The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hard-line views made Lou Dobbs a Fox powerhouse. Now he’s shaping Trump’s border policy.

Lou Dobbs is an outspoken proponent of border security and cracking down on illegal immigration—and he has a president who listens to him. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

One day in mid-March, President Trump gathered his top economic team at the White House to get its read on the state of the nation’s financial health.

But before the Council of Economic Advisers finished its annual get-together with the nation’s chief executive, a basso profundo voice thundered into the room via speakerphone. With the council sitting by, Trump had placed a call to his unofficial policy whisperer — Lou Dobbs, the Fox Business Network host. The call ushered Dobbs into a traditionally private gathering, shielded from the media and investors eager to get a crystal-ball view of what lies ahead.

The Dobbs-Trump mind meld on display that day is emblematic of a White House where the unusual has become the norm. Day by day, the relationship between the bombastic president and the cranky anchorman has become an object of curiosity and amusement. But it is also something much more profound.

An echo chamber on ideology and policy has evolved; Trump often takes steps urged by Dobbs, such as declaring a national emergency to pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, pushing out Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and pulling back from a proposed cessation of the trade war with China.

Born just nine months apart, the 70-somethings share a penchant for schoolyard-style name-calling, grumbling about enemies seen and unseen, an apocalyptic view of illegal immigration and a deep embrace of hair-color shades not found in the natural world.

Dobbs and Trump, among the most vocal border hawks in recent American history, also both happen to be married to women with recent immigrant heritages. First lady Melania Trump emigrated from Slovenia, and Dobbs’s wife, former CNN sports reporter Debi Lee Segura, is from a family with Mexican American roots.

Trump’s call to Dobbs in March was extraordinary. Four former council chairmen for Trump’s predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told The Washington Post the presidents they served under never called a member of the media during their briefings.

“This behavior by President Trump is certainly odd,” said Jason Furman, who chaired the council under Obama from 2013 to 2017.

Harvey S. Rosen, who chaired the council in 2005, said Bush never made such calls either, but added, “the president is entitled to seek advice from whomever he wants and whenever he wants.”

Trump’s council chairman, Kevin Hassett, revealed Trump’s call to Dobbs, without going into detail about what was said, on Dobbs’s show not long afterward. Hassett confirmed in an interview this week with The Washington Post that the president had “a short, friendly call where we shared information with Lou that the president knew he’d be interested in.”

In public, Trump and Dobbs have engaged in a kind of lovefest. In a much-discussed October 2017 interview of Trump, Dobbs gushed, “You have accomplished so much” in his introduction and signed off by adding, “You are, if I may say, everything as advertised as you ran for president.” A left-leaning columnist dubbed the sit-down “a masterpiece of sycophancy.”

Trump, in turn, typically refers to the television host as “The Great Lou Dobbs.” At the New Year’s Eve gala at Mar-a-Lago two months later, the president asked Dobbs to stand and be recognized: “I just wanted to tell you, you are fantastic and we appreciate it,” Trump said.

Trump’s affection for all things Fox is well-established, as demonstrated by his metronomic references to the morning program “Fox & Friends” and his private chats and cheerleading for prime-time Fox News host Sean Hannity. But in Dobbs, Trump also finds a certain special wisdom.

“Lou’s opinion is very important to the president,” said Ed Rollins, the longtime Republican strategist who chairs a Trump super PAC and is a frequent guest on the 7 p.m. Eastern program “Lou Dobbs Tonight.”

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Close associates of both Trump and Dobbs say they speak off-air often — as frequently as every day some weeks. Just this week, Trump tweeted he’d spoken to Dobbs, whose program features a backdrop of an enormous fluttering American flag. The president urged his tens of millions of Twitter followers to watch the Fox Business stalwart’s show that night, which turned out to be the start of a new series with Dobbs alleging “radical Dems, the Deep State and the national left-wing media have tried to subvert and overthrow the president of the United States.”

“While the president and Lou are friendly, it’s not like his relationship with a lot of other people in the media who like him,” said Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist. “This is about policy. They’re completely in sync on immigration and trade and what that all means for wages and how the Republican elite has failed.”

