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GOP presidential candidates will debate without front-runner Donald Trump

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Tonight on Fox News, anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will moderate a debate with eight of the leading Republican candidates for president in next year's elections. Former President Donald Trump will not be among them. Instead, he taped an interview with Fox's former star Tucker Carlson that will post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now. David, OK, first things first - why isn't Trump taking part in the debate?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, the first answer is probably pretty obvious. He has such a commanding lead in key states that are going to start unfurling early next year in the Republican primary process that his advisers are telling me he doesn't need to. He's also professed a lot of anger at Fox over the years and more recently over an interview done by Bret Baier. Initially, Trump liked it, said he was terrific. And then as people started pointing out his answers seemed to expose him to additional legal jeopardy in that question of his handling of national security papers filed by the feds in Florida, he turned angrily against it on social media. And he's been frustrated with Fox News over the interest of its controlling owner and founder, Rupert Murdoch - his interest in other Republican candidates.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So let's talk about all three - Fox, Murdoch and Trump. What are the tensions there?

FOLKENFLIK: Murdoch always wants somebody he can do business with, a candidate that he can embrace who's going to be a winner but that also will be amenable. In 2016, he definitely wanted other folks. But ultimately, as Trump just knocked one contender out after another, he embraced Trump, and he needed that winner in office. Why? Well, it helped him on a lot of things, including big business deals. Think of when he sold off a lot of Fox's assets to Disney. That could have been easily held up by a lot of antitrust concerns. Donald Trump called him that morning and congratulated him, asked him only, you know, are you going to hold on to Fox News, which of course he did.

And then there was the Dominion case. In 2020, Trump lied publicly and said, you know, I've been cheated of this election, which Joe Biden won, and a number of Fox stars embraced it. Fox ultimately had to pay almost $800 million in a defamation case filed by an election tech company over that. So Murdoch this time around has been searching for another candidate, fixed on Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida. As he's been flagging in the polls, Murdoch's casting about maybe for Glenn Youngkin. He's the governor of Virginia.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So Tucker Carlson and the interview with him - what to expect there.

FOLKENFLIK: Let's not forget, Carlson has his own grievances here. Fox ousted him right after the Dominion settlement this past spring, yet he's still under contract. Carlson is using this opportunity to get attention and refuse to be sidelined. He very much wants to be relevant in this political cycle to keep himself as part of the game.

MARTÍNEZ: So they're setting low expectations then for ratings without Trump on the stage and in the spotlight. I mean, are they lobbying to try and get him on board?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you've seen top executives, including Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, who went with a top deputy to Trump's golf course in New Jersey. The anchor Bret Baier and Trump have spoken several times by phone, and on the air, Fox stars are all but beseeching him. Most recently, Kayleigh McEnany - that's Trump's former press secretary turned Fox pundit. Here's what she had to say yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAYLEIGH MCENANY: Two hours of attacks - you will get attacked even if you're not there. And no one can answer those attacks better than President Donald Trump himself. He's really good at it. He's masterful.

FOLKENFLIK: She's making the argument that not only is he yielding the floor, but he's allowing President Biden to justify ducking baits later next year, trying to goad Trump effectively to make a surprise appearance.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what should we look out for from Donald Trump?

FOLKENFLIK: So think back eight years ago. In 2015, Trump participated in the first debate, August 2015. It was moderated by Fox News. Ten candidates on stage - what did he do? He went after Megyn Kelly, the moderator. He made it about him versus Fox, icing out the other candidates. This time, Trump is going to try to step on this debate every way he can from offstage. He's even going to the lengths tomorrow morning to go through processing for all those felonies he's charged with in Atlanta, in Fulton County, Ga., on allegations he interfered with the elections in that state in 2020. It'll blot out the sky and make it very hard for other candidates to burst through the next day.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.