WASHINGTON — Roger Ailes, the longtime Republican media guru, founder of Fox News and its current chairman, had some advice last year for then-Gen. David Petraeus.
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 Barack 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’s message was delivered to Petraeus by Kathleen 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’s future, his relationship with the media and his political aspirations — or lack thereof. The Washington Post has obtained a digital recording from the meeting, which took place in Petraeus’s office in Kabul.
McFarland also said that Ailes — who had a decades-long career as a Republican political consultant, advising Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — 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 “bankroll” the campaign.
“Rupert’s after me as well,” Petraeus told McFarland.
McFarland said she had spoken “directly” to the Fox News chairman and the “advice to you from Roger Ailes is. … He says that if you’re offered [JCS] chairman, take it. If you’re offered anything else, don’t take it; resign in six months and run for president.”
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. “It was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have,” he said. “I thought the Republican field [in the primaries] needed to be shaken up and Petraeus might be a good candidate.”
Ailes added, “It sounds like she thought she was on a secret mission in the Reagan administration. … She was way out of line. … It’s someone’s fantasy to make me a kingmaker. It’s not my job.” 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, “With no one else in the room, I hope?”
Later she said, “I’m only reporting this back to Roger. And that’s our deal.”
Petraeus said it was OK to relay his response to Ailes, adding “that has to be off the record.”
“His deal with me was that I was only supposed to talk to you,” McFarland said. “And he is a little paranoid, so believe me, he doesn’t have anybody in that room.”
At the meeting, some 18 months ago, Petraeus told McFarland that he thought the CIA was “a treasure. … I think that organization is full of just heroes. Unsung heroes.” He went on to say, “We’re going to be retrenching militarily.” In contrast, the CIA and the intelligence agencies, “I think, are going to be a growth industry,” Petraeus said.
While rejecting Ailes’ advice, Petraeus said, “I love Roger. … He’s a brilliant guy.”
Petraeus said he “would love to see” Ailes on his next trip to New York, where Ailes has his office.
“Tell him if I ever ran,” Petraeus said, and then laughed, “but I won’t … but if I ever ran, I’d take him up on his offer. … He said he would quit Fox … and bankroll it.”
“Bankroll it?” asked McFarland, who served as a senior aide to Henry Kissinger and later as a Pentagon spokeswoman in the Reagan administration.
“Or maybe I’m confusing that with Rupert,” Petraeus said.
“I know Roger, he’s done OK,” McFarland replied, “but … no, I think the one who’s bankrolling it is the big boss.”
“That might be it,” Petraeus said.
“OK,” McFarland said, “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, OK,” Petraeus said.
“We’re all set.”
“It’s never going to happen,” Petraeus said. “You know it’s never going to happen. It really isn’t.
“My wife would divorce me,” he added. “And I love my wife. … We have a beautiful house.” Both Petraeus and McFarland laughed. “With his-and-hers bathrooms, believe it or not. I just want to live in it. I’ve never spent a night in it.”
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 “everybody at Fox loves you,” adding that Ailes had directed her to ask Petraeus whether “there [is] anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?”
Petraeus didn’t hesitate. “The editorial policy of Fox had shifted,” he said. “It was almost as if, because they’re going after Obama, they had to go after Obama’s war as well.” He said he had discussed this with Bret Baier, a key Fox anchor.
“Papers and news outlets have editorial policies,” Petraeus said. “They know sort of how their bosses feel about things … and it causes a certain shading,” Petraeus continued.
One example, according to Petraeus: “Off the record, the New York Times was never going to give Bush or Iraq a break. I don’t care what happened.
“In 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 — a pretty good piece, I mean, factual, in other words. Again, all we want is the truth. We’re 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, ‘Thom, where did that come from?’ He said, ‘Oh, that was added by the editors.’”
Both journalists had different recollections. Baier said he recalled no such conversation with Petraeus. “That’s B.S.,” he said. “We cover the war the same way no matter what administration is in power.”
Shanker also said he did not remember saying anything resembling what Petraeus asserted. “I don’t blame the editors for what appears under my byline,” he said. “It undermines your own credibility.”
In the meeting with McFarland, Petraeus gave his standard line about the Afghanistan war, saying there had been significant progress, but “that progress remains fragile and reversible.”
McFarland mentioned her conversation with Petraeus in a FoxNews.com piece on April 27, 2011. “Our discussion was off the record, and to respect that I will not quote the general,” she wrote. By that time, it was clear that Petraeus would be nominated as CIA director. “I can’t help thinking that the Obama administration has done something a bit underhanded but politically shrewd by tapping Petraeus for the CIA,” she added, because it would remove him as a “potential rival” in the presidential contest.
On Monday, Ailes, 72, said there was “zero chance” he would leave Fox to re-enter politics for Petraeus or anyone else. “The money is too good,” 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.
“I left politics in 1988 because I hated it,” Ailes said. “My main interest is seeing my 12-year-old’s basketball games.”
Evelyn M. Duffy contributed to this report.