[There was a video here]

The word came in from our best-sourced Fox News Kremlinologists: Fox News had settled for Donald Trump. Roger Ailes had given up on the hapless Marco Rubio. Megyn Kelly was sounding conciliatory, granting that Trump appeared more and more presidential. Rupert Murdoch himself tweeted that the party would be “mad not to unify” around nominee Donald Trump. It worked: Donald Trump arrived, unsuspecting, for his ambush.

Trump was beginning to make noise about skipping tonight’s contest. Bill Kristol (lol, I know), practically reported that Trump had decided to use his Super Tuesday victories as an excuse to skip all future debates. Could it be that all of that chatter was designed to assure Trump that Fox’s moderators would go easy on him? Was there some cunning strategy behind the fashioning of this pre-debate narrative of Fox’s inevitable Trump acceptance?

If so, it was a brilliant maneuver. Tonight we saw the attempted assassination of front-runner Donald Trump, beginning early and sustained for almost the entire night. Fox prepared elaborate multimedia presentations designed to make Trump explain away his erratic positions and policy proposals. They hammered him on Trump University and got him to flip-flop on immigration. All night, Fox’s moderators forced Trump to directly reckon with his contradictory positions and statements, complete with video packages illustrating those contradictions. No other candidate faced a similar onslaught.

Near the end of the debate, Fox just openly played a clip from an anti-Trump attack ad, ostensibly as part of a “question” for John Kasich. You can see the clip on top of this post. The question for Kasich seems to be, essentially, remember this video your campaign produced to attack Trump? Wasn’t it good?

If indeed Fox lured Trump into an ambush, it would be perhaps the canniest move the conservative establishment has made this entire election cycle, and the first documented example of anti-Trump coordination actually working (to whatever degree it will turn out tonight “worked”).

It also probably came about six months too late. And there is still no one candidate well-positioned to solely benefit from any anti-Trump coordination.

Even in this weird year, a contested nominating convention is still most likely to occur only in the wet dreams of campaign trail reporters. But this might have been, in miniature, a practice session for a wild and unlikely anti-Trump putsch in Cleveland this summer.

Contact the author at alex.pareene@gawker.com.