Donald Trump doesn’t have a relationship with Fox News. He has several relationships with Fox News. There’s the hostility toward host Megyn Kelly, who bruised Trump last August with a debate question regarding his misogynistic record; there’s the fondness for the morning program “Fox & Friends,” on which Trump had a weekly engagement prior to his presidential candidacy; there’s the positive coverage he receives from opinion types like Eric Bolling, Bill O’Reilly (an old friend) and Sean Hannity; there’s the more skeptical coverage on the network’s traditional news programs; and there are Charles Krauthammer and George Will, prominent Fox News voices who criticize Trump routinely, to his avowed annoyance.
Now New York magazine reporter Gabriel Sherman is injecting an additional dynamic to the Trump-Fox News story. In a long and detailed piece on the Trump campaign, Sherman writes that Trump may be sitting on a trove of negative information about Fox News chief Roger Ailes. “If Ailes ever truly went to war against Trump, Trump would have the arsenal to launch a retaliatory strike,” writes Sherman.
How did Trump come to acquire this trove? The explanation is tortuous. Back in 2014, Sherman published his biography of Ailes — “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” which this blog reviewed favorably. As Sherman notes in his New York magazine piece, Ailes fired his PR ace, Brian Lewis, before the book came out, “accusing him of being a source.” What followed were severance negotiations — and an opportunity for Trump. As luck would have it, Lewis hired a lawyer — Judd Burstein — who’d also worked previously for Trump. So Ailes, according to Sherman’s piece, asked Trump to step in and mediate things:
Trump ran the negotiations out of his office at Trump Tower. “Roger had lawyers, very expensive lawyers, and they couldn’t do anything. I solved the problem.” Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak. If Ailes ever truly went to war against Trump, Trump would have the arsenal to launch a retaliatory strike.
Credit Sherman for a scoop here. Who knew that Ailes and Trump had this particular connection? And who was it who said Trump wasn’t that big a deal in New York City?
Yet the claim that Trump is sitting on some bulging file of dirt regarding Roger Ailes merits some skepticism. Folded into Sherman’s analysis is the premise that Trump is practicing self-restraint until such as time as Ailes “truly” goes to war with him. Trump is waiting, waiting, waiting for hostilities with Fox News to reach peak brute — then, and only then, will Trump unlock the file and slime Ailes. With what conception of Trump does such a possibility comport? None. The record shows that Trump requires very little provocation before he starts firing. Look at what he did just a couple of weeks ago to Heidi Cruz, the wife of rival Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Over Twitter, Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on her — and for what? Look also at the nicknames and taunts he has sent in the direction of his rivals. Is this a guy who keeps his powder dry?
Another consideration: Ailes and Trump have indeed engaged in something approaching media battle, over the fitness of Fox News host Megyn Kelly to host debates and otherwise do her job. At last August’s GOP debate, Kelly pressed Trump about all the nasty things he’s said about women over the years, kicking off a months-long back-and-forth. As part of that back-and-forth, Ailes’ network has blasted Trump, sometimes in very pointed language. Amid the hubbub about Trump’s status for a Fox News debate in late January, for example, the network released this statement: “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 — 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.” After Trump signaled his intent to skip that debate, another statement came forth:
“As many of our viewers know, FOX News is hosting a sanctioned debate in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday night, three days before the first votes of the 2016 election are cast in the Iowa Caucus. Donald Trump is refusing to debate seven of his fellow presidential candidates on stage that night, which is near unprecedented. We’re not sure how Iowans are going to feel about him walking away from them at the last minute, but it should be clear to the American public by now that this is rooted in one thing – Megyn Kelly, whom he has viciously attacked since August and has now spent four days demanding be removed from the debate stage. Capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards, as do threats, including the one leveled by Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski toward Megyn Kelly. In a call on Saturday with a Fox News executive, Lewandowski stated that Megyn had a ‘rough couple of days after that last debate’ and he ‘would hate to have her go through that again.’ Lewandowski was warned not to level any more threats, but he continued to do so. We can’t give in to terrorizations toward any of our employees. Trump is still welcome at Thursday night’s debate and will be treated fairly, just as he has been during his 132 appearances on FOX News & FOX Business, but he can’t dictate the moderators or the questions.”
Knowing Trump the way we know him, wouldn’t he have dipped into that trove of negative information after those broadsides from Fox News? Perhaps he indeed has attempted to peddle a tidbit or two to friendly reporters. Who knows.
And finally, there’s the matter of Trump’s credibility to narrate a story about anything, even himself. If he’s not a proven liar, he proceeds with a reckless disregard for the truth, even when he gets called out on his falsehoods. This matters in the Sherman piece. Have another look at the key sentence: “Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak.” Italics added to highlight a clever bit of sourcing — who’s doing the telling here? One source, two sources? Is Trump one of them? Because if he is, it’s not reliable.
We put this question to Sherman, and he replied, “I’m confident in my sourcing and appreciate your not asking me to disclose sources. . . . As for Trump’s comments, I’d point you to the in-sentence fact-checking we did in the piece.” Here’s a sampling of that in-sentence fact-checking:
“I don’t spend much money,” he told me. “In New Hampshire, I spent $2 million” — actually $3.7 million — “Bush spent $48 million” — actually $36.1 million — “I came in first in a landslide, he came in sixth” — actually fourth. “Who do you want as your president?”
In an appearance this morning on CNN’s “New Day,” Sherman was asked by host Chris Cuomo whether Ailes and Fox News had confirmed his reporting on the dirt file. “They declined to comment. They’re not getting involved,” Sherman said. The story, however, features no indication that Fox News declined to comment. We asked Sherman about this matter. “[Spokeswoman] Irena Briganti did not respond to our fact-checking requests before the piece closed,” responded Sherman. Okay, but according to Fox News, neither Sherman nor the magazine ever broached the matter of Trump and Ailes in those fact-checking requests. Here’s an email from a New York fact-checker to Briganti, dated March 31, as provided by Fox News:
This is Nick Tabor at New York Magazine. We’re publishing a story next week on Trump’s campaign infrastructure, and Trump made a remark in an interview that I feel compelled to fact-check.
He claimed that when he used to do a weekly call-in on Fox & Friends — at 7:15 — his segment was the “highest rated 15 minutes of the show.”
Do you know whether that’s true?
Thanks very much. Feel free to call if that’s easier — I’m at [deleted phone number]
We asked Sherman how that constitutes a decline-to-comment and haven’t heard back. Briganti could not comment on the merits of the issue, “due to legal restrictions regarding the resolution that was reached.”