Martha MacCallum: GOP Debate Candidates Should Consider Trump No-Show a “Gift”

Martha MacCallum, Anchor and Executive Editor of The Story (weekdays at 3pm ET), Fox News Politics Anchor and author of Unknown Valor,  joined the Guy Benson Show to discuss the upcoming Republican Debates on Fox and the implications of former president Donald Trump not being in attendance.


Listen to the full interview below:


Full Transcript:

Guy Benson: One of the co-anchors and co-moderators of that debate on Fox News tomorrow evening is our friend and colleague Martha MacCallum, who is executive editor and anchor of The Story every weekday at 3 p.m. EST on Fox News Channel. And then she is very much a major part of our Fox News politics coverage, including tomorrow night. Martha, it is great to have you back on the show.  

Martha MacCallum: Hi, Guy. It’s always great to be with you. It’s finally debate eve.  

Guy Benson: It’s finally here. You’ve done this many times before. Do you have any butterflies? Or are you past butterflies?  

Martha MacCallum: You always have butterflies before a big event like this. And I think that for those of us who love covering politics and like doing live TV, this is the good kind of butterflies and it’s the kind that gets you to really buckle down and do your homework and make sure that you’re ready. But it’s exciting.  

Guy Benson: Talk us through to the extent that you’re willing and able, just the preparation process for a debate like this. You’ve had this date now circled on the calendar for months, certainly weeks. And you and Brant, who will be moderating, are both extremely busy people. You’ve got podcasts, you’ve got the TV show, you’ve got special coverage on all sorts of other things. How do you find the time to prepare for something like this? What do those crunch sessions look like and what are just generically some of the types of conversations that you guys have about priorities and sequence and timing and all of that?  

Martha MacCallum: You know, it is a process that started a couple of months ago, as you say, and back in that moment, I was just listening to what all the candidates are saying. When things strike me, I’m making notes in my file about who’s saying what and where they stand on issues like abortion and Ukraine and all of these things. The economy obviously is front and center. So I just gathered a lot of what they were saying so that I could think about the positions that they hold and then watch them over the next couple of months to see if they’re moving or sort of morphing from those and why. So we try to keep track of how they are developing as candidates, what we can press them on. And then in the past six weeks or so, we’ve been in active sessions where I bring my questions and brings his questions and we sort of figure out which ones we love and which ones we are going to bump to the bottom of the pack. And we make or together we make the questions sharper and we keep sort of kicking the tires on them the whole time. So we have a small team that is involved, you know, over the last several weeks that is helping us with research and grounding these questions and making sure that when we ask a question, we, you know, we have sort of the backup behind it so that that’s ready to go as well. It’s an intense process, but it’s obviously it’s really one of my favorite things to do and in my work.  

Guy Benson: Yeah. And you have to make those questions bullet proof. That’s part of the process. And what’s interesting and this is fascinating because you and I were chatting about this yesterday when we were getting ready for Special Report. We were on the panel together. It’s really a white knuckle ride up until the very last minute about who even will be on the stage so you guys can have potential questions. But it’s like, okay, do we get to ask questions of so-and-so? Will this person qualify? As of yesterday, we finally got the list. I know a lot of people are discussing who will be on stage. Of course. There’s a big conversation around who won’t be on stage. The aide participants are Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota, who kind of bought his way into eligibility, at least on the donor side. Former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Governor Asa Hutchinson, the former Governor of Arkansas. Former Vice President Mike Pence, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, and U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. That’s the field. Let’s start there. Eight podiums, Martha, that’s a lot, but it’s not even close to some of the crazy cattle call level debates we saw, for example, in 2016. It felt like there were 20 podiums on stage, maybe not quite that much, but eight, by comparison, kind of feels more manageable.  

Martha MacCallum: Exactly. It feels a lot more manageable to me. And the last time around, we divided into two stages because there were, I think, 17 people, if I have that right. So Bill Hemmer and I did the early debate in Cleveland in 2015, and then there was the marquee event that came after that. And that was a huge night, as everybody remembers. I think there were 24 million people watching that night. So, yes, it feels a lot more manageable. We don’t have the former president on stage. And I think it really if I’m these other candidates, I consider that a gift. You know, you’ve got this opportunity to get a little bit more time up there. We know that 50 to 60% of Republican or Republican leaning voters say that they are persuadable or that they are not Trump voters. They all fall into that 50 to 60%. That’s a big number. And if I’m one of these people, I’m looking at that thing. That’s where I can make my mark. You know, I think one of the big questions is down the road, what happens, right? Do they still all hang in there and divide up that 50 to 60% or does the momentum rally around one of these people who goes head to head with President Trump? And then I think you’ve got a pretty interesting situation. 

