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Exclusive: Megyn Kelly Talks Fears, Courage and Donald Trump

17 minute read
Philip Elliott is a senior correspondent at TIME, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau, where he covers national campaigns, elections, and government. He also writes TIME's politics newsletter, The D.C. Brief.

Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor who found herself facing sharp criticism from Republican Donald Trump, has had quite the campaign cycle, to say the least. Between moderating debates that drew record audiences and hosting her nightly show, The Kelly File, she also worked with the network to launch a primetime special, Megyn Kelly Presents, which is set to air May 17 on the Fox network. Her guests are Robert Shapiro, Michael Douglas, Laverne Cox and, of course, Trump. Even as Trump accused her of asking questions based on her hormones and insulted her skills at making interview subjects squirm, she’s kept her cool.

TIME sat down with her on a recent evening in her office at Fox headquarters in New York City to talk about her primetime special, the campaign so far and how she can “hug it out” with Fox News chief Roger Ailes. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

In the era of Twitter and Snapchat, can a prime-time special break through?

I think there’s still a market for this kind of product. Otherwise Barbara wouldn’t have been doing it for so long, and Diane wouldn’t still be doing it occasionally. I think that it’s kind of a luxury because it gives people the chance to stop for a minute and see some really compelling television, highly produced, which we don’t see any more—certainly not in my world.

You know, cable’s got its virtues, there is not question about that. I think there’s no substitute for what we do over here, which is breaking news while it’s happening. That’s why so many people have come to us for so many events, including the election coverage.

But it’s nice to have something beautifully done, where the interview isn’t rushed and you don’t have to cut the guest off because a hard break is coming, which we’ve all learned to live with in cable news, as consumers of it or participants in it. This is just high-gloss. It’s a beautifully done production. You don’t know why you’re enjoying it while you’re watching it. But you are. The story is told. It’s told fully because we’ve budgeted for time. We’ve allotted the blocks. It will sing in a way that an hour of live television just never can.

You met with Donald Trump on his own turf. How did you break the ice?

It wasn’t challenging. He was very warm from the moment I walked in. I think he greatly appreciated the fact that I reached out and was willing to go to him. So, we got off on the right foot. We had a very amiable exchange.

Did he apologize?

No. No apology was requested, either.

All along, it was a one-sided fight. As he insulted your gender, your intelligence, your ability, you held your tongue. How hard did you have to bite your tongue?

At times it was hard not to say anything, not to, quote, fight back—in particular for my husband. He’s a writer. He would have loved to have penned an op-ed here or there.

I just always felt that taking the high road was the better course. I’m a journalist covering this race. I always wanted to continue covering this race. I never wanted to be baited into doing something that would give him the fodder to jeopardize my fairness and my objectivity. If I came out there and started fighting Trump, he would have just turned around and said, She can’t be fair, right? At times, I think it drove him nuts that I wasn’t responding. But that was clearly the right course to pursue.

So, sure, there were moments when my character was attacked or my honesty was attacked where I had to hold my tongue. But I think, all along, people who have been paying attention, they knew what to make of certain of his comments. I had faith in that.

How do you explain this to your kids?

Thankfully, they’re very young right now. So I haven’t had to say too much about it. But they’re out in this world so they’ve heard some things. I keep it broad.

They’re still at the point that they don’t understand what Democrats and Republicans are. You know, my oldest is 6. They’re interested in the fact that we’re electing a President, there are basically two parties in the country. These are the people running on the one side, these are the people on the other side. Sometimes, people who are running for President like to come after the journalists who ask the questions, but that’s Mommy’s job. Mommy is going to keep asking the tough questions, and they’re fine. They’re like, OK, good for you, Mom. I certainly haven’t gotten into the specifics of what’s been said.

What have you learned about yourself in the past year?

I really have thought this one through. The answer is: I am not fearless, but I do have courage, and adversity is an opportunity. People kept calling me fearless throughout the whole thing, and I kept kind of laughing because I am not fearless. I have plenty of fears. But I do have the courage to walk through them. That’s really all you need.

If you set the bar as fearlessness, you’re going to be sitting alone in your room alone, crying in your soup a lot because you’re going to find that you do have some fear.

