• Washington Post

Inside The Simmering Feud Between Donald Trump And Fox News

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Donald Trump speaks during CPAC in Fort Washington, Md.

Donald Trump got a tip-off on Saturday that the Fox News Channel would be taking his Conservative Political Action Conference speech live, a switch from the network’s largely indifferent posture toward the former president since he helped send it into crisis after the 2020 election.

Trump decided he could not pass up the opportunity to send a message.

“I hope Fox doesn’t turn off, but we did much better in 2020 than we did in 2016,” he said in an apparent reference to the false election claims that were at the center of many of the network’s controversies, including a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News that has led to a massive release of internal company documents.

It was just another volley in a low-grade war – some of it public, much of it hidden – that has emerged as one of the defining dynamics in the Republican Party as the 2024 presidential campaign gets underway. Trump’s advisers see in Fox News leadership a clear adversary in their march back to the White House and have sought to foster a divide between executives and “the brave and patriotic” opinion hosts with whom he continues to have relationships.

Trump attacked Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch by name this month, calling him and his executives a “group of MAGA hating Globalist RINOS” who are “aiding & abetting the destruction of America.” Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. – noting that he had not been invited on the network in six months – accused Fox News leaders last week of harboring an “America Last, war forever, garbage, fold-to-the-Democrats agenda.” Other allies, such as Stephen K. Bannon, have shredded the network in public.

Documents uncovered by ongoing litigation have also revealed the extent of the ongoing hostility toward Trump from Murdoch and other top executives, both before and after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The Fox News boss emailed a former company executive in early 2021 that the goal was “to make Trump a non person.” Fox News board member Paul D. Ryan, a former Republican House speaker, told another Fox executive around the same time that he had communicated to both Rupert Murdoch and Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch that there was a “huge inflection point to keep Trump down and move on.”

“Both Rupert and Lachlan agree fully,” Ryan wrote.

Since then, the network has dismissed Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, as a contributor because of the network’s supposed ban on political activity. But the policy applies typically to people who themselves are declaring a candidacy, as happened with Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) and former presidential candidate Ben Carson when they ran for political office.

Fox now also frowns upon letting Trump appear on the network by phone, once a standard way for hosting him on the network until he left office, according to two people familiar with the situation who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal details. His events and rallies are rarely covered live – and often not at all.

At the same time, Murdoch’s media outlets have lavished attention and praise on Trump’s principal rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who publicly credits the network in his new book – which is published by another company controlled by Murdoch – with aiding his rise in politics. The DeSantis book was heavily promoted last week when the governor made at least five live appearances on the network, according to a tally by Media Matters for America, a liberal group that monitors Fox News programming.

Exclusive excerpts from the DeSantis book ran in the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, and on FoxNews.com, all of which are controlled by Murdoch. DeSantis has separately given recent interviews to the New York Post and the Times of London, which is also controlled by Murdoch, while spurning requests from other print outlets.

It’s a standoff with billions of dollars in revenue at stake for the nation’s most successful cable news broadcaster, not to mention the outcome of the Republican primary battle.

“Whether it’s the New York Post or the Wall Street Journal or Fox, you can clearly see the company is eager not to repeat the mistakes of 2016,” said Chris Stirewalt, a longtime Fox political editor who was ousted after the election. “But it will test the resolve of the network to maintain that posture if there are ratings consequences, if they become too much a target from his folks, that they will stick with it.”

Some in both camps have been seeking a truce before more damage is done. Several of Fox News’s most high-profile figures continue to speak to the former president and work with his team. Trump acknowledged his existing relationships during his CPAC speech, praising Fox hosts Mark Levin, Gregg Jarrett, Sean Hannity, Jesse Watters and Tucker Carlson.

Among those most invested in securing better coverage on Fox for Trump is Jason Miller, his longtime on-again, off-again spokesman. Miller called Fox allies ahead of CPAC, asking for them to show the speech, and has worked individual producers at the network to try to convince the shows to carry Trump more, according to people familiar with the situation.

“You can’t ignore the party front-runner, and the Fox base wants to see President Trump. Many involved in the network would like to see President Trump covered more by the network. He’s ratings gold, and he’s the dominant front-runner for the Republican nomination,” Miller said.

At times, Trump gets livid watching all the positive DeSantis coverage, particularly on topics that he says he took on first, according to advisers.

“It’s not ideal, but we have to remember in 2016, it wasn’t glowing at first, either. You have to get through it. They’ll come around when he’s the nominee,” one adviser said. “What are they going to do? Not show the Republican nominee on their channel?”

