Fox News is deep in an ethics quagmire following a Washington Post report that the network's CEO Roger Ailes used Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland to try to recruit Gen. David Petraeus to run for the president as a Republican. While Ailes and McFarland made their secret overtures, McFarland appeared on Fox's airwaves to praise Petraeus as "one of the greatest generals in American history."
According to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, Ailes had McFarland advise Petraeus that he "should turn down an expected offer from President Obama to become CIA director" and instead hold out for the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to resign and run for president if he was not offered that post. In audio of the meeting obtained by Woodward, Petraeus also said to McFarland that he had been advised that Ailes might resign as Fox News chief and act as a Petraeus aide should the general run for president. He also said that Ailes might bankroll the campaign, although he added that maybe it was News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch who had made that offer.
Woodward also reported that Ailes has acknowledged that he did ask McFarland to make the pitch: "It was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have." Ailes also called McFarland "way out of line" in some of her comments.
This would be an ethical problem by itself: Ailes -- the chief of a supposedly objective news network -- was advising an active general who was commanding U.S. troops in the middle of a war to make demands of the president, and if those demands were not met, to run for president with Ailes acting as his aide.
But the ethics problem is much worse than that. McFarland appeared on Fox's airwaves soon after meeting with Petraeus to praise him as "one of the greatest generals in American history" who will save us from defeat in Afghanistan. While McFarland was putting Petraeus on at least the same level as Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower, she provided no disclosure of her and Ailes' advice that Petraeus should consider running for president.
From the April 21, 2011, edition of Fox News' Happening Now:
McFARLAND: When I was there two years ago, Jenna, I looked around and I concluded this is hopeless. Now with General Petraeus, who is one of the greatest generals in American history, he has gone in and he has devised a plan that will work. And the question is not, will it work, but the question is, should we be doing this? Is this an objective, is this a mission that we want? And as you have pointed out, it's expensive. And are we at this point -- you know, where is America's priorities?
JENNA LEE (co-host): Are we in this kind of stalemate [in Afghanistan] like it seems some are describing in Libya -- of course we're not there with combat troops -- but where no side is really gaining any ground and nothing really changes?
McFARLAND: Well the plan that -- the Petraeus plan is to really spend this summer -- they've diminished and decimated the middle ranks of Al Qaeda at the same time they've built up the middle ranks, the mid-level management of the Afghans. So the plan is to continue to make inroads into the Al Qaeda -- not the Al Qaeda so much as the Taliban, and then have slowly but surely the Afghans take over. And it will take a number of years to do that.
McFARLAND: We're doing the military part right, but it's a three-legged stool. And the other parts of the stool, the other legs, are the Afghan government and the Pakistani government, which has safe havens for the Taliban.
During the Happening Now segment, Fox even aired a photo of McFarland's meeting with Petraeus without disclosing what they discussed about Petraeus' future:
Subsequently, on April 27, 2011, the day news broke that the White House was expected to nominate Petraeus to be CIA director, McFarland said: "I'd love to see him run for president." On April 27, the day Fox reported that President Obama was going to nominate him to be director of the CIA, McFarland appeared on Fox & Friends. Co-host Brian Kilmeade asked: "Would you rule him out running for president?" McFarland responded: "I think that Petraeus doesn't want to run. I asked him that question too. And he said, 'I'm not running for president.' But you know something? Political attitudes change. I don't think he's somebody who knows how to be a candidate, but he sure does know how to be a great American leader. I'd love to see him run for president."
McFarland similarly wrote on FoxNews.com that the White House had "done something a bit underhanded but politically shrewd by tapping Petraeus for the CIA" because it had "managed to park a potential rival in a place" where he would not get much public exposure. In the FoxNews.com piece, McFarland disclosed that she had off-the-record discussions with Petraeus about the possibility of him being chosen to be CIA director or chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but did not disclose that she had urged Petraeus to reject the CIA position and possibly run for president with Ailes' and Murdoch's help:
I spent 90 minutes with General Petraeus at his office in Kabul last week. He is truly a asset to our country. Petraeus is a brilliant general and tactician. He's an inspirational leader. And finally, he's also got that indescribable something "extra." His earnest demeanor and intensity make everyone around believe in him and want him to succeed.
I asked Gen Petraeus about rumors that he was leaving Afghanistan in the fall, and what might be next. He said he still wanted to serve the country and there were only two jobs where he felt he could make a difference: either by serving as CIA Director or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Our discussion was off the record, and to respect that I will not quote the general. But my sense of his thinking is that being Director of CIA would give him the chance to make a crucial difference in defending the country.
Still, I can't help thinking that the Obama administration has done something a bit underhanded but politically shrewd by tapping Petraeus for the CIA. If he's confirmed for the post, the White House has managed to park a potential rival in a place where he will be neither be seen nor heard from for the next 18 months.
Petraeus as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have put the most respected American military leader in a generation in a position to challenge President Obama's military policies. It would also give General Petraeus an even greater national national platform - should people try to draft him for a presidential or vice presidential run in 2012 or 2016.
McFarland made a similar remark on Fox's airwaves. During the April 27, 2011, edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier, McFarland said that the White House had put Petraeus where he would be "no threat politically":
K.T. MCFARLAND, FOX NEWS NATL SECURITY ANALYST: Head of the CIA doesn't give speeches. He doesn't go on the Sunday morning talk shows. He's somebody who keeps his council quiet. So, if you wanted to put General Petraeus somewhere where he'd make a great contribution to national security but be no threat politically, C.I.A. is a pretty good place to put him. [via Nexis]
This is just the latest in a series of ethics problems caused by Ailes political machinations. Ailes reportedly "fell hard" for Gov. Chris Christie and encouraged him to run for the Republican nomination for president, while Fox's on-air personalities swooned for Christie. During the Bush administration, he offered "off the record" support to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Ailes reportedly responded to President Obama's election in 2008 by saying, "I see this as the Alamo."
In 2000, Ailes installed a cousin of George W. Bush, John Ellis, to run Fox News' election night "decision desk." Ellis used his position to feed information to the Bush campaign on election night, and Fox was the first network to call Florida for Bush that night, a call it was later forced to retract.