Will he or won’t he? The question mark hanging over the first Republican primary debate of the 2024 political calendar — whether former president Donald Trump will participate in the face-off in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Aug. 23 — is likely to go down to the wire. Bret Baier has seen this movie before.
The Fox News chief political anchor and veteran debate moderator is accustomed to Trump’s antics. Trump also skipped a Fox News-hosted GOP primary debate in January 2016, and instead staged a competing event, which was billed as a fundraiser for veterans but landed his family charity in legal hot water.
This time, Trump has said he may skip the debate because of a so-called “loyalty pledge” imposed by the Republican National Committee that requires candidates to support the eventual nominee. The RNC imposed a similar pledge during the 2015-16 presidential nominating contest, but this time the committee seems to be taking its own rule more seriously, saying it would bar anyone from the debate if they do not agree to the pledge. Presumably, this includes Trump.
But the Milwaukee debate, which Baier will helm with his Fox News colleague Martha MacCallum, may be too big of a spotlight for Trump to miss, says Baier.
“It’s hard for me to believe that the former president is going to walk away from that stage,” he says.
Like so many veteran political journalists, Baier has something of a history with the former president. He was among the moderators (with erstwhile Fox News co-anchors Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace) of Trump’s very first political debate eight years ago. More recently, in June he grilled Trump during a lengthy sit-down that earned Baier widespread plaudits from his peers in the media, Democrats and never-Trumpers on the right. Baier subjected Trump to tough questioning about his past statements and current legal baggage. At the time, the former president was newly indicted in federal court on 37 felony counts relating to his mishandling of classified documents.
“I really didn’t think that he was going to answer any questions on the indictment,” says Baier. “I figured I was going to probably try two times and then he was going to say it’s totally wrong, and I can’t talk about it. And I was going to move on.”
But Trump went there, admitting that he didn’t want to give the documents back because, he told Baier, he wanted to go through them first but the classified documents were “interspersed” with “personal” items including “golf shirts, clothing, pants, shoes.” But he was “very busy.”
It was the kind of interview that probably gave Trump’s lawyers a massive case of agita. Trump characterized it as “nasty.”
Since that interview, Trump has also been indicted in federal court on charges that he sought to overturn the 2020 election. And Monday, Georgia district attorney Fani T. Willis submitted a sweeping 41-count racketeering indictment against Trump and 18 others relating to election interference in Georgia. It is an unprecedented amount of legal peril for a presidential candidate, let alone the de facto leader of one of the country’s two political parties.
“This is an election, I think, that is going to be unlike any other,” says Baier, who has been at Fox News Channel since 1998 and is covering his seventh presidential contest. “You have two men where their approval ratings inside their own parties is not great. And yet they’re leading their primaries exponentially. There is a real question mark about where we’re going as a country. And I think a lot of people are interested in it.”
Baier’s nightly program — “Special Report with Bret Baier,” for which he is also executive editor — averages just over 2 million viewers a night, the most watched cable news show in the time slot by double and triple digits.
Baier, 53, and his wife, Amy, have two sons, Paul, 16, and Daniel, 13. Paul, who was born with five congenital heart defects, has had five angioplasties and, in late 2020 when he was 13, his fourth open-heart surgery. “Hopefully,” said Baier, “that’s our last [surgery]. He’s doing great, growing like a weed. He’s about six-foot-three now. So I look up to him.”
On debate night, Baier tries to get outside for a run to “clear [his] mind.” He is mindful of the potential audience for the premiere debate of the season. It will be a return for Trump — if he shows up — to the venue he first upended back in August 2015, when he taunted Kelly after she questioned him about his crude statements about women. Trump’s behavior shocked a nation then, and led to record viewership. Today, the public, and journalists, are acclimated to the former president’s behavior.
Baier will do his best to keep the proceedings focused on the issues without interrupting the candidates too much, he says.
“There are real questions about President Biden’s age,” he says. “And then on the other side [Trump will be facing several] indictments by the time voting starts. And that’s unlike anything we’ve seen. So to be in that seat to help provide information for voters is an honor. And I’m lucky to be here.”
Baier talks to WWD about Trump, keeping the dialogue civil and why relitigating 2020 is bad strategy for Trump.
WWD: Trump is the Republican primary front-runner by a lot. But he hasn’t committed to participating. And he’s once again teasing staging a competing event the same night. What do you think he’ll do?
Bret Baier: You never know with the former president. But I do think that he sees himself as excelling at debates, and he credits debates for how he got the nomination [in 2016] and how he went on to win. I think that the spotlight will be pretty big. And we’ll see.