But it’s really about whether you can must the courage, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going. Just go out and do the things that you need to do. I have proven to myself that I can. There has been plenty of adversity this year. But it has been an opportunity for growth, to get to know myself better, to understand who and what is most important to me, it certainly makes clear to you who your friends are, who you can lean on and trust in times of trouble. And I do think you grow, you grow. You know, the same way if you break down a muscle, it comes back stronger. That’s what we do when we exercise. I think if you test your emotional mettle or your resilience mettle, you come out stronger on that front, too.

What advice do you have for young women who are being bullied?

Head down, shoulders back, forge forward. That’s really what I tell my team, in particular the women on it. I really believe, as I wrote for TIME in a piece, that if you respond to the bully, you’re going to get more bullying. The bully wants to control you. The bully wants a response from you. That’s half the reason why he does it. And so, if you can deprive the bully that by power by denying him that gratification, the bullying is likely to end sooner. That’s my belief.

Now this is a general rule. That doesn’t mean it applies in all circumstances. But my belief that is that the more you allow someone to get in your head, and to infect you with their bad behavior, the worst off you are. The more you can push them out of your thinking and pour all of the energy that you’re feeling about that situation into yourself, the better off you’ll be.

Now, if it’s egregious, you’re going to need to help resolving the situation. In particular, I think of middle-school girls. No middle-school girl should just have to go to school, day after day and be ridiculed and taunted and have her life be ruined. But, I think, in that kind of circumstance you’d have to reach out to a third-party or a surrogate to help put an end to it. I do believe that it’s the rare circumstance in which the bullied person can put an end to it directly with the bully. I know there are certain circumstances like that, where someone is bullying you, you punch him in the face and he never bothers you again. I get that. That’s a different kind of thing. I’m thinking of girls right now. I did have a fight one time when I was in high school. But I would say that in general girls don’t go toward physical violence. Female bullies are more prone to emotional violence. There’s a different way of dealing with that. There’s a different way of dealing with that.

In the TIME piece you wrote for us, you said critics are often motivated by envy. Why should people envy you?

I don’t know. I think envy is a destructive force, so I don’t think they should envy me. It’s a tell for you about dissatisfaction in your own life, so you should use that as a motivator to improve your circumstances. You know, that’s the only value in envy. It’s a tell for you about some dissatisfaction.

My own philosophy is it’s a waste of time, beyond the tell and doing something about it, to envy someone. We only see what this person presents to us, right? And there’s always something to make you feel better about somebody, you know? I used to laugh, to joke on the air during the Tom Brady Deflategate thing that we all just wanted it to be true because it he is so good looking and she is so beautiful and they have all this money and they have this amazing lifestyle and they seem to have all these great friends and great careers. It’s like, But I understood that God is a fair god. There must be something wrong. Oh? He’s a cheater? Great! I’m in. I want to believe it. You know?

You just need to keep in mind that everybody, including me, has had turmoil in their lives, has had struggles in their lives, probably has insecurities, things they’d like to change about themselves or their situations. I’ve never met someone who is just completely happy, satisfied, thriving, strong and invulnerable—nor do I want to meet that person.

Last summer Bill Maher made a joke about you. “We think Megyn Kelly is the sane one over there at Fox News. That’s because she’s surrounded by Hannity and O’Reilly. She’s the blonde girl on Game of Thrones. Everyone else is a zombie or a dwarf or sleeping with their sister,” a paraphrase there, “so she looks normal.” Do you ever get nervous when you look around your network?

Nervous? No. I don’t understand the question.

Bill was making the point that you have firebrands like Hannity, people like O’Reilly, and you come out looking sane and reasonable by comparison. Do you worry about the network’s reputation?

No. Nor do I think a criticism from a man who refers to women as the c-word should wind up in a TIME piece. You’re putting yourself out there if you want to use that.

I think Fox News is just like any news organization in that we have editorial and we have news. There is nobody who would mistake Bret Baier or Bill Hemmer or Shep Smith or yours truly for Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. And I think Bill and Sean get so much attention is because it’s very rare to have strong conservatives on TV, even in today’s day and age. And they are an anomaly still, even after the Fox News Channel has been in existence for going on 20 years.

You know, would you ask that question of Savannah Guthrie, you know, when she was doing the 9 a.m. over on MSNBC? We’re not MSNBC. But nobody ever asks that when the commentators are left-leaning. We get that at Fox because the right-leaning commentators are a problem for certain reporters, and they feel the need to ask straight news journalists whether they want to be associated with that. In my view, that is your bias talking. That says nothing about Fox or me.

