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The first Republican primary presidential debate kicked off Wednesday on Fox News without Donald Trump. The former president, in an attempt at counterprogramming, appeared in a pre-taped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. But, analysts tell TheWrap the media coup was unsuccessful.
The debate in Milwaukee, co-moderated by Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum went surprisingly well according to media analysts and Trump’s absence may have ultimately been a benefit to the network and the Republican candidates.
Fox News’ debate was “bracing and useful,” according to Bob Lichter, communication professor at George Mason University. “And, frankly, Fox could use more journalism like that.”
Deputy research director for Media Matters for America Andrew Lawrence told TheWrap that the debate “went well,” for Fox News and co-moderators Baier and MacCallum “came off professionally.”
The Republican candidates in attendance at the debate included former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Ambassador Nikki Haley, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Trump announced on Sunday that he wouldn’t be making an appearance on the debate stage, or any primary debate for that matter, citing his current lead in the polls.
The former president’s absence from Wednesday’s debate was not for lack of trying by Fox News to get him to participate. The network consistently appealed to the former president to convince him to attend. Fox News hosts attempted to gain Trump’s participation by appealing on air, while Fox executives even joined the former president for a private dinner in an effort to secure his attendance.
In lieu of Trump’s attendance, the moderators promised to address his legal challenges. The former president plans to voluntarily turn himself in for booking in Georgia Thursday in his fourth criminal indictment.
“As expected, [Trump had a] major presence in absentia, journalist Aaron Rupar told TheWrap, adding some of the most “heated” moments revolved around questions about Jan. 6 and Trump’s legal challenges.
The moderators’ framing of questions regarding Trump was “more negative” than Rupar expected, saying Baier and MacCallum “handled that well” by not attempting to “sugarcoat” Trump’s indictments.
When asked whether the moderators were able to effectively cover Trump’s impending indictments, Lawrence said, “I cannot believe that I am saying this, but I think that they did. [Baier and MacCallum] really wanted to get answers from everybody on those questions.”
The first time either of the moderators brought up the former president or his four impending criminal trials was nearly an hour into the debate program. Prior to a commercial break, Fox News displayed a live shot of Georgia’s Fulton County jail with MacCallum noting that Trump would be turning himself in there on Thursday.
After Fox News returned from the commercial break, Baier said that it was time to address “the elephant not in the room,” referring to Trump and his four criminal indictments.
“The first half of the debate was all civility, careful efforts to let everybody get their point of view in then,” Lichter said. “Then Donald Trump entered the conversation.”
“As usual,” Lichter continued, “things got a lot less civil,” when discussing the former president.
However, Lichter said that it ended up being beneficial for Fox News to not have Trump on the debate stage: It was “good to not have a Trump scream fest,” which allowed Fox to “get to the business of revealing the viewpoints and character of the candidates.”
Trump’s effort to counterprogram the debate with the interview with Carlson on X, formerly known as Twitter, dropped five minutes prior to the start of the GOP debate.
In a clip released midday on Wednesday, Carlson claimed that his interview with Trump will have a “far larger audience” than the former president would have reached on the debate stage. He said Trump’s team approached him to schedule the interview which he “happily accepted.”
At the start of the interview, Carlson said, “It’s debate night but we’re not in Milwaukee,” obviously referencing Trump’s decision to skip the event.
During the conversation, Trump said that Fox News isn’t “particularly friendly to me, frankly,” which was a part of the reason he chose not to debate.
Rupar doesn’t think Trump’s attempt to counterprogram the debate was able to “peel off that many viewers” from Fox. From what the journalist gleaned, he found the interview to be a “yawner.”
Lawrence says that Trump and Carlson’s interview didn’t serve as an effective distraction from the debate. Once the Fox-hosted event kicked off at 9 p.m., “I haven’t seen anything about the Tucker-Trump thing because there wasn’t really any news,” Lawrence noted.
Since his departure from Fox News, Carlson has taken to posting commentary regularly to X, despite the network’s attempts to halt his efforts. Fox News sent a cease-and-desist letter to Carlson in June, saying that he was in breach of his contract by posting programming on social media. That clearly hasn’t stopped Carlson and Fox hasn’t taken any further action since.
According to Lawrence, Carlson’s comments that the release of the interview with Trump was “meant to be a distraction” from his former network “greatly increases his legal exposure” to a Fox News claim.
The interview was “meant to compete with Fox News,” said Lawrence, which is precisely what Carlson’s contract prevents. “You can’t compete with Fox News.”