Advisers have tried to temper his frustration by telling him that many supporters are watching other channels. The former president still watches Fox all the time, according to the advisers. He eats dinner with Chris Ruddy, who runs rival network Newsmax, at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, but Fox News often still plays on the televisions and Sean Hannity talks to Trump and his team often, they said.

Trump’s team and Carlson’s show discussed arranging an interview late last month, but discussions broke down over logistics, according to two people familiar with the matter. Trump “did not want to appear in a box because former presidents don’t appear in boxes,” one of these people said, and Carlson did not want a phone interview. Hannity later showed an interview of Trump, but it was taped earlier for his radio show.

Internal Fox messages revealed in court filings Tuesday as part of a defamation lawsuit against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems showed Carlson vacillating on his support for Trump after the 2020 election. After initially calling for a Fox News reporter to be fired for accurately reporting that Trump’s election fraud claims were false, Carlson texted with a colleague in early 2021 that his show was “very very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait.” Carlson added of the then-president, “I hate him passionately.”

Republicans who have spoken to Carlson say he agrees with Trump on many topics, particularly foreign policy – but has grown frustrated at times with his behavior, rhetoric and approach. Trump has told others that Carlson is not as reliable as Hannity and other hosts at defending him but that he respects his influence in the Republican Party and ability to secure high television ratings.

As the documents were released Tuesday night, Trump signaled that he was happy with Carlson’s recent arguments that the Jan. 6 attack was not a “deadly insurrection.” A Capitol Police officer, Brian D. Sicknick, died after suffering multiple strokes a day after fighting with protesters, a death that the Capitol Police chief has attributed to the violence. Multiple people have been convicted in federal court of seditious conspiracy in connection with the attack.

“GREAT JOB BY TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT,” Trump wrote after the Carlson text message about passionately hating him was released.

Preston Padden, a former Fox News executive whose emails with Murdoch were quoted in the Dominion filing, said the differences in the private musings released about Trump and the public posturing is jarring. He said that for nine months, he’d emailed with Murdoch in 2020 and 2021, and Murdoch made clear he believed the election was not stolen.

“It makes you wonder: Who’s in charge?” he said.

A former Fox executive said producers closely watched the cover of the New York Post and the writings of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board to understand what Murdoch was thinking. The New York Post covered Trump’s campaign announcement with the diminutive cover line, “Florida man makes announcement,” and an article identified the former president as a “retiree” and “avid golfer.” A separate cover of the tabloid, after the midterm elections last year, described him as “Trumpty Dumpty” who “couldn’t build a wall” and “had a great fall.”

“The Trumpty Dumpty thing was the declaration of war. Once producers saw that, they did not wonder: How are we playing that?” a former Fox executive said.

Some of Trump’s advisers have studied DeSantis’s appearances on Fox to see how many interviews and how many minutes of positive coverage he has received, a person familiar with the work said.

In his new book, DeSantis describes Fox News’s production of his 2018 Republican primary debate as a decisive moment that helped him win his party’s gubernatorial nomination in Florida. On screen, Fox producers ran a chyron during the debate highlighting DeSantis’s Trump endorsement, Ivy League degrees and military service, while suggesting that his opponent was a career politician who had been endorsed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R).

“This is exactly the contrast we were looking to draw!” DeSantis wrote.

Stirewalt said that in 2016, Fox had a decision to make about Trump after he publicly attacked star host Megyn Kelly. Traditionally, he said, if you’re attacking Fox and the Fox personalities, you aren’t going to get “juicy segments and high visibility stuff.”

“He publicly attacked one of our lead anchors and dropped out of our debate, and the consequence was basically nothing. That’s when I knew the dynamic was out of whack because the shows and the producers knew what a ratings bonanza Trump was,” he said.

Fox and the Trump White House long had a symbiotic and intertwined relationship. Several Trump aides went to become executives at Fox Corp. after leaving the White House, including former spokesman Raj Shah and Hope Hicks, a longtime Trump confidante. Trump often had Fox News hosts call into his White House meetings or visit the Oval Office – frustrating some of his aides – and the network’s coverage would frequently influence his positions on topics, former advisers said. Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive, served as a senior communications adviser to Trump in the White House.

Fox is pitching to secure Republican debates, a person familiar with the matter said. In their pitch to Republican National Committee officials, Fox executives did not mention Trump or DeSantis by name, people with knowledge of the presentation said. One Republican official said Fox is likely to get at least one debate, if not multiple.

Another employee said that Fox would often mobilize defenders of the network and scramble when under criticism from conservative media – and that pressure from Trump to air him more would matter more if it was echoed by conservative media.

“Fox is a company,” the former employee said, acting rationally to cater to its viewers and “pander” to their desires. “If he doesn’t go away in polling, Fox is going to have to cover him more.”