Dobbs declined to be interviewed for this story. But Trump was more than happy to talk about Dobbs after being contacted by The Post, calling the veteran anchor’s commentaries about the border “very powerful.”

“Lou has a very strong opinion on the border, and I do listen to that opinion,” Trump said in a phone interview Tuesday evening from the Oval Office.

The president who was once a reality TV star has found in Dobbs something akin to a television avatar, a mutually beneficial embodiment of the presidential id, according to people close to both men.

“I think he respects what I’m doing, and I respect the job he does,” Trump said. “He really gets the word out. There’s no question about it.”

A friend of Dobbs, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said the TV host is well aware his show has become “Trump 2020 TV,” almost an unofficial extension of the president’s reelection campaign.

But Dobbs “doesn’t care,” the friend said. “He’s at the end of his career, and he’s going to do what he wants to do.”

'There was anger'

Dobbs and Trump come from different universes. The president was born into wealth in 1946, the scion of a New York real estate empire. Dobbs, born the year before, speaks of growing up “poor,” with a father who moved the family to Idaho after his Texas business failed.

Dobbs first worked in government anti-poverty programs, then in financial services, before entering the local television business in Arizona and Washington state. There he found his calling, leveraging an authoritative aura, a thunderous voice and a straight-from-Central-Casting anchorman look.

A recruiter lured him to something new launching in 1980 — a 24-hour cable news network named CNN. Dobbs became one of the network’s original stars, eventually taking on multiple roles as an executive, and anchoring the successful program, “Moneyline with Lou Dobbs.”

In 1999, his long tenure imploded spectacularly in a fit of pique when Dobbs ordered his crew to cut away from then-President Bill Clinton’s speech in Colorado after the Columbine school shooting massacre. When CNN executives forced Dobbs to go back to the speech, he peevishly announced on air that “CNN President Rick Kaplan wants us to return to Littleton.”

Within days, Dobbs left CNN to form He returned two years later from his ill-fated venture to CNN, where he was given control over his show’s content.

It was during these years Dobbs made a turn, morphing from a straight albeit right-leaning newsman into an anti-illegal immigration firebrand. His show became a nightly drumbeat of border stories, a forum for groups such as the vigilante Minutemen border enforcers.

Dobbs railed about an “invasion of illegal aliens” and broadcast pieces with shaky or misleading factual foundations. He said in 2003 that “illegal aliens” constituted one-third of the total prison population, a claim he later retracted. He promoted claims in 2005 that 7,000 people with leprosy had immigrated here in three years — when, in fact, that number covered 30 years.

Some of Dobbs’s associates theorized he was crassly capitalizing on the market for conservative viewers Fox News had so deftly recognized.

“He has always known where the money was — the voice of the anxious American on immigration,” Soledad O’Brien, a former CNN star whose mother is a black Cuban American, said in an interview.

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Latino journalists at CNN were so alarmed that they demanded a meeting in the early 2000s at headquarters in Atlanta. In the heated session, some correspondents said they did not want to appear on Dobbs’s program. There were also complaints because Dobbs repeatedly used the term “illegal alien,” which many Latinos find offensive, while it was general practice at the network to say “undocumented person.”

“There was anger. There was frustration,” said Rose Arce, then a CNN producer who attended the meeting and is from a Peruvian family. “They felt like they were being used.”

The suits listened to the complaints, but nothing significant changed, attendees said.

“I was horrified,” Maria Hinojosa, a star correspondent who was at the meeting and was the network’s first Latina reporter, said. “It was destroying the credibility of our profession.”

Hinojosa sees far-reaching repercussions from that era.

“He and CNN helped to create the structure, ethos, imagery and tone of where we are now,” Hinojosa said. “He helped to create the narrative that immigrants are bad, that they are lawbreakers and dangerous.”

At CNN, Dobbs was generating solid ratings, even as some executives were growing more uncomfortable with his rhetoric. By 2009, tensions were flaring. A top former CNN insider said executives were ill at ease about Dobbs using his radio show on a separate network to focus attention on questions about the discredited theory, known as “birtherism,” that President Obama was not born in the United States.

