Fox News boss offered to set up Petraeus run for White House
Audio tape captures message from news chief Roger Ailes seeking to persuade general to run for US president, with backing from Murdoch
The Guardian in Washington
An audio tape has emerged revealing how Fox News chief Roger Ailes tried to convince General David Petraeus to run for the US presidency.
The tape includes reference to an offer for Ailes to quit Fox to run the campaign, which Fox owner Rupert Murdoch would bankroll.
The 2011 tape, obtained by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, also includes a message from Ailes asking Petraeus: "Is there anything that Fox is doing right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?"
The discussion mirrors longtime complaints that Fox acts as a proxy for the Republican party. The right-leaning station has employed no fewer than five Republican presidential candidates as on-air contributors.
But Woodward's revelations suggest that Ailes' efforts went beyond wooing would-be presidents, and that he actively tried to play the role of kingmaker.
In a report on Tuesday, Woodward revealed that Fox chairman and founder Ailes sent Fox News analyst Kit McFarland to Afghanistan in a secret mission to try to convince the then-commander of US forces there to enter the race for Republican presidential nomination.
The discussion behind Woodward's story takes place in the then-general's office in Kabul some time in early 2011, before Petraeus has accepted the job as CIA director from which he resigned last month in the wake of the scandal over his affair with his biographer.
McFarland begins by promising Petraeus absolute discretion, saying that Ailes's "deal with me was that I was only supposed to talk to you - and he is a little paranoid, so believe me".
However, the 90-minute conversation was recorded, and a digital copy of it somehow made its way into Woodward's hands.
"I've got something to say to you directly from Roger Ailes," McFarland says on the recording that has been posted in edited form on the Washington Post website. "I'm not running," Petraeus says, guessing what is coming.
McFarland, a Pentagon adviser to the Reagan administration, does not take no for an answer. She says Ailes has told her to tell Petraeus that unless he is offered a posting as chairman as joint chiefs of staff, the top military job in the US, "don't take it, resign in six months and run for president".
The next time Petraeus is in New York, she says, he should come and "chat to Roger and Rupert Murdoch", to which Petraeus, replies: "Rupert's after me as well."
"Tell him [Ailes] if I ever ran," Petraeus says as the meeting is wrapping up, "I'd take him up on his offer. He said he would quit Fox."
McFarland says that "the big boss" would be "bankrolling" the campaign - a reference to Murdoch. "The big boss is bankrolling it. Roger's going to run it. And the rest of us are going to be your in-house."
"Yeah, right, okay," says Petraeus with a laugh.
The Fox News chief tried to make light of the recording in a telephone interview with Woodward on Monday. "It was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have," he said, before going on in time-honoured fashion to blame the messenger - in this case McFarland. "She was way out of line. It's someone's fantasy to make me a kingmaker. It's not my job."
In 2010 Ailes was paying five leading Republicans and potential presidential candidates to appear on Fox News - John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum.
Petraeus remained true to his word and kept out of the 2012 election. Paradoxically, given recent events, he told McFarland a reason he would not run was that "my wife would divorce me".