Boy, that escalated quickly.
Tuesday night’s intense eight-minute exchange between Fox News host Megyn Kelly and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich demonstrated the current state of the election — and especially why Donald Trump appears to be shedding many voters, especially women.
The subtext proved if anything more striking.
The segment initially promised nothing more the chummy debate staged between colleagues for a cable audience. It quickly swerved into charged disputes over the media’s coverage of allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault by Trump.
By the end of the segment, millions of viewers on Tuesday night and presumably millions more online Wednesday witnessed an agitated man in his 70s wagging his finger and lecturing an even-keeled but steely woman in her 40s.
“You are fascinated with sex and you don’t care about public policy,” Gingrich told a disbelieving Kelly late into the segment. “That’s what I get out of watching you tonight.”
And Trump loved it. On Wednesday, he interrupted remarks he was making to celebrate the ribbon cutting at a new hotel bearing his name in Washington, D.C., to make a political speech, only to interrupt that speech to praise Gingrich.
“By the way, congratulations Newt on last night,” Trump said. “That was an amazing interview.”
Kelly had started by asking Gingrich about polls showing support for Trump and his fellow Republicans to be slumping in key swing states. Gingrich repeatedly refused to accept her premise, pointing to an upset in a gubernatorial race in Michigan 26 years to make his case against polls.
She persisted: “These are nonpartisan outlets that are just trying to call the electoral scoreboard.” To which he replied: “They’re not non partisan outlets. Every outlet you describe is part of the establishment.” Even Fox News, which has released polls giving ballast to Hillary Clinton’s prospects, was part of an establishment opposing Trump, in Gingrich’s telling.
The irony there: Gingrich is in his second stint as a paid political commentator for Fox News. The two would seem made for each other. In 1994 Gingrich led the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades. Fox News itself has been a key player in Republican politics and conservative circles for years. Gingrich’s first tenure with Fox was interrupted only when he decided in 2011 to run for president. He rejoined in 2015.
A second irony: Fox News personalities had been key in promoting Trump as a figure whose views should be taken seriously over the years, especially as he emerged as the nation’s leading birther.
And yet Gingrich, in Fox’s pay, appeared on one of Fox’s own hit prime-time programs to denounce his network as part of the establishment implacably opposed to Trump. The media came in for particular scorn: he said their coverage of Trump was worthy of Soviet-era propaganda organs Pravda and Izvestia.
Kelly said Trump’s rough fall had much to do with the allegations that surfaced against him and whose allegations suggest, in Kelly’s words, that he is a sexual predator.
And at that point, Gingrich melted down, demanding at once that she ignore those claims because they were untrue and unworthy, and also demanding that she focus instead on allegations against Bill Clinton ranging from harassment to rape.
A further irony: as House Speaker, Gingrich had an extra-marital affair with a House staffer even as Republicans moved to impeach then President Bill Clinton for lying about his own affair with a White House intern.
Kelly noted she had covered those allegations and that Hillary Clinton, not her husband, was on the Democratic ticket this time.
“I’m sick and tired of people like you using language that’s inflammatory,” Gingrich told Kelly. “That’s not true.”
The term sexual predator is indeed severe. And Trump’s many fans pounced Wednesday to echo Gingrich’s cry on social media.
Kelly practiced law for more than a decade before becoming a reporter in television news. She did not take the bait, instead focusing on what Trump is accused of — starting with the Access Hollywood tape capturing Trump’s crude remarks during a visit to an NBC Universal studio in 2005.
“What we saw on that tape was Trump himself saying that he likes to grab women by the genitals and kiss them against their will,” Kelly said. “That’s what we saw. Then we saw 10 women come forward after he denied actually doing it at a debate to say that [denial] was untrue.”
And Kelly rejected Gingrich’s critique.
“You know what, Mr. Speaker, I’m not fascinated by sex but I am fascinated by the protection of women.”
Context is everything there. Back in July, Megyn Kelly accused then Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes of having sexually harassed her earlier in her career.
Ailes had for nearly a year offered Trump a sympathetic ear and political counsel despite the fact Trump was publicly attacking Kelly for her role at the first GOP primary debate. Ailes was forced out during the GOP convention, immediately after Kelly made her accusations to lawyers investigating his behavior for Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox.
And Ailes became an adviser to Trump.
Trump loved what he saw last night on Fox. “We don’t play games, Newt, right?” Trump said to the crowd at the hotel. “We don’t play games.”
What viewers saw was an expression of anger and precious little attempt to win over new votes. For anyone else, Gingrich’s performance would have been an unlikely one to laud. But for Trump, Gingrich appears to have struck precisely the right tone.