In the 2016 campaign for the White House, former President Donald Trump turned the Republican primary debates into live TV events that attracted record audiences to Fox and CNN.
But like a star walking away from a hit TV show, Trump is skipping the first debate of the 2024 Republican primary season airing Aug. 23 from Milwaukee on Fox News, according to multiple reports.
The New York Times, citing anonymous sources, said Trump could counterprogram the debate by giving an interview with ousted former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. Trump’s campaign has not confirmed that plan.
Trump, who has a wide lead in the polls over his competition for the nomination, has suggested he will not participate in Fox’s telecast.
Fox News has not commented on Trump’s status or whether it might take legal action against Carlson, who is still being paid by the network after being taken off the air on April 24. The network in June sent a cease-and-desist letter to Carlson, saying his online programs on X are a breach of the contract that pays him more than $15 million a year and runs through 2024.
Trump has expressed irritation with coverage of him on Fox News, even though the fealty paid to him by some of its on-air talent led to the network paying a $787.5-million settlement in a defamation suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems.
The voting software company claimed it was damaged by Fox News repeatedly presenting Trump’s false charges of fraud in the 2020 election. Trump has been indicted in federal court and in the state of Georgia for his efforts to overturn the election.
Despite the damaging publicity from the Dominion case, Fox News has maintained its ratings leadership in cable news. The network saw its audience levels slide in the spring after the departure of Carlson, its top-rated star.
But those numbers have climbed back up since the network overhauled its prime-time lineup in July with Jesse Watters taking over Carlson’s 8 p.m. Eastern time slot.
As for the debate, Fox News Washington anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, who will be the moderators in Milwaukee, have known for weeks that Trump might not appear and are prepared to go on without him.
“We are always ready,” Doug Rohrbeck, senior vice president for Washington news and politics for Fox News, said this week in an interview. “We are preparing two different rundowns where we will have two sets of questions. And there’s one with Trump, and then there’s one without Trump.”
Trump will be a major topic of discussion either way among the candidates, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
“He’s an important element to this discussion because he’s the front runner by a mile right now,” MacCallum said in a recent interview. “He’s an elephant in the room whether he’s in the room or not.”
One reason Trump would want to avoid the debate is that his denials of the 2020 election results, which have continued even after the indictments, would get pushback from MacCallum and Baier.
During the postelection period that got Fox News in legal hot water, Baier and MacCallum consistently reported that President Biden had won and did not indulge in the conspiracy theories that commentators presented on the network. Baier’s texts and emails, revealed in the evidence gathered in the Dominion case, showed he was alarmed at the statements of some of his pro-Trump colleagues.
“I don’t think we’re going to go down a rabbit hole relitigating 2020,” said MacCallum of the debate. “I’m not shy about holding people to the facts.”
Even Carlson derided Trump in private in 2020, according to messages revealed by the Dominion case, though he downplayed the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and said the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters was instigated by government agents.
Fox News would stand to benefit from a ratings standpoint if Trump changes his mind and decides to show up. But even if he does, it will be difficult to replicate the record ratings the debates achieved in 2016.
Fox News pulled in a staggering 24 million viewers for the first Republican debate in that campaign cycle, followed by 23 million for the second match-up, which aired on CNN. But that was a different era of television, before streaming and cord-cutting upended the TV business.
When Fox News airs the first 2024 Republican primary debate on Wednesday, it will have 20 million fewer households than it did in 2016. Like every cable network, it has felt the impact of consumers forgoing pay TV subscriptions.
Fox News is accommodating cord-cutters. It will stream the debate on its website and make it available for free, without a pay TV subscription. The stream also will be available on the Fox News subscription streaming platform Fox Nation.