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Trump campaign was livid when Fox News called Arizona for Biden — and tensions boiled over on-air

Allies of President Trump criticized Fox News for calling Arizona’s 11 electoral votes for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Nov. 3. (Video: The Washington Post)

Fox anchor Bill Hemmer was gearing up to do another review for viewers of a map of the United States that at 11:20 p.m. was looking surprisingly positive for President Trump when he did a double take in the lower left-hand quadrant.

“Have we called Arizona?” he asked, sounding stunned.

Indeed, with only 73 percent of its vote reported, the analysts on the cable giant’s stridently independent decision desk had already bestowed a yellow check mark on the Grand Canyon State — putting it in Joe Biden’s column long before any other network was making that call.

It was one of several times throughout the night that the president’s favorite network declared results long before its competitors — and not necessarily in the president’s favor. Trump campaign officials were livid, and the tensions boiled over onto the broadcast, where former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted it was a “premature call,” and anchor Bret Baier called upon decision-desk director Arnon Mishkin to explain himself on camera, because “we’re getting a lot of incoming here.”

“I’m sorry,” Mishkin said, “the president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes to eliminate that seven-point lead that the former vice president has.” Told the White House was convinced otherwise, he stood his ground: “I’m sorry we’re not wrong in this particular case.” (“You don’t have to apologize,” Baier told Mishkin.)

Mishkin, a registered Democrat who works for Fox as a contractor, would go on to apologize several times throughout the course of the night — not for being wrong, but for daringly delivering calls that were so early they initially looked suspect. His calls added pressure on other news outlets reporting on a highly competitive race in a country that was uniquely divided and anxious about its result. And they helped ramp up the tension on a night when Trump was brazenly urging the vote count to be stopped before all early and absentee ballots were counted.

On Nov. 4, current and former Republican officials, including Chris Christie, Rick Santorum and John Bolton, reacted to President Trump’s false election night. (Video: The Washington Post)

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Indeed, not long after polling analyst Nate Silver declared that the Fox News call on Arizona “looms pretty large as a check against claims Trump might make that he’s winning,” the president indirectly alluded to Mishkin in his 2 a.m. speech claiming he was on track to victory.

“Arizona, we have a lot of life in that, and somebody said — somebody declared it was a victory for — and maybe it will be, I mean, that’s possible,” the president said. “But certainly there were a lot of votes out there that we could get because we’re now just coming into what they call Trump territory.”

But as dawn approached, many other news organizations, including the Associated Press, also called Arizona for Biden. “Arnon was right,” Fox anchor Martha MacCallum said. “The White House was wrong.”

Trump started his Election Day in a familiar place — calling into "Fox & Friends," the morning show that helped launch his political career nearly a decade ago and that has been a safe haven for him ever since.

His voice gravelly and weary-sounding after 14 campaign events in 72 hours, he bragged about his rally crowds (“Nobody’s ever had it before . . . that translates into a lot of votes.”) Asked about former president Barack Obama’s criticism that Trump cared more about crowd sizes than protecting his fans from the coronavirus, he complained that Fox had booked Obama more often than he cared for.

“What’s the biggest difference between this and four years ago,” he asked rhetorically. “I say Fox. It’s much different now.”

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While its rabidly opinionated prime-time hosts can make Fox News seem to be an all-in propaganda network for Trump, the president has a vast memory for perceived slights. When he first launched his campaign in 2015, network co-founder Roger Ailes did not take Trump especially seriously, and many Fox hosts and anchors were wary of him. It was only when he emerged in the general election that Fox backed him enthusiastically. And then, with Ailes in a command-and-control position at the network, Trump knew whom he needed to speak to.

Ailes was forced to resign in 2016 after a sexual harassment scandal and has since died. Now, with power more dispersed throughout the organization, Trump has grown frustrated without a single person to negotiate with, according to people who have spoken with him about the dynamic. (He has spoken frequently throughout his presidency to Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls Fox News, but Murdoch is less involved in the day-to-day of the cable channel, and doesn’t always engage with Trump’s complaints about coverage.)

He has repeatedly lashed out at Fox on Twitter and during his rallies, especially targeting its nonpartisan journalists and independent-minded hosts like Chris Wallace, who has subjected Trump to particularly challenging interviews.

The two sides of Fox — strongly pro-Trump pundits and the more measured anchors — were on display Tuesday night almost immediately after the polls closed. Just after 7 p.m., Fox called Virginia for Biden — even though Trump appeared far ahead in the official vote count before the heavily Democratic suburbs came in — and the network's politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, came on-air to defend the projection. "Our call will hold, we feel very confident," he said.

But when Trump unexpectedly racked up an impressive lead in Florida, which he quickly won, Fox brought out its most popular prime-time host, Tucker Carlson, who attacked the mainstream media for once again underestimating Trump’s popularity.

“I think it’s interesting that the emphasis of the leaders of the Democratic Party has been on race and racism. . . . It’s remarkable that this president, denounced every day as a racist,” did so well among Latino voters, Carlson said. “The Black Lives Matter message is very appealing to White suburban voters, but it’s unappealing to some non-White voters. Who expected that?”

Opinion host Laura Ingraham, meanwhile, did a quick segment from the South Lawn, having slipped out of Trump’s election night party at the White House. Sean Hannity, the Fox host who is closest to Trump and speaks to him nearly every day, did not make an on-air appearance Tuesday night.

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The mood among some inside Fox at that early part of the evening was giddy that the night was not a blowout for Biden, something that would have driven viewers off the air early, according to Fox staffers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about their employers.

Fox’s decision desk didn’t rush to all of its calls. Long after it seemed that Florida would go for Trump, Fox waited to call it. Baier wondered out loud why the network could not call Florida earlier. Wallace declared that “the story of this night hasn’t been told yet” and likened the race up to that point to a tennis match, where both Biden and Trump had held serve.

When some on set questioned why the network couldn’t make that call given how clear the result seemed, Baier joked about Fox’s premature call of Florida in the contested 2000 election. But as soon as Fox called Arizona for Biden, that kind of banter came to a halt on Fox News — and all anyone could do was start to count the different paths to 270 electoral college votes.

Staff writer Jeremy Barr contributed to this report.