What’s it like to be liberals’ favorite person on Fox?

I don’t know if that’s true. Listen, I will take any viewer who wants to tune in. I don’t go out there to do the show to appeal to conservatives or liberals or independents. I am independent. But I just want anybody to watch. I don’t care why.

If they watch because they don’t like me and they think that I’m a curiosity, that’s OK. If they watch because they’re left and they want to see our right-leaning guests and what their talking points are, that’s OK. If they’re rightwing and they want to see some of our left-leaning guests, who don’t go on some other shows, great. It doesn’t matter to me.

I always laugh when I get the emails, like, I can’t stand that show. I am never watching that show again. Then you see, like, But that guest you had at 9:20, he really enraged me. Then it was even worse when I got to 9:30. And when you put that last guest on, I was spitting mad at the TV. I’m sensing something.

Anyway, It’s fine by me. Back in the day, I went on Howard Stern. Why’d I go on Howard Stern? I think he’s a great interviewer, but I also went there because he has an audience that might not be tuning into The Kelly File every night, or the show I was anchoring at the time. I would like to reach out to those people. Maybe they don’t love me in that moment when they hear me on Stern. Whatever. But the next time they’re channel surfing, they think, Oh, wait a minute. Didn’t I hear her? OK. They pause. Then you have one more. That’s just another person who is in the conversation with you.

Before this, you were an attorney. What’s tougher, winning ratings or winning cases?

Cases, by far. Fox is very lucky in that we have a lot of people who are very loyal to us and our programming. You still have to fight for it. You can’t sit back and coast. Trust me on that. I work very hard.

But it’s nothing like the law. The law was all encompassing. It was everything I did. It was everything I was about. That was the only way I could be to maintain success at that level of practice.

Here, If I make a mistake, I’ll go out there and own it. In the law, if you make a mistake, 30,000 people could lose their jobs if you don’t win this motion. That was true stress. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt stress in this job. There’s plenty of pressure in TV news, like the 9 o’clock start of the show is coming and there’s no getting an extension. It’s coming. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve said at 8:59, I need more time. You’re not getting it. That’s not stressful where you feel the bad stuff that causes heart disease rise up inside. Do you know what I mean? Do you know that feeling? I had the feeling a lot when I practiced law.

What does feminism mean to you?

It’s about female empowerment. It’s standing shoulder to shoulder with my sisters on the truth of who we are, which is a force to be reckoned with. My own personal philosophy means showing rather than telling. And as Steve Martin put it, being so good that they can’t ignore us.

A lot’s been made of your partner-ship with Fox News chairman Roger Ailes.

It’s more like mentorship.

When was the last time you disagreed with him?

All the time.

What was the last disagreement?

I’m not going to get into my private conversations with my boss. But one of the things I love about working for Roger Ailes is I can yell at him, he can yell at me, and then we can hug it out. Truly, I respect that about him. He’s looking, just as our channel is looking for different voices who can go at it in a full-throated manner, that’s how he is. Listen, he’s my boss and I’m his subordinate. That’s clear. That doesn’t mean I can’t challenge him. You know, if he’s said something that I think is wrong, I will tell him. If I’ve done something that he thinks is wrong, he’ll tell me. But we can argue about it. You know, I can make my case. He will make his case. Sometimes we will agree to disagree. Other times, he persuades me or I persuade him. But it always ends well.

In marriages, they say that they can tell if you’re going to get a divorce in the way you end an argument. I think there’s some truth in that in a professional relationship, too. Arguments actually bring you closer with somebody. I’d much rather have a boss like this than a boss who is constantly whispering sweet nothings to me and then they stick a shiv in you and you’re out. I’d much rather have a boss who leaves it on the line like he does.

What’s the dream job?

A little Oprah, a little Charlie Rose and a little me. Of course, my husband would say there’d be a little Larry the Cable Guy sprinkled in there, too. He and I share the same sense of humor.

Has Megyn Kelly already won the 2016 election?

No. I’m on the sidelines, not on the playing field.

But this has been a tremendous election cycle for you, no?

It’s been a tremendous election cycle, period. I’ve been through a crazy year, there’s no question. But it’s not about me. For some of the campaign, Trump has made me the story. But that was never what I wanted and it’s not what I want sitting here right now. I certainly don’t want anyone declaring me the winner of anything.

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Write to Philip Elliott / New York at philip.elliott@time.com

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