Donald Trump will not be appearing at Wednesday night’s GOP presidential primary debate, but his presence will nevertheless be strong. While other candidates may try to avoid talking about the current Republican frontrunner—preferring to talk about their own strengths instead—Fox News will nevertheless keep the former president very much on center stage:
Indeed, multiple people familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that the network has committed to a plan to “beam Trump in” by playing clips of him throughout the debate and having the candidates respond. The move partly satisfies the network’s need for an active, lively debate with the frontrunner somehow involved, as well as its post-2020 core operating principle to “respect the audience”—in particular, the MAGA base that craves all things Trump. But it would also satisfy Fox’s desire to effectively counter-program the Carlson interview.
As we’ve reported, Trump feels his poll numbers are so strong that he has nothing to gain by appearing on the debate stage, and instead has chosen to sit for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. That interview will be released on X (formerly Twitter) at 8:55 PM EST, just five minutes before Republicans take the stage in Milwaukee at 9 PM EST.
As my colleague Brandon Morse reported, Tucker released a teaser video Wednesday:
Here’s what’s happening at 8:55pm ET. pic.twitter.com/UZcgSnv6Nm
— Tucker Carlson (@TuckerCarlson) August 23, 2023
“Whatever you think of Trump, he is, as of tonight, the indisputable far-and-away frontrunner in the Republican race. We think voters have an interest in what he thinks,” Tucker said. He also boasted that Trump would garner “a far larger audience than he would receive on cable news,” a clear shot at Carlson’s former employer.
Fox has been preparing for the eventuality that Trump might not attend:
While Trump’s physical presence on the debate stage would have undoubtedly provided the massive ratings bonanza that Fox desires, in the end, people familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast, the network had multiple contingency plans in the event he bailed. Although management is not surprised by his decision, they are still “pissed,” sources said.
Even though Trump feels the network has not been loyal to him, and there have been reports that News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch soured on Trump after Jan. 6, the network still covets the viewership he would draw:
With Trump essentially slapping Fox News in the face with his Carlson sitdown, the network is making sure that the ex-president’s presence will still be largely felt on its airwaves Wednesday night.
All along, Fox has been going into the debate with two plans in place—one featuring Trump attending, and one with him not showing up. Trump stringing them along, even after he’d already made up his mind earlier this month to ditch the debate, led Fox to keep the contingencies in place until basically the last minute.
Despite their efforts, though, Fox will sorely miss the ratings that Trump would have brought.
“They’re panicked. And tried everything they could to get him to attend. But obviously, it didn’t work,” the source added. “Their assumption is the ratings will be fine, but nowhere near where they would be if Trump was there.”
Even though the former president won’t be there in Milwaukee in person on Wednesday, he will dominate the evening.