WWD: Exactly, especially because this is the first debate of the political calendar. You were moderating that first Republican primary debate back in 2015…
B.B.: Yes, August 2015 in Cleveland, it was me, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. Twenty-five million people tuned in. We thought, oh, I don’t know how many people are going to watch, it’s summer and everybody’s on vacation. It was the largest non-sporting event on cable ever.
WWD: I remember watching it and being just stunned.
B.B.: Imagine being the moderator.
WWD: Political candidates have long sought to not just promote themselves, but also verbally knock out their opponents on the debate stage. But Trump escalated the use of ad hominem attacks and personal insults. Has he changed political debates for ill?
B.B.: I don’t think we’ll know until the end of this debate cycle, whether it’s permanently changed. I tend to believe that he’s changed politics overall. No one really gave him a chance in 2015, 2016. Jeb Bush spent $40 million on Marco Rubio; Marco Rubio spent $30 million on Jeb Bush. And everybody let [Trump] shoot the gap. Now you have a former president after [the Capital riots of] January 6 after a loss [in 2020], after [multiple] indictments, and yet still leads a GOP field by 20 points, by most polls. We’ve never seen anything like this. And I think that with the debates, there’s a hunger to get to policy, to talk about what someone would do as president. I feel that hunger out there when I talk to people. So that’s really what we’re striving to do. And I don’t know if he’s changed it permanently or not. We’ll see come Aug. 23.
WWD: You did a highly effective interview with him in June by hitting him with facts and his own statements. Are there strategies from that interview that you can apply to the debate stage or have you been doing that all along?
B.B.: I think I’ve been doing that all along. I’m not a lawyer, but I assume in a deposition, you think about what you think the person is going to say, and then where your next step is. And some of the answers we’ve heard many times before, from not only the former president but from other candidates as well. We map out where the follow-up is, so there’s not an off ramp to talking points. That’s what I’m really trying to avoid. We took a lot of time planning for [the interview]. I did really study up on how he answered before. I have a great staff that dug up all his previous answers to help me map my questioning.
WWD: Did you hear from Trump or anybody close to him after that?
B.B.: Well, there were a couple things about the interview that were really interesting. I didn’t think that he was going to answer any questions on the [documents] indictment. But he talked about it. There wasn’t a lawyer in the room for the former president. I was surprised by that. Immediately after the tape stopped, he said that he thought he was strong in the interview. And he said it was tough but fair. I made sure to get some of that on camera. He has since [said] it was nasty or not nice.
WWD: Gov. DeSantis, who has committed to showing up for the debate, has mounted a pretty lackluster campaign. His own advisers have expressed concern. Unsurprisingly, his hard-right message does not seem to be resonating with moderate swing voters. What’s at stake for him on Aug. 23?
B.B.: I think the debate is a national introduction. By trying to go right of the former president on a number of issues, to your point, you’re not winning over independents or suburban women. I think his wife is very effective on the campaign trail. I do think it’s a watershed moment for the campaign.
WWD: At a time of deep social polarization, where a sliver of swing voters is essentially deciding the election, who is the audience for these debates?
B.B.: The GOP primaries are unique in that the former president is leading by a lot. But every place I go, [people express the sentiment], ‘Hey, you know, we really liked Trump policies but we could do without the chaos and the baggage.’ I think there is this hunger to find an alternative, whoever it is. Fighting for that spot is really what these debates are about. I think there’s a real interest in the political moment; President [Biden] is a little vulnerable. His approval ratings are low, there are questions about his age. So looking at the alternative on the other side is important and hopefully substantive and not just about, you know, name-calling.
WWD: But since Trump came on the scene, we’ve seen candidates get down in the mud with him. How has that impacted the job of the debate moderator?
B.B.: It’s made it a little bit more difficult. As a strategy, I don’t think it’s paid off for other people besides Donald Trump. Marco Rubio tried it and it didn’t work at all. I was moderating the third Republican primary debate in Detroit, and I asked a question about civility. And the answer somehow got to the size of hands, and what that meant about other parts of the body. It was surreal. So yes, the job has changed. I’m not going to be a schoolmarm. But we are going to try to keep things to time and give people equal time. The best thing I could hear is that the moderator didn’t interfere, that there was a lot of interaction between the candidates and it roughly timed equally. It’s a little bit like spinning plates.
WWD: How has Trump’s equivocating impacted how you’re preparing for the debate?
B.B.: He was not happy with the first debate last cycle and so he bowed out of the second. But he was saying [he might] show up. So we had two sets of questions, literally, two stacks of paper. One is a question with Donald Trump on the stage and the other is if he’s not. And then we had another stack of paper if he walked in mid-debate. So we had all kinds of contingencies.
