Trump Vs. Fox: What's Trump Really Thinking?

01/27/2016 01:29 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2017

These are the proverbial uncharted waters.

The enormously capable and talented Roger Ailes has been at Fox News for 20 years (his current four-year contract was set to expire this year, but it was renewed last year). A brilliant visionary and skilled professional, Ailes is a force to be reckoned with.

The new co-chairman of News Corporation, which oversees the Fox network, is Lachlan Murdoch, who would like to have greater influence over Fox News. Lachlan is the son of Fox icon Rupert Murdoch, the brilliant entrepreneur who is now less active at the helm.

The elder Murdoch was divorced three years ago from his third wife. Now 84, the legendary Murdoch -- elder statesman of international media -- recently announced his engagement to Jerry Hall, 59, the six-foot tall former model-actress who had four children with Mick Jagger.

Already many hardcore conservative backers of Trump are reading the immigration issue into a hidden agenda that Fox has to supposedly take down Trump. In this narrative Fox News is a stepchild to Fox Broadcasting and the News Corporation. The thinking goes that Rupert Murdoch and the Murdoch family are internationalist, open-borders and into cheap labor for the crony capitalist Chamber of Commerce. Never mind that Sean Hannity and others on Fox push very hard against illegal aliens. The conspiracists see something sinister in a Fox plan to bring down Trump because he is going against their alleged 'open borders' Big Business agenda. Expect this interpretation to gain ground among Trump's suspicious base.

If you continue this interpretation, then Rupert Murdoch prefers Marco Rubio, and Roger Ailes is pursuing a master plan to discredit Trump. Thus, in this view, if you follow the reasoning, the next debate -- that is, tomorrow's debate, was a set-up to finally bring down Trump, and that's why Trump pursued the confrontation. He simply preempted a Fox plan to make him look bad, and Megyn Kelly would have been a prop.

In any case, Ailes is proving he still is the man in charge at Fox News. Ailes is personally involved in the network's confrontation with Donald Trump. Last year, when Trump criticized Megan Kelly for her opening question in the first GOP debate, Ailes wisely played it cool and deflected Trump's threat to boycott Fox News.

But this time, Ailes took the bait when Trump said he might not appear at Thursday's Fox News debate in Des Moines. Fox News issued a statement that sounded like something Ailes wrote - a sarcastic rebuke the "Ayatollah and Putin" would treat Trump as president "unfairly" (Trump's word against Megyn Kelly). Generally, Ailes is more strategic and deliberative, rather than tactical and reactive.

Trump has called Kelly a "lightweight." Meanwhile Trump's opponents imply he is a lightweight looking for an excuse to avoid a debate. Expect Trump to easily turn down the challenge by Ted Cruz for a two-man debate without a moderator. But give Cruz credit for trying.

The unintended effect of the Fox adversarial approach is to give Trump ammunition. It seems as if Fox is taking sides. The reality is that Fox has given Trump massive coverage over the past few months, and Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Howard Kurtz and others have been more than fair.

But diehard Trump supporters and some undecided Iowa voters may now see Fox News as part of the supposedly threatened "Conservative Establishment" which conspires against Trump, as evidenced by last week's attack on Trump by National Review. They might be even more likely to turn out to vote for Trump as the self-funded independent taking on the powerful.

These are the proverbial uncharted waters. Trump's opponents hope voters will see him as a my-way-or-the-highway guy who intimidates and, if he doesn't get his way, throws a tantrum.

By the time you read this, Trump may yet find a rationale to appear at tomorrow's debate. If so, he surely will have raised the ratings. And if he instead follows through with his own plan for a competing television program to raise money for vets, will the debate ratings go down?

I was betting he might go on the debate and then still do his veterans fundraiser before the Monday caucuses. But as of this writing, this doesn't appear to be the case.

Perhaps Trump is playing a long-range chess game. He believes that if he is the party nominee he will have to take on the mainstream media, that is, the Liberal Media, in the general electio. By taking on Fox now, he establishes a precedent for confrontations in the Fall. It is him against the Media Establishment -- anyone who questions him is "unfair." Also, by his dispute with Fox, he implies for the general election that he is not "in the pocket" of right-wing media.

Last but not least, it's one thing for Trump to say he'll pull out of the debate and Fox ratings will be hurt. It's quite another to carry a vendetta and threaten the would-be moderator. Indeed, several years ago Trump was interviewed by Megyn Kelly and praised her professionalism --specifically, "as a moderator."

Fox last night issued a longer statement asserting "Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski...in a call on Monday with a Fox News executive...stated that Megyn had a 'rough couple of days after the last debate' and 'would hate to have her go through that again.'"

If Lewandowski indeed used those words, he crossed the line. Trump is loyal but not stupid. I I previously had written, "Don't be surprised if Lewandowski is sanctioned or demoted." Now, I'm not so sure.

Lewandowski is robotic -- he speaks like Trump's other talking-heads, highly disciplined in machine like staccato fashion about "Mr. Trump." In another campaign, Lewandowski might be old news and gone. In this one, he is perhaps a good soldier.

An earlier version:
http://www.westernjournalism.com/trump-fox-feud-dominates-news-cycle/