Fox News’ Debate Could Put Trump’s GOP Opponents in a “Minefield,” Moderator Martha MacCallum Says

With or without the ex-president on the debate stage, the other Republicans in the race will have to comment on Trump’s mounting indictments, MacCallum tells Vanity Fair. “This is a very high-stakes moment for them,” she says.
Martha MacCallum at Fox News Channel Studios in New York City.
Martha MacCallum hosts FOX News Channel's "Democracy 2022: Election Night" at Fox News Channel Studios on November 08, 2022 in New York City.by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images.

On August 23, candidates for the Republican presidential nomination will gather for the first time together on the debate stage in Milwaukee. One thing they have in common: They’re all being crushed in the polls by Donald Trump, the front-runner who may not even show up. Regardless, the former president will loom large over the Fox News–hosted event—particularly when it comes to the multiple criminal indictments he is facing. “It will absolutely be incumbent upon them to address [Trump’s criminal charges],” Fox News’ Martha MacCallum, who is co-moderating the debate along with Bret Baier, says of the other Republican candidates. “Voters need to hear how they see it, and the option that they’re trying to provide. It’s very tricky territory for these candidates. They know that well,” MacCallum says. “It’s kind of a minefield.”

Eight candidates have thus far met the Republican National Committee’s qualifications for a spot on the debate stage—Trump, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Chris Christie, Doug Burgum, and Mike Pence—but none besides Trump have really gained traction. It’s particularly challenging to do at a time when the former president is dominating not only the polls, but, with his myriad charges, the news. “He’s sort of sucking all the oxygen out of the room,” says MacCallum, who sees the debate as an “important starting point” for those in the rest of the field to distinguish themselves. “This is a very high-stakes moment for them, and not everybody will really survive the process deeper than perhaps Iowa,” says MacCallum.

Debates have often been an opportunity for candidates to demonstrate their differences on policy, but at this point in the GOP primary, cultural issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and school curricula have commanded the conversation. MacCallum says she thinks such cultural issues “will certainly come up on the debate stage,” but “when you look at what people care about, it’s not high on the list,” compared to foreign policy and the economy. Candidates’ answers on abortion are another detail that she thinks voters will be paying close attention to.

Undeniably though, how candidates handle questions about Trump—who many have been unwilling or reluctant to criticize—will be top of mind for many viewers. “The goal at this moment is for them to get through Trump,” says MacCallum. “They have to define themselves in a way that makes them stand out with voters and also contrast themselves to the alternative, which is the former president. So it’s very tricky—he has a lot of support out there, we see that in the numbers.” What’s less clear is “what the impact will be of these court dates that he has that are just stacked up like planes waiting to take off at JFK.”

Speaking of planes, it’s easy to picture a scenario where the public is watching Trump’s on the tarmac on the afternoon of the debate, waiting to see whether he’ll show up or not. While his calculus could be evolving due to his worsened legal exposure, he’s been vocal about considering skipping the event, questioning the point of debating when he’s so far ahead of everyone else in the polls and publicly attacking Fox News for not giving him enough coverage and promoting DeSantis. Executives from Fox are said to be scrambling to convince him to participate, including Fox News president Jay Wallace and CEO Suzanne Scott, who reportedly appealed to him during a recent private dinner at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Network personalities, meanwhile, have been making their own appeals on air.

“Certainly we would like for him to be there,” says MacCallum, “and I think that the American people deserve an opportunity to watch the former president against the people who are his contenders. Yes, at this moment, most of them are far behind him in the polls. But that’s just a moment in time, and that can change if he is not there.”

(Complicating all of this: The RNC has reportedly told Trumpworld that he needs to make a final decision at least 48 hours in advance for security and logistics reasons. Further, Trump last week said he won’t sign the RNC’s loyalty pledge to support the eventual GOP presidential nominee, which is required of all candidates.)

I asked MacCallum whether she thinks candidates’ views on the 2020 election will be a focal point in 2024 races; just last week, DeSantis made news by merely stating the obvious fact that Joe Biden is the president and Trump lost the election. “I think there’s a lot of desire to look forward. That being said, these trials and issues push that question into this forum, and it has to be dealt with and addressed,” said MacCallum. “I think relitigating the outcome is not really where most people are focused at this point.” I noted that Trump has spent the past three years relitigating the outcome, an effort at the heart of his latest indictment. “Absolutely,” said MacCallum. “They all know that they’re gonna have to be clear on where they stand on it.”