WASHINGTON/NEW YORK – Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly says she’s not anticipating any more fights with Donald Trump in Thursday’s Republican presidential debate, and that she’s preparing the same “tough but fair” questions for him as she does for other candidates.
The stage in Detroit will be a little emptier with Ben Carson suspending his campaign on Wednesday. All eyes will be on Kelly and Trump, who clashed during the first GOP debate last summer. Trump then boycotted an Iowa debate that Fox telecast in January after the network refused to remove Kelly as one of the moderators.
Thursday’s two-hour debate starts at 9 p.m. EST; Kelly will moderate along with Bret Baier and Chris Wallace.
“It was never personal from my point of view,” Kelly said. “I understand he was upset. I didn’t take it personally and I certainly don’t have anything against him. I find him a very fascinating person to cover.”
Kelly’s questioning angered Trump during the first GOP debate last August, most prominently when he was confronted with some of his past comments about women. He then unleashed attacks on her on social media and in interviews, renewing them just before the Iowa debate. After Trump skipped that debate, he lost the Iowa caucuses to Ted Cruz.
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said he looks forward to Thursday’s debate.
“It’s not a focus of our preparation but obviously it’s the elephant in the room,” Fox’s Baier said. “It’s not front of mind, but it’s in mind. We’re not going to focus on one candidate or the other.”
Kelly said Trump was much more in his head before the Iowa debate, when moderators prepared one set of questions for if he showed up, and another for if he didn’t. Now she believes Trump is more concentrated on sewing up the nomination.
“I don’t need to be overly tough to prove that I am some sort of tough gal and I don’t want to go easy on him to disprove the people who think I have it in for him,” she said. She believes Trump, a novice politician, had the misguided thought Fox would go easy on him during the August debate.
“Perhaps his expectations for the event were not set properly by the people who were advising him,” she said. “I think at this point in the game he understands better how these things go. He knows he can handle me. He can handle any interviewer.”
In one of the campaign’s many oddities, the Trump-Kelly episode created lingering bad feelings between the leading Republican candidate and the television network most popular with Republican viewers. Kelly was one of the first public figures caught in the middle of one of Trump’s withering attacks on media.
At its worst, Trump went on CNN to say of Kelly that “you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” Many interpreted that to be a crude reference to a woman’s menstrual cycle. Kelly said she understood that attacks come with the territory but that her husband was upset and some of the language used filtered down to her 4-year-old daughter through friends. She also has sons age 6 and 2.
“I’ll put it to you this way — Donald Trump is the only name they know of the people who are running for president,” she said.
Dozens of conservative national security experts are meanwhile warning that Trump is unfit to be commander in chief.
In a letter released late Wednesday, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and more than 70 other experts wrote that they have disagreed with one another on a variety of issues but are united in their opposition to a Trump presidency.
They called Trump “fundamentally dishonest” and said his support for the expanded use of torture against suspected terrorists is inexcusable. They also cited Trump’s “hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric,” his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advocacy for waging trade wars, which they say would lead to economic disaster in a globally connected world.
The letter was posted on the website War On The Rocks, an online forum for foreign policy and national security commentary.
Other experts who signed the letter include Fran Townsend, former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush; Eliot Cohen, former counselor to the State Department; Dov Zakheim, former Pentagon comptroller; and Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank.
The letter was released the evening before 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney criticized Trump in a speech, calling him dangerous and a fake.
During an interview Thursday on MSNBC, Trump declined to say whom he consults with on foreign policy issues. But he said he has spoken to his team and plans to announce its members soon. “I don’t think there’s any rush,” Trump said.
Trump said he respects Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Haass served in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.
Haass did not sign the letter. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The national security experts said Trump’s penchant for equating his success in the business world with foreign policy experience is false.
“Not all lethal conflicts can be resolved as a real estate deal might, and there is no recourse to bankruptcy court in international affairs,” they said, making a reference at Trump’s four bankruptcies.
“Mr. Trump’s own statements lead us to conclude that as president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world,” the signatories wrote in a letter on Wednesday.
“Furthermore, his expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States,” said the letter, which was posted on a blog called War on the Rocks.
The full text of the letter can be seen at warontherocks.com/2016/03/open-letter-on-donald-trump-from-gop-national-security-leaders/.
The signatories include Robert Zoellick, a former World Bank president and deputy secretary of state; Chertoff; and Dov Zakheim, a top Pentagon official under President George W. Bush.
They represent both centrist Republican foreign policy circles and neo-conservatives who favor a robust U.S. international role and wielded clout during Bush’s 2001-2009 tenure.
Trump won the largest number of states in this week’s Super Tuesday nominating contests, intensifying moves by the party’s establishment wing to derail his path to the nomination.
On Thursday, Trump in an interview with ABC News flatly rejected the criticism in the letter and blasted the nation’s military leaders as ineffective.
Bryan McGrath, a retired U.S. Navy officer and adviser to Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign who helped organize the letter, said at least two people declined to sign because of concerns it would fuel Trump’s campaign theme of being an anti-Washington candidate opposed by the establishment.
“This is really drawing a bright moral line and saying that if we’re going to keep our souls we can’t cross it,” said Eliot Cohen, who served as counselor to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and helped spearhead the letter.
He said the list of signatures had grown to at least 75 by Thursday morning.
The signatories did not include several high-profile former officials, such as Rice, Bush national security advisor Stephen Hadley or former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was unknown if they were invited to sign.
The letter rejects numerous Trump foreign policy statements, including his anti-Muslim comments; his demand that Mexico fund a wall to control illegal immigration across the U.S. border; and his insistence that Japan pay much more for U.S. security assistance.
“As committed and loyal Republicans, we are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head,” the signatories said. “We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.”
The War on the Rocks blog calls itself a platform for former diplomats, military and intelligence officers and scholars to comment “through a realist lens” on global affairs.
Trump has alarmed some mainstream Republicans with vows to shred international trade deals. Many fear a Trump presidency would severely strain ties with allies and are concerned about his stated willingness to work more closely with authoritarian Putin.
Trump also has criticized the Republican Party for its backing of Bush’s 2003 Iraq invasion and has said he supports the controversial practice of waterboarding and other similar interrogation techniques.
Max Boot, a foreign policy adviser to Romney’s 2012 campaign and supporter of the Iraq invasion, was among the letter’s signers and said he “would sooner work for (North Korean dictator) Kim Jong Un than for Donald Trump. I think Donald Trump is objectively more dangerous than Kim Jong Un and not as stable.”
Kurt Volker, a permanent representative to NATO under Bush, said he did not sign the letter because of concerns that any letter from “national security intelligentsia” could backfire.
“He would actually use it as a bragging right,” said Volker, adding that he had no intention of working for Trump but wanted to be free to offer advice to any future president, and that such a letter could prompt Trump to hold a grudge.
Several others who declined to sign and asked not to be identified, said they feared it could help Democrat Hillary Clinton win the presidency.
Trump on Thursday told MSNBC in an interview that he would name his foreign policy and national security advisers “in a week or two. … But ultimately it’s my thought more than anybody else’s.”
Those Trump has spoken with on foreign policy include a retired U.S. general and intelligence official, Michael Flynn, who favors closer ties with Russia. Flynn has declined to comment on whether he is advising Trump.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who won popularity for his handling of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has said he has been having regular talks with Trump but not in a formal role.