Roger Ailes, the longtime Republican media guru, founder of Fox News and its current chairman, had some advice last year for then-Gen. David H. Petraeus.
Fox News ‚Äėofficially‚Äô part of the GOP-Fox News chief‚Äôs failed attempt to enlist Petraeus as presidential candidate
Fox News chief‚Äôs failed attempt to enlist Petraeus as presidential candidate
So in spring 2011, Ailes asked a Fox News analyst headed to Afghanistan to pass on his thoughts to Petraeus, who was then the commander of U.S. and coalition forces there. Petraeus, Ailes advised, should turn down an expected offer from President Obama to become CIA director and accept nothing less than the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military post. If Obama did not offer the Joint Chiefs post, Petraeus should resign from the military and run for president, Ailes suggested.
The Fox News chairman‚Äôs message was delivered to Petraeus by Kathleen T. McFarland, a Fox News national security analyst and former national security and Pentagon aide in three Republican administrations. She did so at the end of a 90-minute, unfiltered conversation with Petraeus that touched on the general‚Äôs future, his relationship with the media and his political aspirations ‚ÄĒ or lack thereof. The Washington Post has obtained a digital recording from the meeting, which took place in Petraeus‚Äôs office in Kabul.
McFarland also said that Ailes ‚ÄĒ who had a decades-long career as a Republican political consultant, advising Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush ‚ÄĒ might resign as head of Fox to run a Petraeus presidential campaign. At one point, McFarland and Petraeus spoke about the possibility that Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp., which owns Fox News, would ‚Äúbankroll‚ÄĚ the campaign.
‚ÄúRupert‚Äôs after me as well,‚ÄĚ Petraeus told McFarland.
McFarland said she had spoken ‚Äúdirectly‚ÄĚ to the Fox News chairman and the ‚Äúadvice to you from Roger Ailes is. .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. He says that if you‚Äôre offered [JCS] chairman, take it. If you‚Äôre offered anything else, don‚Äôt take it; resign in six months and run for president.‚ÄĚ
Petraeus demurred, saying he would consider the CIA directorship if Obama offered it, as the president did several weeks later. Petraeus was confirmed and sworn in as director on Sept. 6, 2011. He resigned a year later, on Nov. 9, after the disclosure of an extramarital affair with his biographer.
In a telephone interview Monday, the wily and sharp-tongued Ailes said he did indeed ask McFarland to make the pitch to Petraeus. ‚ÄúIt was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI thought the Republican field [in the primaries] needed to be shaken up and Petraeus might be a good candidate.‚ÄĚ
Ailes added, ‚ÄúIt sounds like she thought she was on a secret mission in the Reagan administration. .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. She was way out of line. .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. It‚Äôs someone‚Äôs fantasy to make me a kingmaker. It‚Äôs not my job.‚ÄĚ He said that McFarland was not an employee of Fox but a contributor paid less than $75,000 a year.
Petraeus, Murdoch and McFarland did not respond to calls and messages requesting comment.
When McFarland first said she had a message directly from Ailes, Petraeus said, ‚ÄúWith no one else in the room, I hope?‚ÄĚ
Later she said, ‚ÄúI‚Äôm only reporting this back to Roger. And that‚Äôs our deal.‚ÄĚ
Petraeus said it was okay to relay his response to Ailes, adding ‚Äúthat has to be off the record.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúHis deal with me was that I was only supposed to talk to you,‚ÄĚ McFarland said. ‚ÄúAnd he is a little paranoid, so believe me, he doesn‚Äôt have anybody in that room.‚ÄĚ
At the meeting, some 18 months ago, Petraeus told McFarland that he thought the CIA was ‚Äúa treasure. .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. I think that organization is full of just heroes. Unsung heroes.‚ÄĚ He went on to say, ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre going to be retrenching militarily.‚ÄĚ In contrast, the CIA and the intelligence agencies, ‚ÄúI think, are going to be a growth industry,‚ÄĚ Petraeus said.
While rejecting Ailes‚Äô advice, Petraeus said, ‚ÄúI love Roger. .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. He‚Äôs a brilliant guy.‚ÄĚ
Petraeus said he ‚Äúwould love to see‚ÄĚ Ailes on his next trip to New York, where Ailes has his office.
‚ÄúTell him if I ever ran,‚ÄĚ Petraeus said, and then laughed, ‚Äúbut I won‚Äôt .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. but if I ever ran, I‚Äôd take him up on his offer. .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. He said he would quit Fox .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. and bankroll it.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúBankroll it?‚ÄĚ asked McFarland, who served as a senior aide to Henry Kissinger and later as a Pentagon spokeswoman in the Reagan administration.
