Megyn Kelly’s rise was tied to Trump. Can she shine at a debate without him?

Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly (Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly (Getty Images)

Megyn Kelly made headlines in 2015 when she confronted Donald Trump at a presidential debate. Now as the fourth GOP primary debate approaches, she could have another starpower moment as moderator — but it will have to be without the former president.

Kelly, a lawyer-turned-journalist, was moderating her first presidential debate when Mr Trump, a real-estate-mogul-turned-politician, was competing in his first GOP primary debate. In this potent interaction, their paths changed forever.

The exchange made her into something of a cultural icon and boosted her career, at least temporarily, while it set the tone for his soon-to-be successful campaign.

She is a lawyer, he’s in legal trouble. He was accused of sexual misconduct, while she was allegedly the victim of someone else’s. At almost every intersection, they are coming from opposite ends of the spectrum, but have each, separately, carved out a niche rightwing audience.

And when they come together, no one can turn away.

On 6 December, the duelling duo could have had a chance to go head-to-head again — but Mr Trump refuses to participate.

Wednesday’s forum will mark the fourth debate that the former president has skipped. He previously explained his decision to not participate in any of the GOP debates on Truth Social: “The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had.” Instead of attending the debate, Mr Trump will be hosting a private fundraiser in Florida, NBC News reported.

NewsNation will broadcast the debate at 8pm ET. It will be moderated by Kelly, NewsNation anchor Elizabeth Vargas and The Washington Free Beacon’s editor-in-chief Eliana Johnson.

No stranger to making headlines

Long before the feud, the journalist made plenty of headlines in her own right.

Kelly joined Fox News in 2004 and rapidly ascended the network’s ranks. “Her star was rising at Fox” and she seemed poised to become “the next O’Reilly or Hannity,” said Joe Muto, a former Fox News producer who later came out as the “Fox mole.”

After appearing on numerous programs, she hosted her own show, The Kelly File, from 2013 through 2017. She quickly became a household name — both because of her pointed reporting style and some notable controversies.

While covering the 2012 election, Kelly made headlines after essentially telling Bush’s White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove to face the facts after he challenged Barack Obama’s projected victory in Ohio. In 2013, she made waves again after claiming that both Santa Claus and Jesus were white, taking issue with a viral Slate essay that revisited the image of Santa.

Then, of course, in 2015, Kelly made headlines for her heated exchange with Mr Trump at the first GOP debate.

The feud that launched a thousand feuds

In the infamous first Republican debate in August 2015, Kelly began: “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”

“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Mr Trump interjected.

Kelly continued, “Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks,” before listing examples.

“You once told a contestant on the Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?” she asked.

“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Mr Trump replied. “What I say is what I say, and honestly, Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably, maybe not, be based on the way you’ve treated me, but I wouldn’t do that.”

Fox News and the fallout of the feud

The aftermath of the exchange did not ease any tensions. “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” Mr Trump said on ABC News, later clarifying that he had meant “her nose” when he said “wherever.”

Mr Muto argued that her feud with Mr Trump “turned the Fox News audience against her.”

Although the former Fox producer said that her question was “not out of bounds,” the GOP favourite’s ire likely stemmed from the fact that “Trump does not often find himself questioned by a woman who is sort of hostile toward him.”

“Whatever momentum she had, he completely halted,” he told The Independent. “Trump was mostly responsible for derailing Megyn Kelly’s career at Fox.”

Mark Lukasiewicz, who produced 10 presidential forums and is now the dean of Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, had a different perspective.

While he agreed that the interaction may have temporarily derailed her career in conservative media, Mr Lukasiewicz said the moment “gave her a broader level of credibility” and complimented her question and her ability to ask it.

Her bosses, at least eventually, seemed to take Mr Trump’s side. Insiders at Fox told New York Magazine at the time that the network had been bombarded with pro-Trump emails. One source told the outlet that the emails were vastly anti-Kelly: “Roger [Ailes] was not happy. Most of the Fox viewers were taking Trump’s side.”

Days after the debate, Mr Trump tweeted that Ailes called him, assuring that he “will be treated fairly.”

But by early 2016, efforts toward diplomacy seemed to have failed; Mr Trump refused to participate in a subsequent debate moderated by Kelly. Their personal feelings aside, the feud buoyed both of their ratings. Her show’s viewership increased in the weeks and months that followed the debate, reports at the time revealed; his ratings also skyrocketed.

Months later, in May 2016, she then sat down with the Republican frontrunner in a one-on-one interview. The interview focused on his personal life — including his relationship with her. “Let’s talk about us,” she began, before patching things up between them by asking about his feelings. After the interview, Mr Trump tweeted: “Well, that is it. Well done Megyn — and they all lived happily ever after!”

Their paths crossed once again, as both were entwined in the #MeToo movement — for different reasons.

Just one month before the 2016 election, Mr Trump faced an October surprise: the release of the Access Hollywood tape. The clip sparked massive outrage as well as a barrage of sexual misconduct accusations against the GOP nominee. Seemingly unfazed by the allegations, he was elected president.

Meanwhile, Kelly reported her own #MeToo experience. Journalist Gretchen Carlson accused Ailes of sexually harassing her. Kelly initially refused to discuss matters until Fox News completed its investigation, according to Time, but later wrote in her memoir that Ailes had “made sexual comments to me” and “offers of professional advancement in exchange for sexual favors.”

A new beginning

As scandals consumed Fox News, Kelly left the network in 2017 to work at NBC, in part as an anchor of “Megyn Kelly Today.” Mr Muto called the change “a play for mainstream relevance” while Mr Lukasiewicz called it a “deliberate move…to depoliticise her presence.”

Her stint was rocky and short-lived as multiple controversies bubbled up. Not long after her NBC career began, she was slammed for interviewing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

She also upset many viewers during an interview with the cast of Will & Grace and a so-called “superfan,” whom she asked: “Is it true that you became a lawyer, and that you became gay, because of Will?” The exchange prompted actress Debra Messing to say she was “dismayed” by Kelly’s remarks and regretted appearing on her programme.

The apparent last straw for her NBC tenure occurred in October 2018 when she discussed the appropriateness of wearing blackface on Halloween. Days later, her morning show was cut. In January 2019, NBC confirmed that she was no longer a company employee.

Not long after, Mr Trump suffered his own setback: he was defeated in 2020. Since then, he has become the subject of a slew of federal and state charges and lawsuits. At least one case harkened back to Kelly’s 2015 debate question; he was found liable for defaming and sexually assaulting E Jean Carroll.

What’s next for Megyn Kelly?

While Mr Trump leads in the 2024 polls, Kelly has been hosting a talk show on SiriusXM since 2020, which Mr Lukasiewicz called an “overtly conservative opinion-based program.”

This past September, the pair reunited on Kelly’s show for a one-on-one interview, which boasted half a million views, a steep increase from most of her other episodes. After the interview, Mr Trump called the journalist “nasty,” while Kelly said their feud was “under the bridge,” TheHill reported.

Mr Muto wondered if the RNC asked Kelly to moderate the debate to “goad” Mr Trump to return to the debate stage.

Kelly also said she hoped to see the former president. “Trump is TV gold,” she told the DailyMail. “There’s a reason people can’t take their eyes off of him when he enters a of course I would love to be part of any television program that has him on the opposite end.”

But Mr Trump will be notably absent once again. A Trump campaign spokesperson declined to comment on the decision to have Kelly moderate. He would have faced a panel of three women.

It’s been clear so far that Mr Trump doesn’t need the debates to keep his lead in the 2024 race, but the question of whether Kelly needs him to achieve mainstream success again lingers.