Fox News chairman Roger Ailes urged Gen. David Petraeus to run for president last year, according to a digital recording of a conversation between Petraeus and an Ailes emissary obtained by the Washington Post.
The Post's Bob Woodward reported that Petraeus, then the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, was contacted by Kathleen T. McFarland, a Fox news national security analyst and former Pentagon aide, during McFarland's visit to Afghanistan in 2011 and was given a message from Ailes: If President Obama offered Petraeus the job of CIA Director instead of the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ailes urged Petraeus to decline the offer, resign from the administration, and run for president as a Republican.
McFarland implied that Ailes, who was a Republican political consultant for decades prior to running Fox News, could resign from his position at Fox to run Petraeus' presidential campaign. McFarland and Petraeus also discussed the possibility that Rupert Murdoch, the head of Fox News parent Newscorp, would "bankroll" the campaign, according to the Post.
Petraeus did not heed Ailes' advice, saying he would entertain the idea of being CIA Director if Obama offered him he job, which the president did a few weeks later. Petraeus was sworn in as director on September 6, 2011, a post he held until November 9, 2012, when he resigned due to fallout from an extramarital affair with his biographer.
Of a presidential bid, Petraeus told McFarland, according to the Post, "It's never going to happen," explaining, "My wife would divorce me, and I love my wife. We have a beautiful house...I just want to live in it. I've never spent a night in it." Though disinclined to follow Ailes' counsel, Petraeus praised the Fox News head, saying, "I love Roger...he's a brilliant guy." He continued, "If I ever ran, I'd take him up on his offer."
When McFarland first told Petraeus she had been sent with a message from Ailes, Petraeus responded, "With no one else in the room, I hope."
McFarland explained, "I'm only reporting this back to Roger...his deal with me was that I was only supposed to talk to you, and he is a little paranoid, so believe me, he doesn't have anybody in that room."
Perhaps the most salacious detail to emerge from the conversation was an exchange in which Petraeus told McFarland that if he ran for president, Ailes would "quit Fox...and bankroll it."
"Bankroll it?" asked McFarland.
"Or maybe I'm confusing that with Rupert," said Petraeus, referring to Newscorp head Rupert Murdoch.
"I know Roger, he's done okay," replied McFarland. "But no, I think the one who's bankrolling it is the big boss.
"The big boss is bankrolling it, Roger's going to run it, and the rest of us are going to be your in-house."
Ailes denied any breach of propriety, insisting that while he did ask McFarland to pitch Petraeus on a presidential run, "It was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have." He told the Post he thought the Republican primary field "needed to be shaken up, and Petraeus might be a good candidate."
Ailes also disavowed McFarland's involvement, pointedly explaining that she is not an employee of Fox News but just a contributor who is paid less than $75,000 a year. "It sounds like she thought she was on a secret mission in the Reagan administration," scorned Ailes. "She was way out of line...It's someone's fantasy to make me a kingmaker. It's not my job."
Petraeus did have some editorial advice for Fox News. McFarland asked Petraeus whether there is "anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want us to do differently?"
The general responded, "The editorial policy of Fox had shifted. It was almost as if, because they're going after Obama, they had to go after Obama's war as well," adding that he had discussed the problem with Bret Baier, a primetime anchor on the cable news channel.
Baier did not recall discussing Fox's coverage with Petraeus, but disputed the premise of the general's critique. "That's B.S.," he told the Post. "We cover the war the same way no matter what administration is in power."
The conversation between Petraeus and McFarland eventually made its way into an April 2011 piece McFarland wrote on FoxNews.com in which she wrote, "Our discussion was off the record, and to respect that I will not quote the general." The piece, which was written after it was obvious that Petraeus was headed for the CIA, continued, "I can't help thinking that the Obama administration has done something a bit underhanded but politically shrewd by tapping Petraeus for the CIA." In so doing, McFarland argued, Obama had removed a "potential rival" from the presidential race.
On Monday, Ailes offered perhaps the simplest explanation of why he would not have deputized McFarland to speak as she did. The Fox News head said there was "zero chance" he would reenter politics because in his current job, "The money is too good."