‚ÄúOr maybe I‚Äôm confusing that with Rupert,‚ÄĚ Petraeus said.
‚ÄúI know Roger, he‚Äôs done okay,‚ÄĚ McFarland replied, ‚Äúbut .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. no, I think the one who‚Äôs bankrolling it is the big boss.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThat might be it,‚ÄĚ Petraeus said.
‚ÄúOkay,‚ÄĚ McFarland said, ‚Äúthe big boss is bankrolling it. Roger‚Äôs going to run it. And the rest of us are going to be your in-house.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúYeah, right, okay,‚Äú Petraeus said.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre all set.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs never going to happen,‚ÄĚ Petraeus said. ‚ÄúYou know it‚Äôs never going to happen. It really isn‚Äôt.
‚ÄúMy wife would divorce me,‚ÄĚ he added. ‚ÄúAnd I love my wife. .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. We have a beautiful house.‚ÄĚ Both Petraeus and McFarland laughed. ‚ÄúWith his-and-hers bathrooms, believe it or not. I just want to live in it. I‚Äôve never spent a night in it.‚ÄĚ
* * *
The digital recording also provides a glimpse into the close relationship Petraeus had with the news media, especially Fox News. At one point, McFarland declared that ‚Äúeverybody at Fox loves you,‚ÄĚ adding that Ailes had directed her to ask Petraeus whether ‚Äúthere [is] anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?‚ÄĚ
Petraeus didn‚Äôt hesitate. ‚ÄúThe editorial policy of Fox had shifted,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúIt was almost as if, because they‚Äôre going after Obama, they had to go after Obama‚Äôs war as well.‚ÄĚ He said he had discussed this with Bret Baier, a key Fox anchor.
‚ÄúPapers and news outlets have editorial policies,‚ÄĚ Petraeus said. ‚ÄúThey know sort of how their bosses feel about things .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. and it causes a certain shading,‚ÄĚ Petraeus continued.
One example, according to Petraeus: ‚ÄúOff the record, the New York Times was never going to give Bush or Iraq a break. I don‚Äôt care what happened.
‚ÄúIn fact, one time Thom Shanker [a Times military correspondent], who I think very highly of, wrote a piece. And it was on me, before I was going to testify one time, and they had ‚ÄĒ a pretty good piece, I mean, factual, in other words. Again, all we want is the truth. We‚Äôre not out to spin. But then it had this sort of really odd thing inserted in it. And it was something that had been proven unfounded, but it sort of bounced around on the MoveOn.org kind of Webs. And I said, ‚ÄėThom, where did that come from?‚Äô He said, ‚ÄėOh, that was added by the editors.‚Äô‚Ää‚ÄĚ
Both journalists had different recollections. Baier said he recalled no such conversation with Petraeus. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs B.S.,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúWe cover the war the same way no matter what administration is in power.‚ÄĚ
Shanker also said he did not remember saying anything resembling what Petraeus asserted. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt blame the editors for what appears under my byline,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúIt undermines your own credibility.‚ÄĚ
* * *
In the meeting with McFarland, Petraeus gave his standard line about the Afghanistan war, saying there had been significant progress, but ‚Äúthat progress remains fragile and reversible.‚ÄĚ
McFarland mentioned her conversation with Petraeus in a FoxNews.com piece on April 27, 2011. ‚ÄúOur discussion was off the record, and to respect that I will not quote the general,‚ÄĚ she wrote. By that time, it was clear that Petraeus would be nominated as CIA director. ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt help thinking that the Obama administration has done something a bit underhanded but politically shrewd by tapping Petraeus for the CIA,‚ÄĚ she added, because it would remove him as a ‚Äúpotential rival‚ÄĚ in the presidential contest.
On Monday, Ailes, 72, said there was ‚Äúzero chance‚ÄĚ he would leave Fox to reenter politics for Petraeus or anyone else. ‚ÄúThe money is too good,‚ÄĚ he said, declining to say how much he earned, although reliable reports have pegged the amount at roughly $20 million per year under a new four-year contract.
‚ÄúI left politics in 1988 because I hated it,‚ÄĚ Ailes said. ‚ÄúMy main interest is seeing my 12-year-old‚Äôs basketball games.‚ÄĚ
Evelyn M. Duffy contributed to this report.
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