Commentary: Mugshots from Georgia and the first GOP debate upstage Trump's predictable interview with Carlson

TOPSHOT - This illustration photo shows a preview of Tucker Carlson's interview of former US President Donald Trump scheduled to air on X (formerly Twitter) on the same night of the first Republican Presidential primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on a smartphone ahead of the debate on August 23, 2023. (Photo by Chris DELMAS / AFP) (Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson's interview with former President Trump ran on X (formerly Twitter) on the same night as the first Republican presidential primary debate, which was hosted by Fox News. (Chris Delmas / AFP via Getty Images)

“How do you get indicted every week and stay cheerful?” ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked former President Trump in an interview that was meant to steal the thunder from the first Republican primary debate on Wednesday.

The pre-taped, 46-minute discussion, which was streamed on X (formerly Twitter), was more like a gentle softball toss between friends than the sort of high-wattage spectacle both men are accustomed to generating, particularly on Fox News, the network that hosted the debate, that no longer employs Carlson and that has become increasingly critical of Trump. They chatted about President Biden’s “skinny legs,” what they felt really happened to Jeffrey Epstein in jail (“Suicide or murder?” Carlson asked with a furrowed brow) and rehashed Trump’s reasoning for skipping the debate, which was running live at the same time the video was released.

But judging by Thursday morning’s headlines and social media trends, the once powerful showmen were overshadowed by a gathering of low-polling GOP candidates in Milwaukee — stoic former Vice President Mike Pence versus the mouthy entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — and more bad news associated with Trump’s 2020 run for the White House.

Mugshots of Trump’s co-defendants Rudy Giuliani and other political allies flooded the mediasphere after the former New York mayor surrendered to authorities in Georgia in connection with a sprawling case to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Trump is expected to surrender at the Fulton County jail in Atlanta on Thursday — one of four criminal cases filed against the former reality star in recent months.

Comradery between Trump and Carlson, forged around years of promoting the Big Lie and a bond cemented by both men's loss of their former thrones, permeated the interview. Carlson, who actively promoted Trump on his show, but privately criticized him, was fired by Fox News in April after a defamation suit. "I think it was a terrible move getting rid of you," Trump said to Carlson about his dismissal from the crown jewel of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

Meanwhile, Carlson played to Trump’s claims of being unfairly targeted and victimized when he asked the former president about all the indictments against him: “Are you worried they’d try and kill you? Why wouldn’t they try and kill you, honestly?” The two also leaned into a familiar interview pattern from their days at the top of the media spin: Carlson gave Trump the unobstructed runway to attack detractors rather than discuss policy. But even Trump’s vitriol toward the “savage maniac lunatic” he “never trusted,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, felt like an old trick in a drastically new era.

People stand behind lecterns on a stage.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Christie battled it out onstage in a two-hour debate that also included Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Given Trump’s absence, it was their chance to loosen the grip that their party’s frontrunner has on the Republican electorate.

Ramaswamy stole a page from Trump’s 2016 playbook, emerging as a stroppy candidate challenging the status quo of Washington. The 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur baited everyone onstage, saying that they were “bought and paid for,” declaring that the “climate change agenda” was a “hoax” and that he’d stop supporting Ukraine should he become president.

Haley came down hard on the zealous newcomer in what was perhaps the most pointed exchange of the evening. “Look at what Putin did today,” she said, referring to a questionable plane crash that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, a critic of the Russian president. “He killed Prigozhin. When I was at the U.N., the Russian ambassador suddenly died. This guy is a murderer. And you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country."

DeSantis, who has been polling a distant second behind Trump, appeared stuck in 2020 when he railed against COVID-era lockdown protocols, promised to send “Biden back to the basement” and demonized the former chief medical adviser to the president, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Despite the rest of the group’s willingness to passionately debate hot topics such as a federal abortion ban, all were reticent to talk about the guy who wasn’t there. It was nearly an hour into the broadcast when moderator Bret Baier finally said, “We are going to take a brief moment and talk about the elephant not in the room.”

He then asked the candidates, “If former President Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as the party's choice?” All responded in the affirmative except for Christie and Hutchinson, both of whom were showered with a litany of “boos” from the rowdy crowd.

Then, after just 10 minutes spent on the right's greatest chance and obstacle in retaking the White House, co-moderator Martha MacCallum switched subjects. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief.

As of midday Thursday, the 46-minute conversation between Trump and Carlson on X has attracted more than 150 million views, according to the social media platform, while viewership numbers on the debate were still unavailable. But comparisons are tough, given that X view counts include anyone who has scrolled past the video since it was posted Wednesday, even if only for a few seconds, and Fox News’ numbers don’t include the many other ways that people may have watched the debate (YouTube and DVR, for example).

One thing that is clear: The duo's conversation about "unfriendly" Fox News, the sale of the Panama canal or Trump’s deregulation of low-flow shower heads was hardly driving the national conversation Thursday. Trump's impending surrender and the fireworks and flubs of the other presidential hopefuls shaped the narrative, rather than a chat between two men grasping to reclaim their former seats of power.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.