Trump and Fox Prepare for Marriage Counseling

President Trump Holds MAGA Rally In Las Vegas
Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
August 22, 2022

The epic and occasionally saga-like relationship between Donald Trump and Fox News—their lovers’ quarrels and occasional feuds interrupting long periods when only an invisible line separated the network from the West Wing—is the stuff of media legend, the content of best-sellers and documentaries, and the syllabus material of political science courses for the rest of time. Trump, of course, began the relationship as a frequent caller to whom Roger Ailes gifted a weekly slot on Fox & Friends to wax on about politics. Others at the network didn’t take him seriously until they did, ostensibly to the mild vexation of Rupert Murdoch, who nevertheless opportunistically, and then mega-enthusiastically, abetted his election and presidency through various executive orders and impeachments. 

The first real, potentially marriage-altering rupture occurred after Fox (accurately) beat the competition to call Arizona for Joe Biden on election night. From there, it was a slowly devolving spat. Fox became a safe space for pro-Trump election denialism, but the chasm between the two sides grew ever more distant in the wake of Trump’s callous allowance of a near coup, followed by his various deplatformings, which exhausted many network executives and hosts’ patience. By that time, anyway, Trump was out of the White House, absent his Twitter megaphone, and ostensibly exiled to Mar-a-Lago. In the cynical language of cable news, in other words, he was no longer a ratings machine. 

“It’s as simple as money and ratings,” said former Fox News editor Chris Stirewalt, whose new book, Broken News, explores, among other things, how he was fired by the network after the decision desk he was on called Arizona for Biden. (A Fox spokesperson disputed that characterization, saying he was laid off for unrelated reasons.) “He’s not the president anymore and he’s not a ratings goldmine like he was before, so I think the power dynamic has shifted.” 

What’s more, during the past 18 months, Fox largely seemed to move on from Trump, instead focusing on picking apart the Biden administration. Network hosts and bookers developed infatuations with other culture war stars, like Ron DeSantis, who has been taking on Fox competitors like Disney from the governor’s mansion. As I reported last week, even Sean Hannity recently told Trump that the party—and, ergo, the network—had moved on. (Through a spokesperson, Hannity denied this, and called it fake news.) Laura Ingraham hinted at the same idea on a podcast last week when she said voters might think “maybe it’s time to turn the page if we can get someone who has all Trump’s policies, who’s not Trump.” Indeed, less than two weeks before the F.B.I. executed its search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, there were twin stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times arguing that Fox News was really, finally done with Trump. As the Times’s Jeremy Peters noted in his lead: “It’s been more than 100 days since Donald J. Trump was interviewed on Fox News.”

Not only was Trump not being interviewed on Fox News, however, he was barely being covered. His big policy speech in D.C.—his first return to town since leaving the White House—was largely downplayed in favor of longer coverage of a Mike Pence speech. Howie Kurtz attested on his Fox News show, MediaBuzz, that there was no editorial ban on Trump (in fact, he had asked him to go on his show weeks earlier), but for many at the network, the Trump story had grown stale and expensive, especially as Fox has had to defend itself against a $1.6 billion libel suit from Dominion Voting Systems for allowing Trump allies, like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, to baselessly allege on their airwaves that the voting machine company had rigged the election for Biden. (Fox has described the damages claim as ”outrageous, unsupported and not rooted in sound financial analysis.”)

In short, it seemed that Fox was making its own version of the same decision arrived at by CNN—that while he was out of the White House, Trump would have to earn coverage the old-fashioned way, by making news, not simply by relentless detonating smoke bombs as a media spectator sport. Trump, after all, was no longer president, and not technically a candidate, at least not yet. DeSantis, on the other hand, had evidenced prodigious right-wing media prowess for headline-grabbing battles with journalists, L.G.B.T. advocates, health officials, teachers, Disney executives, and on and on. For some cohorts within Fox, and within a growing constituency of the G.O.P. itself, DeSantis was beginning to seem more Trump than Trump. 

But just days later, Fox (and all of the other networks) were back to the Trump show, airing wall-to-wall coverage of the F.B.I. seizure of top-secret documents from the ex-president’s Palm Beach resort. Overnight, a star was reborn. Trump was what TV people would call the “get,” the big interview that would drive an entire newscycle. News anchors like Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier were live on the air inviting Trump to call into the studio, as he had done so many times before and during presidency. “We welcome the former president to come on our air and sit down for an interview,” Baier said after Attorney General Merrick Garland filed a motion to unseal the warrant. “Absolutely,” MacCallum chimed in. “We’ll open up the phone line right now.”  


