Trump's campaign manager: If Fox won't remove Megyn Kelly as moderator, maybe we'll hold our own townhall on Thursday night

Lewandowski’s bluffing, just as Trump bluffed before the September debate in implying that he might not participate unless CNN devoted the proceeds to veterans groups. Stirring a little extra controversy is all part of Trump’s regular debate pre-game. And there’s not a ghost of a chance that Roger Ailes will meet his demand: Not only would he look weak in caving, he would humiliate the network’s new biggest star in doing so. If Fox wants to keep Kelly away from network news, agreeing with Trump that she’s tainted by bias and needs to be kicked off the panel would be the worst thing they could do. Besides, half the reason to watch this freak show is because it’s the first time she and Trump will be face to face since the unpleasantness of the August debate. Who knows what holes he’ll accuse her of bleeding out of this time?

But never mind all that. Question: Would skipping the debate and hosting an event of his own that night be a smart move for Trump? I can see the argument that it would.

Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, indicated that Trump could walk away from the debate if Fox won’t exclude Kelly. “Let’s see what happens,” he told me. “It’s fair to say Mr. Trump is a significant ratings driver for these debates. If we aren’t on stage for some reason, they wouldn’t have the record 24 million viewers and would be back with 1-2 million people.”…

In a statement to reporters, Fox News spokesperson Irena Briganti said: “Megyn Kelly has no conflict of interest. Donald Trump is just trying to build up the audience for Thursday’s debate, for which we thank him.”…

Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, told me Trump could stage his own televised town hall on Thursday night and let Fox’s rivals air it. “That would be a great idea,” he said.

It is a great idea. Imagine if Team Trump threw together some sort of mega-rally on Thursday night and handed exclusive broadcast rights to CNN. Maybe that’s logistically impossible: They’d have to do it ASAP to give CNN time to promote it, and it’d have to be a capital-E Event to draw viewers away from the debate. A normal Trump speech might not hack it. But that’s what Trump’s good at — he’s a showman, so here’s his chance to put on a show. He could say that he’s boycotting the debate because he doesn’t trust Fox’s “establishment” media filter, which would create a bit of awkwardness for Cruz, and wants to take his message to the people. And whatever the event ends up being, it’d have to be held in Iowa, of course. Otherwise skipping the debate might offend Iowans as a signal that he felt he no longer needed to compete for their votes. The spectacle of Trump alone on one channel before a raucous audience versus the other stiffs on Fox debating the finer points of immigration policy would signal to voters just how “different” his candidacy is. And imagine the humiliation to Fox if Trump’s thing on CNN did ratings comparable to the debate, or at least put a major dent in Fox’s share.

But then, if Trump was inclined to go this route, presumably he’d have already taken steps to plan something. At a minimum, he would have held the Palin endorsement in reserve for this week’s Thursday night “event.” Not even Trump is likely to draw the media away from the drama of a debate — but a “special event” featuring a “major announcement” with special guest Sarah Palin would have. Which is why, as I say, this is all a bluff and Trump will be there onstage on Thursday. Besides, why would he punish Fox News for his beef with Megyn Kelly specifically? With the exception of Kelly and a few others, there’s no cable news outlet that’s deeper in the tank for Trump than Fox is:

The reactions of several Fox personalities seemed to mirror the sentiment FNC host Jeanine Pirro expressed on Twitter that morning: “The National Review needs to get in line with the rest of the Republicans. How dare they trash the front-runner Donald Trump!”…

“These words should disturb every American,” said co-host Harris Faulkner. “He [Trump] is not deserving of conservative support in the caucuses and primaries. Whose job is it to decide who gets to be where? It’s the voters who decide. It is not any particular party. That’s offensive on its face.”

Co-host Andrea Tantaros faulted National Review for a lack of credibility, saying that instead of criticizing Trump, they should write about why Trump is resonating with so many in the Republican base, and direct their magazine’s fire at the GOP establishment…

Later on The Five, Eric Bolling expressed worry that the essays would provide more fuel for Democrats to use against Trump if he made it to the general election — a concern suspiciously hard to find during Trump’s trashing of his fellow Republican candidates throughout the primary.

“Everyone’s now saying, Oh he doesn’t check this box, he doesn’t check this box,” complained [Jesse] Watters. “Do you know what box is important to check? Filling up 40,000-people stadiums on a Tuesday night. That’s the box that counts on Election Day. I don’t think principles matter if you can’t get elected and institute those principles. And I think a lot people now are putting pure conservatism over the country.”

Don’t forget the defenses of Trump from star hosts like Greta Van Susteren and Sean Hannity and the fact that “Fox & Friends” has given him a regular form to promote his views for years. (And that’s just the cable-news wing of conservative media. Conservative talk radio’s months-long promotion of Trump is another matter.) After all that, it says a lot about the thinness of Trump’s skin that he’d even tease the idea of skipping a Fox debate because there’s one host there who won’t gladhand him.

Something to think about: Why should Trump’s polling be considered so impressive given the phenomenal advantage he’s had over the rest of the field in his access to media, not just on Fox but among outlets across the spectrum? Jeb Bush’s critics have been goofing on him for nearly a year because he hasn’t been able to translate the staggering amount of money his Super PAC started with into any poll momentum. His dad’s rich friends gave him $100 million to buy the nomination and he’s still in single digits. Trump, however, has been given the equivalent of untold millions in free advertising over the past six months from media outlets willing, for the sake of ratings, to grant him as much airtime as he likes, and his polling isn’t wildly different today from where it was when he first surged into the lead last summer. On any given morning, Trump could call in to CNN and get 10-20 minutes to talk about whatever he wants; someone like Cruz or Rubio is lucky to get one four-minute carefully structured interview segment by comparison. Trump was at 25.8 percent in Iowa on September 2 in RCP’s poll average and, until just this past week when he started to inch up, he was still at 26-27 percent there in mid-January. If Jeb deserves heat for not using his fundraising windfall to build up his numbers, why doesn’t Trump deserve heat for not using his media windfall to do the same? Where would Ted Cruz be today if the media gave him as much airtime as it gives Trump?