Megyn Kelly has gotten more attention than any other media personality during this GOP presidential primary, chiefly due to Donald Trump’s shambling insults and toddler’s temper. The current front-runner opted out of Thursday night’s debate because he’s still mad at Kelly for questioning him about his misogynist past in an early debate, but Kelly had plenty of opportunities to force other candidates into tight ideological spots and to watch in glee as they squirmed—she was in peak form.
Kelly played up her power as the anchor who was too tough for Trump to handle; for her first question, she asked Ted Cruz about Trump, who she called “the elephant not in the room.” Trump’s absence was a gold medal for Kelly to wear throughout the debate. But where she really shined was in a series of questions about combating radical Islam and the xenophobia and infringements on civil liberties that can result from overzealous security measures. First, she asked Marco Rubio about his support for closing down mosques and diners where radicalization might take place. “The Supreme Court has made clear that hateful speech is generally protected by the First Amendment. In other words, radical Muslims have the right to be radical Muslims unless they turn to terror,” Kelly said. “Doesn't your position run afoul of the First Amendment?”
Rubio talked about rooting radical Muslims out wherever they congregate and sending them to Guantánamo Bay—no mercy on his watch, that kind of thing—playing right into Kelly’s hand. She turned to Rand Paul with a mischievous glint in her eye: “Do you agree with that? We’re gonna close down mosques, we’re gonna close down diners, wherever we think radicalization is occurring?” She riled the two candidates up and set them against each other, easy as waving a matador’s cape.
Then, Kelly turned to Chris Christie with a question about the San Bernardino, California, shooting. “Neighbors of the terrorists said that they did not report the couple to law enforcement prior to the crime because they were afraid that they would be accused of profiling,” she said. “Now, you have said we should not profile. How do you square that with the San Bernardino case?” Christie argued that the neighbors had enough reason to go to the police, then bumbled around some kind of distinction between people who “know how to do this” and people who’ve “never done this before,” presumably advising people to let law enforcement decide whether suspicious behavior is worth investigating.
“[The neighbors] didn’t know [the terrorists] were going to attack the country,” Kelly said in response.
“They were talking about the issues of attacking people,” Christie said.
Credit Kelly with speaking over him to get her piece in and pointing out his wobbly version of the story. “That’s not true,” she said. “Neighbors said that they saw men going in and out of the garage. They saw packages being delivered. They saw Muslims. And they did not think that was enough to call the cops. Do you?”
Christie came back with an endorsement of “see something, say something” and uttered just about the weakest argument about profiling, whether for or against: “I think people should use their common sense.” If Trump’s popularity is any indication, the conservative Republican base would have loved to hear a full-throated endorsement of profiling against Muslims. Kelly made sure Christie didn’t give it to them.
But Kelly’s acumen as a moderator belies the fact that she, too, stokes the fires of Islamophobia and offers her show’s platform to radical ideologues who make Donald Trump look quaint. Trump’s jabs at Kelly, which have included period jokes and brushed up against the “bimbo” line without quite crossing it, have brought feminists and other bystanders to Kelly’s defense, and as one of the few Fox News anchors who actually make some pretense about being fair and balanced, she’s garnered a lot of unearned goodwill from unlikely places. Her sharp performance in Thursday’s debate will only shore up her harmless center-right façade.