“The Get”

According to various Trump aides, he loved the attention. All week long, Trump beamed as he listened to the chorus of hysteria on Fox News, loaded with words like an “unprecedented,” “abomination,” “unbelievable” and some “third world bullshit.” These soundbites from the network were subsequently woven together by his Save America PAC into a wildly terrifying fundraising reel that was deployed on Truth Social.

Of course, Trump could have called in to bestow Fox with the ratings boon only he could offer. But instead, Trump took the advice of his lawyers, I am told, and let the chorus play without him. His restraint was a sign, perhaps, that he was taking the D.O.J. investigation seriously, and despite his statements that it was just another witch hunt, there was too much at stake to go freewheeling with his old pals. “There are a lot of legal balls in the air. He doesn’t stay on script,” said a source supportive of Trump with knowledge of his team’s inner workings. “The thinking is to do it through controlled settings like Truth Social, [since] there’s zero to gain from him going on TV and freewheeling.” Another aide said, “the D.O.J. criminal investigation is different from an [Adam] Schiff charade. He owes no one a TV appearance.”

His team decided instead to give his first (and only) interview to Foxnews.com’s Brooke Singman, believing they could contain the interview by working with a journalist who covered him in the White House. Instead of seeking out other friendly interlocutors, however, they’ve relied on surrogates and his lawyers, who have made a handful of appearances, but not as many as his inner circle would like. Others say it’s a blessing. “Everyone around him is a fucking embarrassment—he’s lucky that they’re not on all of the time,” said the source. “By the grace of God, it’s a dark period. He’s winning this issue without having those people on TV. The raid on its face was so egregious that he’s winning.” 

But Trump also didn’t call in because he didn’t have to. Weeks ago, he was fulminating on Truth Social about how his favorite gabfest, Fox & Friends, had gone to the “dark side” for how it reported his polling numbers. Now, the tables had turned and after months in the wilderness, Trump had seemingly regained an upper hand in the rocky relationship. “Fox has become born-again Trumpers,” one Trump aide crowed to me, explaining that there was no need to change the conversation because it was already going their way.


You Complete Me

Trump has long whined about Fox, both privately and publicly, in a way that makes it clear that he believes the network owes him something and should have his back. Even though Rupert Murdoch toyed with endorsing Hillary Clinton in 2016, and infamously tweeted against Trump, the former president has waxed nostalgic to aides that things were better between himself and Fox before 2019, when Lachlan Murdoch ascended to chairman and C.E.O. of Fox Corp., after the family sold their other entertainment assets to Disney. 

Trump has remained close with Fox News talent. Tucker Carlson recently joined Trump in his suite during the controversial LIV golf tournament in Bedminster, even though Trump has rarely appeared on his show, except for a few taped interviews. He also has an ongoing conversation with Hannity, although that too has its ups and downs. Just yesterday, Trump complained that Fox was airing a clip from Bill Maher, writing on Truth that “Maher is a loser, and MAGA gets it—but Fox doesn’t.” Foxnews.com smacked right back at him today with an op-ed by national security attorney Bradley P. Moss entitled “The Trump Mar-a-Lago search was justified.”

As in many overextended marriages, both Trump and Fox seem to overestimate who actually pulls the strings in the relationship. As one Trump aide put it, “There’s no doubt that Trump uses Fox, Fox doesn’t use him. If Trump wants to go on, he’ll do it because he thinks it will help.”

But at Fox, Trump has become less interesting than those early days when he was a long-shot candidate and nutso force in the West Wing. “Trump needs Fox in a way that Fox does not need Trump,” said Stirewalt, the former Fox editor. “On a certain level, [Trumpworld] understands they need access to Fox’s air, they want to be on Fox, they want favorable coverage, just like every candidate does.”

And yet, in the same breath, Stirewalt admitted, Fox will always struggle to cut the umbilical cord with the political creature they created. “As much as I’m sure the executives in and around Fox don’t relish the idea of going through the hellfire of another Trump presidential run, they have limited power to prevent that from happening. And as it happens, their profit motive will demand that they cover it like everyone else,” he explained. “The problem with Trump, what Fox has learned, was that access comes with a high price. He’s going to get to program your television to a certain degree.” 

In the end, some secular forces are also at work here. Trump, who has already survived multiple bankruptcies, two lost popular votes, a lost electoral college vote, and two impeachments, may feel he has nothing left to lose. And Fox, staring down at the slow but irreversible decline of linear cable, with its septuagenarian audience, may feel the same. And in that regard, it might be a perfect enough marriage after all. 

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