WWD: Well, as you noted, it’s a pretty big spotlight for him to avoid. What is the key to getting politicians to actually answer questions?
B.B.: I was friends with the late [NBC News anchor] Tim Russert and I always admired his interview style. We used to sit next to each other on the shuttle to New York sometimes. I would pick his brain and he said, ‘You know, Bret, it’s not about the questions. It’s about listening to the answers.’ At the beginning of my career, I would have this long list of interview questions and I really wanted to get to every one. But in reality, the best questions are the follow-ups. That’s when you hear something that you hadn’t heard before, and that’s where the news is.
WWD: Why do you think most interviewers have been ineffective against Trump? And I don’t mean the people who are just lobbing softballs.
B.B.: I think he steamrolls them and he takes control. And maybe they just don’t think about where he’s going to go. I credit my staff; we really dug into his previous answers on some of those questions. For example, I knew that he really wanted to talk about his death penalty for drug dealers, and that he learned it from Chinese President Xi and the drug problems going on in China. I knew that answer was probably coming. But on the flip side, he wanted to tout his First Step Act, where he let a lot of people out of jail, among them, Alice Johnson, who was a drug dealer. And so once he started talking about that, I said, ‘So under your policy, you would kill Alice.’ And he had to kind of rejigger and think about that.
[Editor’s note: Johnson served 21 years of a life term for drug trafficking. In 2018, Trump, in part at the urging of Kim Kardashian, granted Johnson clemency, effectively commuting her sentence.]
WWD: Much has been made of an email you sent Fox News president and executive editor Jay Wallace, the day after the 2020 election. In it, you suggested retracting the network’s Arizona call…
B.B.: That email has been covered really weirdly. It was an internal email, where, unfortunately, the phrasing was bad. But everybody on the email knew what I was saying, which was we were out on a limb by ourselves. Every other network had not called Arizona. And the spread was going from 80,000 to 10,000. And my point was, at what point do we put it in the column of states that Trump could win? And unfortunately, I said in Trump’s column. It was the phrasing that caused a major stir. I was advocating for taking it out of called [and moving it] to uncalled so that we could be where everybody else was. And if we had to call it again, we would be safer. We were in the heat of the moment. And all these people are making decisions behind the scenes based on numbers and quantitative analysis. And Martha and I are on set delivering that news. My point was that we need to be right first. We stood by the call. We always stood by the call on the air. And I’m happy we did. I just think it was early. And uncomfortable. And that email reflects that.
WWD: Yes, Arizona was a nail-biter. But the reason I brought it up is to ask you if you’re at all concerned that the internal communications between Fox News personalities that have come to light through the discovery process in the Dominion lawsuit, that Trump’s opponents in the debate could use this information to attack you or the network and to try to delegitimize or derail you?
B.B.: I think that the interview I did [with Trump in June] is an example of what 26 years at Fox has been for me. One email, poorly phrased, is not going to be something that I think any candidate would waste time dealing with. But that said, they all acknowledged that that election was screwy and it was tight. We ran down all of this stuff on my show and were on the air saying that it’s not true [that the election was stolen]. So to relitigate the 2020 election, I think is the absolute wrong thing for any candidate, including the former president, in order to win any voters in the 2024 election.
WWD: I think people want to move on from the chaos. And, and as you noted in your interview with Trump, it has been litigated in front of Trump-appointed judges. But my question is, could somebody else use it?
B.B.: I’ve talked to all the candidates, and they are clearly going after the former president. I don’t get any sense that that’s going to be an issue. And I don’t think the 2020 election is going to be a focus at all unless the former president brings it up.
WWD: Have you found during the continuum of your debate moderator experience that crowds have become less the decorous? And how does it affect what you’re trying to do?
B.B.: Yes, in part because some of the people on the stage are playing to the crowd, including the former president, who does that very, very well. I [tell] the audience before we start, ‘I’m not going to be the guy turning around and shaking a finger. But the more times we have to pause because of reaction from the audience, the less time you’re going to be able to hear from all these candidates.’ Substantively, it’s kind of just a plea. I don’t know how we’re going to work it. We’ve tried a bell when people’s time is up. That, unfortunately, caused dogs all over America to run to the door. We got a lot of emails saying, ‘why are you using a bell?’ I think a lot of people are interested in [this election]. I there are a lot of conversations at dinner tables that have a lot of question marks. So hopefully we’re going to answer some of those come August and then October and into the new year.