February 21, 2024

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump participates in a Fox News Town Hall with moderators Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier on Wednesday, January 10, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT, two of Fox News’s “straight news” reporters, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, sat beside the disgraced former president listening to his Catskills standup bit and giggling like a couple of undergrads after a 5mg weed gummy.

“What about any of the people who you’ve run against, would you be open to mending fences with them?” MacCallum asked Donald Trump, not so pointedly.

“Oh sure I will, I will. I’ve already started to like Christie better,” Trump replied, referencing his former opponent dropping out of the race hours earlier. To someone unattuned to Trump’s wiles, this line might have sounded petty and predictable.

But in this room, on this network, it landed.

This little quip at Christie’s expense elicited uproarious laughter from the crowd and a husky “Ah heh ha” guffaw from Baier. MacCallum was able to contain her laughter but turned toward the camera with an open-mouthed smile, throwing her hair back to take in the moment.

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It was a rather odd scene for anyone who knows the backstory of this on-again off-again romance. Fox had spent years as Trump’s not-so-subtle propaganda arm—but following his 2020 defeat, a lovers’ quarrel ensued.

Trump pushed his Big Lie and demanded it be echoed by anyone who wanted to stay in his good graces. The network mostly obliged, but some of its stars became embittered with the man they had done so much for.

“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait,” Tucker Carlson famously texted. “I hate him passionately.”

Eventually the network had to pay a $787 million settlement to Dominion Voting Systems for being a party to Trump’s lies. With that kind of payout, you can see why Fox’s head honcho, like Carlson, reportedly desired to move on: “Rupert Murdoch is Finally Done with Donald Trump,” screamed Politico in 2022.

The feeling became mutual, with Trump trashing Fox for failing to bow to his every whim. He even spent Tuesday morning bleating about the network’s coverage. His attacks have had an impact at least on the margins for Fox, as Newsmax has retained more eyeballs than in the pre–Big Lie era. I’ve seen this firsthand at the various right-wing confabs I’ve attended in the past year, where many of Trump’s biggest supporters have expressed disgust with Fox and have turned to other more MAGA-friendly outlets.

So as I flipped on my TV to watch the warm handoff from Jesse Watters to the night’s moderators, it seemed as if I was witnessing a real time rapprochement. The scene felt a bit like watching friends who had once been lovers begin to lightly touch each other’s shoulders after a third cocktail.

It began with Watters, the sycophantic primetime host who replaced Carlson, posing the only question of the night that made an interrogatee uncomfortable: After reminiscing with Baier and MacCallum about past Trump town halls—such events are “exciting” when they feature the former president, the moderators beamed—Watters asked whether these were going to be “Biden questions” or whether the hosts would stick to questions about policy issues and how Trump is going to “survive” the legal targeting.

Essentially, Watters was using his time to ensure that his colleagues on the “news” side were going to stay onside with Mr. Trump.

He needn’t have worried.

The first question came from a two-time Trump voter who wanted the president to provide him talking points for friends who were wavering in their support because they think “chaos” follows Trump. (Oh no, said Trump, it’s Joe Biden who is the real source of chaos, because of course.)

Soon after, a woman who is supporting DeSantis asked Trump to answer for all the people who once worked for him but whom he now disparages.

Trump replied by saying that people are excited to work for him and claimed that two “high-level generals” called him right before he walked on stage to talk about how much they wanted to work for him. MacCallum did not follow up to challenge this obvious lie or to highlight the former Trump cabinet officials and White House staffers who believe the president is a threat to democracy. Instead, she pivoted to a parlor game about whether he’s chosen a VP. And Trump obliged with a little tease.

“I know who it’s gonna be . . . we’ll do another show sometime.”

Seems like they’re flirting again! One more drink!

The hour flew by from there, with Trump deftly swatting away the limp attempts by the hosts to challenge his record or his extralegal campaign promises. (Trump’s skill at coming across as normal in this setting—as opposed to during his wheels-off speeches—was actually a bit concerning, a topic for another day.)

The audience was even more ingratiating to the wannabe autocrat. Trump heard from one of his “caucus captains,” a MAGA bro who wanted the former president to elaborate on America First (tough one!), and a woman who shared a story about how her friends got together last night and decided they were for Trump before wondering what he thought about migrants in New York being housed in a school.

All in all, the evening was one big primetime infomercial for the frontrunner. And as a special bonus gift to Trump, the network aired it simultaneously with the weird Earth Two debate over on CNN in order to help serve his goal of blocking out any and all attention for his quasi-competitors.

On this frigid night in Iowa, for Fox and Trump, it was as if that little billion-dollar snafu had never happened. Because when they’re together, the skies’ll be blue, for all their life. . .

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