NEW YORK — Last-minute attempts by Fox News Channel to end its feud with Donald Trump failed and Thursday’s presidential debate went on without him, creating the odd spectacle of competing television networks covering a Trump rally at the same time as the other Republican candidates talked.
Trump said Fox News Channel apologized to him for the network’s role in the conflict that led the presidential front-runner to back out of the debate, but it was too late for him to change his plans.
Fox said its chairman, Roger Ailes, “acknowledged (Trump’s) concerns” in three phone conversations with the candidate Thursday, but wouldn’t agree to Trump’s conditions for coming to the debate.
Trump had started things, tweeting last weekend that Fox should replace Megyn Kelly as a moderator for the debate. He’s been unhappy with her since last August because of Kelly’s tough questioning in the first GOP presidential debate on Aug. 6.
The breaking point came with a Fox statement Tuesday that it “learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet him if he becomes president.” Fox called it a “satirical observation.” Trump called it an insult, and said he wouldn’t attend Fox’s debate.
Trump told CNN Thursday that Fox “could not have been nicer” in its phone calls to him; he wouldn’t identify Ailes as his conversation partner. He said he felt he had acted appropriately in backing out of the debate.
“You have to stand up for yourself,” he said. “You have to fight for yourself.”
Fox explained that its “satirical observation” was made in order to stop attacks on Kelly. The network said Trump offered to appear at the debate if Fox agreed to contribute $5 million to his charities.
“We explained that was not possible and we could not engage in a quid pro quo, nor could any money change hands for any reason,” Fox said in the statement. “In the last 48 hours, we’ve kept two issues at the forefront — we would never compromise our journalistic standards and we would always stand by our journalist, Megyn Kelly.”
Trump has made similar statements in the past — asking CNN to make a donation to a veterans group or he wouldn’t agree to debate. CNN never responded publicly and Trump appeared.
Fox did not leave an empty podium for Trump at its debate, and didn’t mention his absence until Kelly opened the questioning, speaking to Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Let’s address the elephant not in the room tonight,” Kelly said. “Donald Trump has decided not to attend tonight’s debate. What message do you think that sends to the voters of Iowa?”
Cruz made a joking reference to Trump’s penchant to insult his rivals. Sen. Marco Rubio said Trump was “an entertaining guy. He’s the greatest show on Earth.”
Trump’s competing event was a rally to raise money for veterans, held a few miles away from the debate site. CNN and MSNBC stood at the ready to cover it, but Trump appeared unwilling to offer fireworks. For much of the time, the two competing news networks put up shots at an empty stage at the Trump event.
On CNN, anchor Anderson Cooper called it “a night like no other in this presidential election.”
“I’ve never seen one like this,” said CNN commentator David Axelrod, a former aide to President Barack Obama. “But I’ve said that several times.”