Guy Benson: Now that was the dynamic that a lot of candidates were hoping to be in for themselves in 2016. I’ll be the last man standing. And then finally, when there’s a one on one shot, then I’ll take down Trump. Of course, that’s not how it played out. That ended up being a plausible theory. It didn’t pan out. And Trump by that point built a lead and it was too late before the consolidation really started were, of course, months and months away, even from Iowa and the caucuses happening there. But you mentioned him, Donald Trump, and you’ve got some of these other guys who are running, Mayor Suarez and former Congressman Will Hurd, Larry Elder, they’re claiming that they feel like they should have qualified. The RNC says no based on their rules. Look, if you couldn’t hit the metrics, you couldn’t hit the metrics, separate issue. But someone who could hit the metrics, of course, is the front runner. He has the donors. He’s got the polling support. He’s got this massive lead in the states and nationally. He hasn’t signed that pledge, which the RNC requires to back the eventual nominee. So that could potentially be a snag. But overall, Donald Trump would have been more than welcome, of course, at this debate and subsequent debates, but he has said he’s not showing up tomorrow and he won’t be debating during the primary season. I just wonder what you make of that as a strategy, number one. And then number two, from your perspective, I’ve had multiple people ask me this and I said, you know, I know just the person to ask, it’s Martha MacCallum who’s one of the moderators, because he is just this all consuming force in Republican politics, and he’s up 30, 40, 50 points in some of these polls. Obviously, you’re going to have people wanting to run against him and try to catch him in his absence. How much discussion should there be about Donald Trump tomorrow night at the debate versus having it be about the people who actually show up? It seems like a balancing act would have to be struck there and might be a tough one.  

Martha MacCallum: Well, you know, my hope is that everybody who watches tomorrow night is going to feel that we struck that balance really well. I think you’re going to hear a lot about the issues. I think there’s a deep hunger among voters across the country to hear things talked about. I think that a lot of people are tired of focusing on all of these lawsuits. They’re tired of focusing on even even the current president in some respects as well, and the issues that surround him, because they feel that they have a hard time… 52% of Americans in our most recent polls say that buying groceries is a major problem. Think about that. 52% of Americans say buying groceries is a major problem. So how much do they really care about these trials and tribulations? And what opportunity does that create for one of these other candidates? I also think time will tell. But is the former president employing sort of his own basement strategy this time around? Are he you know, it’s it’s it’s a long time since 2015 when the former president broke onto the scene. He has very strong ardent supporters who are even strengthening into the course of these indictments. But I my question is, over the course of all of this playing out, is there peel off fatigue, even a couple percent in that number? And do people start to say, you know what, I kind of would rather focus on the things in my life and things in his life, and we’ll see what kind of impact that has. In the end, you know, I mean, I don’t see him getting a lot of attention on debate night. And is he going to wish that he was in the center of that stage? Because, you know, I mean, doing an interview, it’s kind of same old, same old. I mean, we see him do those, you know, every few weeks. And I’m not sure there’s anything new there.  

Guy Benson: Yeah. And look, if he decides that it’s ultimately desirable to show up at one of these debates, by all means, he might change his mind. Things are subject to change with any politician, including Donald Trump. So I guess we’ll see. But it seems pretty certain locked in that he will not be here in Milwaukee tomorrow night. Now, this is maybe a tough question, Martha, because you are tasked, you and Brett, with asking the questions and seeing what happens on stage. And obviously you’ll be reacting like the rest of us in real time, but you have so many sort of moving pieces to keep track of and keep the trains running on time and make sure that you’re following up properly and getting everyone in and making sure no one’s getting short shrift, so on and so forth. If you were able to take a step back, if you were just going to be a casual viewer sitting at home, maybe with an adult beverage, let’s say a Long Drink watching this on Fox News tomorrow night, what just as a voter, regardless of political affiliation, what are some of the storylines that you think are compelling coming out of tomorrow night? What are you going to be when you take a breath, when it’s all over, racking your brain thinking about, okay, here were my curiosities. How did so-and-so perform? What are you looking at tomorrow?  

