— -- The silence was the sign.
Roger Ailes, the powerful Fox News chief, first realized his career at the helm of the network he built was in jeopardy when evening anchor Megyn Kelly refused repeated overtures to issue a public statement of support, according to a source familiar with the internal discussions.
Greta Van Susteren, Bill O’Reilly and Maria Bartiromo had already defended Ailes. But Kelly was invisible -– ominously so.
At the center of this year’s presidential campaign, Kelly was being asked, cajoled and even pressured outright to pledge her support for Ailes in the first days after sex-harassment claims were lodged, two sources said. And when Kelly declined to play along, a sense of doom quickly creeped over Ailes and his cabinet of advisers.
“And what about Megyn?” was the question asked inside Ailes’ war room. “There’s a problem with Megyn. Let’s talk offline.”
The following is an account from inside Fox, based on interviews with multiple sources with direct knowledge of what occurred. Ailes’ attorney, Susan Estrich, did not respond to a request for comment.
Ailes resigned under pressure Thursday, just after the stock market’s close. In the 24 hours preceding that announcement, it had become almost a given that Ailes was being ushered out of the network he built by his boss, Rupert Murdoch, and Murdoch’s sons, Lachlan and James.
Though such an exit was almost unthinkable just a week earlier, Ailes had already come to grips with what was the shocking new reality.
The crisis exploded July 6 when former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed a sex-harassment lawsuit against Ailes. Fox was not named in the case.
Quickly, Ailes assembled a war room at his home in Bergen County, New Jersey. Chief among those advising Ailes was his wife, Beth. In the room or dialed in on all-points conference calls were friends, and, importantly, PR and legal staff from Fox News, who were technically not even involved in the case.
Ailes made it clear to his team that he thought Lachlan and James Murdoch would try to use the Carlson lawsuit as a vehicle to remove him from his perch. After a career of battles -– both in politics and media -– Ailes figured he’d be able to strategize and scrap his way through and stay on top.
“We’re not going to let them win,” Ailes said of the Murdoch heirs.
In keeping with Ailes’ take-no-prisoners style, it was decided that the defense would be a blistering offense. And key to that would be a campaign of public pronouncements of support from Fox employees, to be led by those with the highest profile and best ratings. Quickly, the litany of A-listers coming out in support of their embattled boss would include Van Susteren, O’Reilly, Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro and Neil Cavuto.
“It was an unbelievable campaign,” one insider told ABC News. “There was enormous pressure.”
And the pressure was most extreme to get Kelly on board. She had taken center stage in public battles this year with Donald Trump and she is perceived to be both a strong woman and an independent thinker. Getting Kelly on board would be a coup and was to send messages both to the wider world and those inside Fox headquarters in Midtown Manhattan that things would be OK for Ailes.
Kelly wouldn’t do what Ailes wanted. (Kelly declined to comment to ABC News.)
She did, however, speak with the team of investigators retained by the Murdochs to probe what was happening at Fox. The law firm brought in to do the investigation told Fox staffers they wanted to know whether others had experienced harassment by Ailes. They started with those, like Kelly, who were headed to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
During that session, Kelly told investigators about harassment from Ailes she had suffered years earlier. Ailes would soon find out about that interview and news accounts detailing her account would follow quickly.
But that’s not when Ailes first realized his career at the network he founded was over. That moment had already come –- with a burst of silence.
Ailes, through his lawyers, has denied harassing Carlson or Kelly.