They were on their feet in the subterranean control room at Fox News headquarters in New York when at 2:40 a.m., Bret Baier called Pennsylvania for Donald Trump, clinching the presidency for the erstwhile reality show star and billionaire-turned-populist. It was, Baier remarked, "the most unreal, surreal election we've ever seen."
When Baier added that no one saw this result coming a year ago, or even a few months ago, a producer yelled: "This morning!" To which, Jay Wallace, the networks executive vp, of news and editorial added: "Three hours ago!"
Indeed, more than eight hours earlier, at 6 p.m. when Baier and Megyn Kelly took their seats at the network's new $30 million street-level studio, the polls and the collective media establishment had Hillary Clinton as the overwhelming favorite to become the 45th president of the United States.
At the start of the night, about 50 bystanders had gathered behind metal barriers outside of Fox News on Avenue of the Americas in midtown, where the network was providing a live feed of the coverage. Most were Trump supporters - as evidenced by the chorus of cheers that would erupt each time a state was called for Trump. And as the night wore on and Trump's victory became more likely, the crowd swelled.
The studio, with an enormous retractable digital chandelier, which Kelly dubbed "the chandy," resembled a construction site a mere week ago, said staffers. There is a glass- enclosed green room festooned with monitors right next to the studio. And the network's decision desk, which in elections past was quarantined far from the studio, on this night was set up just out of camera range and separated only by a blue curtain. Arnon Mishkin, whom host and decision desk member Chris Stirewalt calls "nerd No. 1," advised the decision desk team at the top of the evening that they would wait until after the state polls closed to call races, a promise they and other news organizations made to Congress.
Commentators (including George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Fox News hosts, including the cast of The Five (Dana Perino, Juan Williams, Eric Bolling, Kimberly Guilfoyle and Greg Gutfeld) holed up in the green room across the hall from the studio where two flat-screen TVs were tuned to Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, which was muted.
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The entire floor is a hive of activity and the close quarters make for some inherent logistical challenges. Producers ferrying guests and hosts to and from the desk adjacent to Baier and Kelly urge them to be quiet. When one floor producer accidentally crashes a rolling chair into a table with a loud crash. Chris Wallace quips: "Oh we have to be quiet, huh?!"
At 7:25 p.m., Bill Shine - who last August in the wake of the Roger Ailes ouster, was upped to co-president of Fox News with Jack Abernethy - comes in to the studio. Five minutes later, Rupert Murdoch, the 85-year-old executive chairman of Fox News and its parent company 21st Century Fox, walks in with his teen daughters, Grace and Chloe. He's greeted warmly by Williams, one of the network's liberal hosts. Murdoch gives his phone to Shine to snap a picture of the three of them in front of the network's new set, which boasts 14 cameras, 34 monitors and more than 5,000 square feet of studio space, including the main downstairs studio (3,675 square feet) and a balcony (1,750 square feet).
By 8 p.m. when polls have closed in a slew of states including the Democratic strongholds of New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut and the traditionally red states of Texas, Missouri and Mississippi, Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani is given a mic in preparation for a remote live shot from Trump Tower. He blinks rapidly as he waits, his face beamed onto the enormous screen opposite the anchor desk. Kelly throws to him at 8:10 p.m. "Women are not coming out for Donald Trump," she says. And asks Giuliani if the campaign should have done anything differently to court women. Of course, it will become a moot point by the end of the night. And by 8:30 p.m. Florida is too close to call, but is beginning to lean toward Trump.
At 8:48 p.m., Kelly tells viewers: "We have not been able to make a call on Virginia, which she was supposed to be running away with." Clinton will eke out a win in Virginia, but it won't matter. By 10:22 p.m., in the control room, a producer tells Wallace that NBC News has just called Ohio for Trump. A minute later, Baier tells viewers that the Dow has plunged 600 points in futures trading. And as the presidency is leaning decidedly toward Trump, another producer muses: "The most hated man in Washington tomorrow? James Comey." The FBI director's disclosures about the investigation into Clinton's email has been much cogitated in the closing days of the campaign. At 10:53 p.m., Kelly asks contributor and Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee: "Are you starting to freak out that Hillary Clinton may lose this thing?" Elleithee attempts to put on a brave face and explain a Clinton path to victory, but it's a bit hollow.
As the night wears on and key swing states including Pennsylvania and Michigan are still too close to call, others begin to fall to Trump. Wisconsin is among the first reliably blue states that falls to Trump. And when it does, around 11:30 p.m., a producer in the control room asks for a split screen of Clinton's and Trump's respective headquarters, "the sad and happy people." As the camera brings up Clinton's headquarters at New York's Javits Center, Kelly notes: "Look at the scene, it's very somber."
Kelly will make multiple trips through the blue curtain to talk to Mishkin at the decision desk, asking why they can't call so many of these battleground states. Of course, it does not have the same dramatic stagecraft it did back in 2012 when she walked the long hallway back to the decision desk to ask the Fox News number crunchers about Ohio. "It's a much shorter walk," she says, "thanks to our new studio."
When Baier takes the network's coverage to a break at 1:36 a.m., he notes with some wonderment that the 2016 election is "one of the biggest stories any of us have ever covered." Kelly looks at him with a raised eyebrow: "Or will ever cover."
Later, after Trump has delivered a gracious and uncharacteristically short acceptance speech, Shine marvels at the past year - both the volatile campaign and the internal drama at Fox News. "Tomorrow," he says, standing in the control room, "it all starts again. We're going to be busy."