Martha MacCallum: Well, you know, I look at at the big picture of America and I think about the presidents who have been able to really move the needle, you know, show true leadership, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, show leadership for their own party’s right. And you think about how some of these people have burst on the scene over time. So who stands out in your mind? You’ve got, you know, a Bill Clinton who came from behind, not well known and ended up capturing the imagination. I feel your pain. The man from hope, all of that. That’s what it takes to win presidential elections in the modern day. Right. You know, look at Barack Obama. I mean, you know, amazing articulator of his vision, you know, able to sort of have the audacity of hope. Right. All of that. He burst onto the scene 

Guy Benson: He could move people.  

Martha MacCallum: He made himself known. He moved people. You know, regardless of your politics, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, I’m just looking at this as a political analyst who burst onto the scene, grabbed the hearts and attention of Americans. Certainly, Ronald Reagan is in that category at a time when you had Watergate and Jimmy Carter. And in many ways, we feel like we’re in that kind of moment again in this country. Right. Malaise, concern, crime in the cities, drug addiction. Look at the images on the front of the New York Post, people walking down the street with needles hanging out of their arms. So if any one of these individuals can do that ,and certainly Donald Trump did it right, captured the attention of the forgotten men and women across the country. And, you know, they and many of them are still absolutely ardent supporters, no matter what he does or what he’s accused of doing, they stick up for him and stand for him because he had that kind of impact on the imagination of the American people. There is an opportunity for one of these people to come out and blow people away and say, you know what? I am really interested in where I think this person can take the country. So I think it’s that kind of thing that I would be watching for from home. And we’ll see what happens.  

Guy Benson: Last but not least, Martha MacCallum, this was another subject on the panel last night. You and I were with Brett and Kellyanne Conway. In our second segment, we were analyzing President Biden’s very short trip to Maui. And in my opinion, as I said on the air, I don’t think he’s handled this well at all since it happened. It’s been quite a period of time now. He’s been on two different vacations since he was at the beach, of course, famously the no comment moment. Then he went to Tahoe and he took a little bit of time out of the Tahoe vacation to pop over to Hawaii. He told a story. We talked about this earlier with some dubious elements where he’s sort of repeating something that’s been debunked before. There was video that appeared to show him falling asleep at one of these events. Mixed reception to him. Some people on the island very angry with him, other people more receptive. I just think now that he’s heading back to the mainland, here we are a long way into this crisis and this catastrophe. Hundreds of people still missing, Martha. I just wonder how that looks on the other side of the aisle juxtaposed to a big Republican night here in Milwaukee tomorrow.  

Martha MacCallum: I think there’s pretty broad understanding that they missed the moment on his attention on this. And I think what Kellyanne said was exactly right yesterday on the panel. This is a moment when people look to a President for leadership, almost a father figure in this moment, to make sure that the compassion of the nation is focused on what’s going on to other Americans in this devastating situation. And they missed the timing. There were days that passed on this before there was response. And you saw it on the streets in in Hawaii. You know, it’s just, you know, anecdotal when people hold up signs, we we all know that that doesn’t reflect the whole population. But, you know, there were signs that said you’re too late. And, you know, also, he was kind of slurring his words yesterday when he was in Maui talking about this. And then he started talking about, you know, almost losing his Corvette. So I if I’m those people, I am not feeling like, you know, this is an I feel your pain moment that is going to resonate with me in Hawaii. And I think, um, I think it’s a it’s a serious misstep.  

Guy Benson: If people are looking for a comforting father figure or what they’ve seen, to me at least, is a disengaged retiree. And that’s certainly something that I think Republicans are going to be hammering on in the days, weeks, months to come, if indeed Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, as expected next year in 2024. But on the Republican side, really, it all starts tomorrow in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Fox News debate in primetime. Bret and Martha doing the moderating. I can’t wait, Martha. Best of luck. Looking forward to it. And we’ll catch up soon.  

Martha MacCallum: Thank you, Guy. Great to be with you.  

Guy Benson: Thanks for taking some time. I know you’re very busy today. That’s Martha MacCallum on The Guy Benson Show. And we’ll be right back.