One of the major beneficiaries of the U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki wasn’t just Vladimir Putin, who got a pass from President Trump on Russian election interference. It was Fox News, which once again enjoyed most-favored network status with the Trump White House.
Fox landed not just the first post-summit TV interview with Trump, but the first two of them. The initial interview, with Fox host and Trump intimate Sean Hannity, was scheduled to air Monday night. A second one with Tucker Carlson is to air Tuesday. Fox also secured an additional bonus: the only Western TV interview with Putin, this one conducted by newsman Chris Wallace.
On location in Helsinki, Fox had the grandest live set, perched atop a modern swimming pool complex overlooking the Presidential Palace where the Trump-Putin meeting took place. The network had the best bird’s-eye view; by comparison, CNN used a smaller and lower platform on the same complex.
It all highlights a long-standing critique of Fox and Trump: that the two are so close, and so often work to each other’s benefit, that Fox is effectively Trump’s house organ, the president’s captive megaphone. There has plainly never been a relationship between a TV network and a president as extraordinarily close and mutually beneficial as the one shared by Trump and Fox.
Fox and its chairman, Rupert Murdoch, laid the groundwork for Trump’s political career by giving him a regular commentary spot on the morning “Fox and Friends” program in 2011. Trump commented on many subjects but often returned to his “birther” views about President Barack Obama, thus endearing him to Obama’s critics and conspiracy-minded viewers. (Trump renounced the birther conspiracy after he’d secured the Republican nomination in 2016.)
Since Trump’s inauguration, 60 percent of his TV interviews have been with Fox, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a scholar who tracks presidential interviews. No other network has come close, said Kumar; she notes that “Fox and Friends” alone has done more interviews with Trump (eight) than ABC, CBS and NBC combined.
The relationship between Fox and Trump resembles a self-perpetuating loop as much as a one-way street. Fox frequently broadcasts commentary that Trump, an avid Fox watcher, tweets or repeats, including at his campaign-style rallies. (Fox is now alone among the cable-news networks in airing those rallies from start to finish.)
As president, Trump has trashed numerous news organizations — The Washington Post, the New York Times, NBC News, CNN, among others — but has never voiced a critical word about Fox. Instead, he has often promoted his appearances on the network and applauded it for its ratings success.
The bond between the network and the president practically became official last week when Trump hired Bill Shine — Fox New’s former co-president, ousted last year in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal that plagued the network while he was boss — to be deputy chief of staff in charge of White House communications. Hannity reportedly pressed Trump to hire Shine, who helped guide Hannity’s career.
The White House and Fox are interwoven in other ways. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert is a former Fox reporter; White House director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp is a former Fox contributor, as is Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton. Trump even briefly hired Joseph E. diGenova as his personal lawyer after seeing diGenova on Fox.
What’s more, Kim Guilfoyle, a co-host of “The Five” on Fox, began dating the newly divorced Donald Trump Jr. in May.
The revolving door includes direct access to the president for Fox’s Lou Dobbs, Hannity and Murdoch, all of whom speak regularly to Trump.
“Clearly, Trump likes [Fox] and is catering to them in ways unlike any president has catered to a particular media outlet in recent memory,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University and an occasional Fox guest.
He added: “On one level, this makes good sense for Trump in that he can reach his base supporters in a less hostile or even supportive environment, especially when he is talking to Hannity or Tucker Carlson. And, surely, Trump knows that whatever he says in these interviews will show up in other news outlets as well.”
But some observers think Trump should keep more distance between himself and Fox.
“I have encouraged the president to reach out to media beyond Fox News and sympathetic conservative media,” said Christopher Ruddy, a Trump friend and the chief executive of the conservative Newsmax media company. “The White House is ceding too much geography to his critics. He is his best advocate, and he should go on friendly or fair shows” on other networks, such as CNN.
The White House, he said, “has a good case to make of his accomplishments and but they need to engage media beyond Fox.”
A Fox spokeswoman defended the network’s independence on Monday by noting a number of instances in which Fox hosts and anchors have pushed back on the president, including on Monday after Trump downplayed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling in the 2016 election during joint news conference with Putin.
Among others, Fox Business Network anchor Neil Cavuto called the comments “disgusting,” while Fox News analyst Brit Hume tweeted that Trump’s comments were “a lame response, to say the least.”
Fox has frequently noted a separation between its popular opinion hosts (Hannity, Carlson, Laura Ingraham) and its reporters and news anchors, such as Wallace and Shepard Smith, who tend to maintain a more objective line on Trump.
Fox anchor Bret Baier recently told the New Yorker magazine that “it pains me” to hear Fox described as “state TV” for Trump. “I have not gotten an interview with the president, and it’s five hundred thirty-four days since I did one with candidate Trump, not like anybody’s counting,” he told the magazine.
Baier took a somewhat softer line than his competitors after the president’s comments drew bipartisan condemnation.
On CNN, anchor Anderson Cooper called the president’s statements “one of the most disgraceful performances of an American president . . . that I’ve ever seen.” His colleague John King said Trump’s response amounted to “surrender” to Putin. “You can call it the Surrender Summit,” he said.
But Baier was less categorical. “That was quite something,” he said immediately afterward. “Almost surreal at points. . . . The way that [Trump] dealt with it defending himself — really not going after President Putin — was pretty interesting to watch.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to remove a reference to Bret Baier having dinner at the White House. He attended a White House lunch with other TV news anchors.
Philip Rucker contributed to this report from Helsinki.