivals are already trying to brand him as a coward. Fox News does not plan to leave an empty lectern on the stage, but rival campaigns and super PACs are surely dreaming up ways to get that idea across to voters.
Unlike other candidates, Trump does not have to worry about being forgotten. His competing event will be heavily covered by the media. Rather than sharing the stage with several rivals, Trump will dominate the microphone. Rather than having to answer questions about his stances on abortion and other conservative issues, he can talk about whatever he wants.
Trump is powerful because he is popular. He has trained his followers to believe him and only him — not those fact-checkers at PolitiFact, not the “failing” New York Times, the “tax scam” Washington Post or the “ever dwindling Wall Street Journal.” Not the “stupid National Review” or that “sad sack” Glenn Beck, not even the “pathetic” Fox News, long beloved by conservatives.
Trump’s followers are able to finish his sentences for him at rallies (“Who’s going to pay for the wall?” Trump asks, prompting the reply: “Mexico!”) and to shout out the things too politically incorrect for even Trump to say aloud (such as calling President Obama a Muslim). They have dutifully followed Trump’s calls for boycotts of news networks and businesses that have wronged him, even when Trump himself gives in after a few weeks.
Trump even joked last weekend that he has heard he could shoot someone and not lose any support.
Many of Trump’s supporters applauded his decision to skip the debate. They like to see their candidate stick it to an establishment organization and attack Kelly. Campaign staffers and supporters are circulating a video compilation of times that Kelly has reported critically on Trump.
This public spat gives voters a chance to watch the author of “Trump: The Art of the Deal” aggressively negotiate. The latest episode of Trump vs. Fox News reads like a movie script.
Let us start Saturday with the phone call between Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and a Fox News executive as the campaign pushed to have Kelly removed from the debate. The network has accused Lewandowski of threatening Kelly, saying in a statement: “We can’t give in to terrorizations toward any of our employees.”
Lewandowski responded in an interview Wednesday: “I don’t know what that means. I didn’t do anything of the sort.”
Then came the Monday TV interviews, in which Trump said he was “not 100 percent” sure he would participate in the debate, as he was still deciding if he wanted to come face-to-face with a “very biased” moderator: Kelly.
Fox News fired back with a statement that said in part: “We’re very surprised he’s willing to show that much fear about being questioned by Megyn Kelly.”
That irked Trump, who took to Twitter on Tuesday. He posted a poll asking his followers to vote on whether he should participate in the debate. And he filmed an Instagram video in which he says: “Megyn Kelly’s really biased against me. She knows that, I know that, everybody knows that. Do you really think she can be fair at a debate?”
Fox News put out another statement that at first seemed like a prank: “We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”
That was the final straw for Trump, an aide said. Late Tuesday, Trump announced his withdrawal at a news conference and put out a statement that read like an intern taking dictation from the candidate: “Mr. Trump knows when to walk away. . . . Mr. Trump doesn’t play games.”
Trump has left everyone with this cinematic cliffhanger: Will he change his mind and rejoin the debate? Will he host his own show?
Either way, Trump is in control.