Donald Trump’s feud with Fox News came to a head on Thursday when he not only boycotted the Republican debate but also hosted a charity event for military veterans nearby – taunting his rivals and stealing their thunder.
The billionaire Republican frontrunner boycotted the debate in Des Moines, Iowa as part of a simmering feud with the conservative news network that began in August 2015 when he objected to questions asked by moderator and star Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.
"When you're treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights," the 69-year-old mogul said as he opened his charity event, doubling down on his claim that Fox News — and particularly Kelly — has shown bias against him.
Trump had taunted Fox and his rivals before the main debate, saying it would be a "total disaster" with low ratings.
Trump’s war with Fox News has been going on since the first Republican Debate. The channel’s star anchor Megyn Kelly, who has her own show called The Kelly File, and her two male colleagues moderated the debate, which pulled in a record 24 million viewers. Trump took offense to her tough questions and insinuated that she treated him unfairly because she was menstruating.
"You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever," Trump told CNN afterward.
But the furore only helped the channel and Kelly. Fox said her first post-debate program pulled in nearly 11 million viewers – its highest ever.
The fight was renewed days before the Republican primaries began in Iowa when Fox News announced the Kelly will be moderating the the channel's second Republican debate again on Thursday.
The billionaire businessman dismissed Kelly as a "third-rate reporter" who is bad at her job and had been "toying" with him. "I don't think she can treat me fairly. And I'm not a big fan of hers," Trump told CNN.
Kelly shot back on her nightly show, arguing that Trump is used to getting his way but can't control the media. She said her network and CEO Roger Ailes had made it clear to Trump for months that they wouldn't change their moderator line-up.
"I'll be there," Kelly said. "The debate will go on with or without Mr. Trump."
Trump's pullout came after Fox News tweaked the Republican front-runner for asking his Twitter followers whether he should debate. The network, in a sarcastically worded statement, said it had learned from a "secret back channel" that the leaders of Iran and Russia planned to treat Trump unfairly if elected.
"A nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings," read the statement from a Fox News representative.
In a more serious statement, a Fox News spokesperson said that capitulating "to politicians' ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards, as do threats, including the one leveled by Trump's campaign manager" toward Kelly.
"We can't give in to terrorisations toward any of our employees," the statement read. Trump is welcome at the debate "and will be treated fairly ... but he can't dictate the moderators or the questions."
However, on Tuesday night, the real estate mogul, who has previously threatened to boycott debates but later always participated confirmed that his decision not to participate was "pretty close to irrevocable".
"With me, they're dealing with somebody that's a little bit different. They can't toy with me like they toy with everybody else," he said. "Let them have their debate and let's see how they do with the ratings." He added, "Why do I have to make Fox rich?"
Ailes however fully supported his moderator.
"Megyn Kelly is an excellent journalist and the entire network stands behind her," Ailes told The Washington Post. "She will absolutely be on the debate stage on Thursday night."
The squabble continued on Wednesday when the Republican frontrunner tweeted in a customary insult: "I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!"
"What (Trump's) not free to do and what no news organisation would allow, would be for him to... dictate the terms of the debate," Kelly wrote to her more than 1.4 million followers.
The standoff, however, ended after the debate began. Trump opened his charity event stating that Fox had apologised and had invited him once again to participate in the debate. "I say, hasn't it already started?" he mused.
Fox News issued a statement saying its chief, Roger Ailes, had spoken to Trump and "acknowledged his concerns." It added that Trump had offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that Fox News contributes $5 million to his charities, which it refused to do.
With one Republican debate still left for Fox News to host in March 2016, where will Donald Trump take this feud next?
With inputs from AP and AFP