Fox News tries to referee House GOP chaos but cancels speaker ‘debate’
Fox News inserted itself into the center of the GOP House chaos this week, with hosts subjecting conservative insurgents to sharp examination and criticism and prime-time star Sean Hannity going so far as to endorse a candidate in the competition to replace ousted speaker Kevin McCarthy.
But the Republican-friendly network’s boldest step to referee the unfolding events on Capitol Hill — a plan to host an unprecedented televised forum between the speaker candidates, that would have aired exclusively on Fox — imploded just hours after it was announced on Friday.
The event was called off after Republican lawmakers expressed frustration that it could be a distraction, according to two congressional Republican aides familiar with the decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private discussions.
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Fox News anchor Bret Baier acknowledged on-air Friday afternoon that the network had initially lined up commitments from three candidates to appear in the forum.
“There became pressure from other members on these three to not do that,” he said.
McCarthy’s ouster on Tuesday at the hands of eight GOP members led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was loudly booed by some of the most influential conservative voices on Fox.
On the afternoon roundtable “The Five,” co-host Jeanine Pirro said she was “furious” about the “total chaos” Gaetz had created in what she called a bid to boost his own fundraising.
“It’s kind of pathetic,” co-host Greg Gutfeld said, saying that Republicans had metaphorically shot themselves in the head (and quipping that he would head to Washington to run for speaker himself).
It was unclear whether Gaetz and his allies felt wounded by the barrage, as many of them turned this week to smaller, more conservative media outlets that have attempted to rival or counterprogram Fox. The insurgents have made frequent appearances this week on the online video show hosted by former Trump White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon, where, in contrast to their treatment on Fox, they are praised as heroes.
On Wednesday, “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade subjected one of the McCarthy opponents, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), to an unusually combative interview, calling him “the ringleader of a circus” and accusing him of misleading the former speaker about his intentions when Burchett said he would “pray” about his vote.
“Oh, come on!” Kilmeade said. “Please. You were praying about it one minute, the next minute you’re going to lead an insurgency?”
“The line of questioning is very negative, you know that and I know that,” Burchett said.
Fox anchors cast Gaetz’s decision to push McCarthy as a distraction from conservative priorities like increased border security funding.
But after McCarthy announced he would not seek to reclaim his seat, Hannity — Fox’s most senior prime-time host — demanded that Republicans quickly settle on their next speaker, suggesting they lock themselves in a room with pizza and beer, emerging only once they have a consensus pick.
Hannity went further on Wednesday, saying he was endorsing Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a frequent Fox guest, for the speakership.
“The best option I think we have is Jim Jordan,” Hannity said, to a chorus of applause that appeared to come from an in-studio audience or crew.
On Friday morning, Punchbowl News first reported that Fox host Bret Baier would moderate what the site called a “debate” on Monday evening between three potential candidates: Jordan, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), and Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.). In a press release, Fox described it instead as a “joint interview.”
Whatever it was meant to be, the event began to fall apart almost immediately. The prospect of internal House Republican divisions spilling even more into public view horrified some lawmakers, with Rep. Carlos A. Gimenez (R-Fla.) telling CNN that the idea was “horrible.”
Then the candidates pulled out. A spokesman for Jordan told CNN that he wouldn’t sit for the interview before meeting with the conference, an idea that threw the debate into jeopardy because of a scheduling issue. Scalise bailed on the event, too.
Hern, who hasn’t yet declared a bid for the speaker’s role, posted on social media that he would prefer a private “family discussion” within the caucus over a public “debate.”
Baier said Friday afternoon that Fox still plans special coverage of the speaker race on Monday, promising “interesting guests” in a broadcast from the U.S. Capitol.
“I think that the word ‘debate’ has scared folks over the past couple of days, and we’re hoping to change that,” he said. “We’re going to use a different word.”