Cards on the table: all day long, I’ve thought that Donald Trump looks weak and petty walking away from the Fox debate over Megyn Kelly. But tonight, I’m thinking this guy is a strategic genius. Here’s why.

He’s neck and neck with Ted Cruz in Iowa, but has the momentum. This debate is Cruz’s last, best chance to stop him before the caucuses on Saturday. Cruz is a much better debater than Trump, and Trump knows that. He has everything to lose by going on that Fox stage tomorrow night, because Cruz would throw everything he had at him. He needed an excuse to dodge it. Megyn Kelly? She would do.

But then Fox gave him all he needed with this press release:

We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president,” Fox said. “A nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.

Et voilà:

And here’s where it gets really good. Trump turned up tonight on Bill O’Reilly’s show, in a move that was a real blow to Fox head Roger Ailes, believed to have been the author of that neener-neener press release. Says New York magazine:

New signs emerged today at just how frantic Ailes has become to get Trump back to the table. The two men have not spoken since yesterday, sources told me. This morning, Joe Scarborough reported that Ailes called Trump’s daughter Ivanka and wife, Melania, to get through to the GOP front-runner. But Trump is saying he’ll only talk to Rupert Murdoch directly. In a further challenge to Ailes’s power, Bill O’Reilly is scheduled to host Trump. Last night, Ailes directed Sean Hannity to cancel Trump’s interview. O’Reilly’s refusal to abide by a ban adds a new dynamic to the clash of egos. For O’Reilly, this is an opportunity to take back star power from Kelly. Sources say O’Reilly feels he made Kelly’s career by promoting her on his show, and he’s been furious that Kelly surpassed him in the ratings.

Meanwhile, Fox producers are scrambling with the practical matter of how to program the debate without Trump.

Oh, the egos! And now, Trump delivers the masterstroke: he’s saying he will hold a counterprogramming event in Iowa at the same time as the GOP debate. Of course the competing cable networks will be there, covering it live. And which one do you think viewers at home will prefer to watch? It gets better: Team Trump has reached out to undercard debate candidates and invited them to join him at his event after their kiddie-table debate ends. The NYT points out that two of those candidates, 2008 Iowa winner Mike Huckabee and 2012 Iowa winner Rick Santorum, have been focusing their attacks on Ted Cruz.

A friend e-mailed this afternoon to say she believed Trump had finally done the thing that punctured his balloon, this ducking the Fox debate. I think we’ve all learned by now not to say that. I doubt she thinks that tonight. Donald Trump is a genius. Yes, he might be an evil genius, but he’s a genius. He’s demolishing the GOP apparatus and Roger Ailes both. The audacity of that guy is something to behold. He’s rewriting all the rules, in real time. Does he ever lose?