Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly said she thinks Donald Trump was agitated before the first GOP primary debate not because he’d learned she was going to confront him about his insulting descriptions of women but because he suspected she’d ask about his first wife’s claim that he’d raped her.
In her new memoir, Settle for More, Kelly describes how an unexpectedly anxious Trump complained to Fox News executives last year about what she’d do as a moderator of the debate. The questions Kelly and her colleagues planned to ask the candidates were secret. She wrote that days before the debate, Trump called Fox “in an attempt to rein me in. … He said he had ‘heard’ that my first question was a very pointed question directed at him." Kelly’s first question was in fact for Trump and about his treatment and descriptions of women. She wondered, she wrote, “How could he know that?"
In an exclusive interview Monday with USA TODAY — one in which she discussed what she called her "Year of Trump'' and her stand against former Fox News chief Roger Ailes — Kelly said she did not believe her question leaked to Trump beforehand. “I don’t think he had any idea," she said. “What I think he was worried about was his divorce from Ivana Trump. … He was afraid I was going to bring that up."
A few weeks before the debate, Kelly devoted a segment of her program, The Kelly File, to an interview with the author of a report on The Daily Beast website. It said Ivana Trump had sworn in divorce papers a quarter-century earlier that Trump had raped her — an accusation she later retracted. Kelly said that after the segment aired, an angry Trump called and told her that “I almost unleashed my beautiful Twitter account on you, and I still may."
It was a threat on which he soon made good.
The author's Year of Trump began with her now famous question to Trump about whether his history with women would be fodder for Hillary Clinton’s claims that he was part of a “war on women."
It exploded with Trump’s insinuation that Kelly was hostile to him in the debate because she was menstruating and continued until the following April, when the two met in Trump’s office. By that time, Kelly said, she was weary of the abuse prompted by Trump’s string of insulting social media posts. In the interview, Kelly declined to comment on what she said or did at her Trump Tower meeting to get him to stop.
But as a result of the meeting, she said, “Trump and I are in a better place now. We left things on a good note. He’s never come after me the way he had. … Even though he held onto his anger toward me like a dog with a bone, he does have the ability to let things go. He proved that."
Readers of Settle for More may not harbor such optimism about the president-elect. That’s because Kelly has written a contemporary Perils of Pauline saga in which a sympathetic heroine fends off the advances — literal and digital — of two villains: Trump and Ailes, who resigned in July under duress.
The latter, an accused serial sexual harasser (who nonetheless furthered our heroine’s career at every turn) gets his just desserts; the former becomes president.
During their one-sided feud, Trump called Kelly a bimbo, a lightweight, a liar, crazy and sick; he urged a boycott against her show; his attorney retweeted a call to “gut" her. “Strange men turned up outside" her door, she wrote. “Death threats were common." She, her husband and their three children vacationed at Disney World with an armed bodyguard in tow.
“He couldn’t let it go for so long," she said of Trump, “and there was a time when I wondered if he’d ever let it go."
Many have commented on the sang-froid with which Kelly seemed to respond to all this. But she said she was afraid — for her safety and her family’s and for her reputation as a journalist trying to cover the story and not be the story.
In seeking a meeting with Trump, Kelly said, she took her fate into her own hands — “settling for more." The book’s description of the encounter goes much further. “I felt like a hostage whose hostage taker was seeing her as a human being for the very first time — who needed to believe that he would let her go," Kelly wrote.
When Trump greeted her by holding out his arms for a hug, Kelly embraced him. “It felt like a kind gesture," she wrote.
When he asked for her cellphone number, she worried — in pique, he’d made GOP presidential rival Lindsey Graham’s number public — but gave it to him. When he suggested they have a picture taken together, she agreed. They posed arm in arm.
In retrospect, she wrote, “I look rather like a person who’s been through some sort of trauma and is waiting for the Coast Guard helicopter."
The reader may understand why Kelly felt she needed to go to Trump. Efforts by Ailes, Fox’s pro-Trump host Sean Hannity and others had failed. “Nothing stopped it," she said in the interview. “I realized no one was coming to save me. If this was going to end, I was the one who was going to have to end it."
The book’s penultimate chapter deals with Ailes, who Kelly said harassed her starting in 2005. In a private meeting in his office, he said he wanted to see her in the “very sexy bras” she must own. The following year, she wrote, Ailes tried to grab her and kiss her on the lips. As she fled out the door, she recalled, he asked, “When is your contract up?”
When she finally confided to a supervisor, she said, she was told to avoid Ailes. After that, the problem stopped.
Ailes was sued in July for alleged sexual harassment by former Fox morning show host Gretchen Carlson. A week and a half later — after spurning requests to vouch for Ailes — Kelly called the co-chairman of Fox’s parent company, Lachlan Murdoch, and reported her own experience. Ailes has denied all charges against him.
Kelly was asked by USA TODAY if she thought that Ailes, who continually promoted her — even while she was on maternity leave — deserved a second chance in the news business.
“Absolutely not," she snapped. “I have no doubts now about who he is or what he did. I don’t think he’d have spent a lifetime doing it and suddenly turn over a new leaf." She said she was disturbed he’d advised the Trump campaign.
Despite Trump’s attacks, Kelly’s ratings are as high as ever — second only to those of her Fox evening lineup neighbor, Bill O'Reilly. Her Fox contract is up next year, and she’s the subject of intense speculation over with which network she’ll sign (ABC is among those interested), for how much (Fox supposedly offered $20 million a year) and to do what (she’d like to do more in-depth interviews).
She said she was not concerned by a tweet by Trump campaign social media director Dan Scavino after her on-air tussle last month with Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich. ("She is totally biased against Mr. Trump & not very smart. …. Watch what happens to her after this election is over.")
“That wasn’t Trump, that was Dan Scavino, who used to be Trump’s golf caddy," Kelly said. “I’m not worried about him."
Trump has observed his truce with Kelly since what she calls their "Trump Tower Accords." He has yet to comment on her book, which goes on sale Tuesday. After her flap with Gingrich, he tweeted, “Congratulations, Newt ... that was an amazing interview. We don’t play games, Newt, right? We don’t play games.”
Whatever's next between Kelly and Trump, she said his campaign against her is an ominous precedent:
“I have a big mic, and I was established. He couldn’t really destroy me," she said, "but think about the message that was sent to other journalists thinking about covering him skeptically. Perhaps they just don’t want to spend a year being bullied."