The end for Dobbs at CNN came around the time the network released a major documentary titled “Latino in America” that showed immigrants in a positive light, and was spearheaded by O’Brien. BastaDobbs, a protest movement using the Spanish words for Stop Dobbs, was spawned around the idea it was hypocritical for CNN to promote O’Brien’s production while also giving such an important forum to Dobbs, who the demonstrators accused of spreading lies and misinformation.

According to the CNN insider, executives were more concerned about reining in Dobbs than the protests. A strategy emerged to neutralize him. Even though Dobbs had control over content, he still had to adhere to CNN standards. So, the network changed its standards, forcing anchors to abide by the same prohibitions on expressing opinions on air that had previously only applied to correspondents.

The same day the new standards were shown to Dobbs, he set in motion negotiations to get him out of his contract, according to the CNN insider.

By November 2009, Dobbs had resigned.

Soledad O’Brien got his old office.

'More Breitbart than Breitbart'

Dobbs may have worn out his welcome at CNN, but there were powerful people who saw greater things ahead. Bannon — the future chief executive of Trump’s 2016 campaign — tried to persuade Dobbs to run for president in 2012.

“He was Trump before Trump,” said Bannon, who ran the right-wing site Breitbart News. “He has always sort of epitomized the intellectual foundation of the Trump movement on trade and immigration, even if he doesn’t get enough attention. He was more Breitbart than Breitbart, going back years.”

Dobbs decided against an Oval Office run. In 2010, he took a job at the Fox Business Network. It was a big step down to an offshoot network from the broader platform of CNN. Yet in the years since, he’s become the most-watched host on business television, a position he’s held since before Trump took office, according to releases by the network, citing Nielsen Media Research, which says he’s also had good ratings with Hispanics.

Bannon molded Breitbart into a far-right sledgehammer.

During Dobbs’s early years at Fox Business, Trump didn’t have a close relationship with him. But Dobbs had caught the New York developer’s eye by frequently reporting on birtherism, a topic Trump took up with gusto in 2011 as he began hinting at a run for president.

“Trump echoed those concerns as he began to make inroads with Republican base voters,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide.

As Trump got more serious about his presidential run, he began absorbing Dobbs’s thoughts on China and immigration.

“He gets it,” Trump told Nunberg.

Once the campaign began, aides and friends noticed Trump often had Dobbs’s show on the screen in the jet they’d nicknamed Trump Force One. It wasn’t unusual for Trump to dial up Dobbs.

“Trump cares about Fox, but he doesn’t care about Fox Business,” Nunberg said. “He cares about Lou Dobbs.”

On his nightly show the month before the election, Dobbs urged Americans to “rouse themselves from a long slumber . . . and vote. Vote for your country or lose it. That’s where we are.”

But on Election Day, it appears one of those who didn’t follow that advice was Dobbs himself. According to records at the Sussex County Board of Elections in New Jersey, where Dobbs lives, the broadcaster did not cast a vote in the 2016 general presidential election. Asked in writing about not voting in that election, as well as the 2008 presidential primary, Dobbs declined to comment through a Fox Business Network spokesperson.

'The Dobbs effect'

Fresh off President Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, his inner circle noticed most televisions in the West Wing of the White House had four channels airing simultaneously: Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, and Bloomberg.

Aides clamored to watch what the big boss was watching, so the White House Communications Agency, which operates those televisions, changed the box reserved for Bloomberg to Fox Business.

“It was the Dobbs effect,” said an official familiar with the discussions.

As the months went along, the president’s punching bags became Dobbs’s punching bags. Dobbs called former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who has clashed frequently with Trump, “feckless,” “an annoying son of a gun,” “a K Street-owned RINO” and an “ignoramus” — and that was during just one show last November. Ryan declined to comment through a spokesman.

The phenomenon of Trump and Dobbs as almost a single brain connected not by neurons, but by cable wires, has been reinforced by repetition.

The president has what he calls a “Super TiVo,” a system in which he records programs so he can watch them whenever and wherever he wants. Suddenly, it was almost impossible to be in Trump’s orbit without seeing Dobbs’s face.

Dobbs is often playing on Air Force One and in the presidential dining room, according to a supporter who has spent time in both places with Trump but was not authorized to speak publicly. It’s not uncommon, the supporter said, for Trump to pause mid-conversation and turn up the volume to catch something Dobbs is saying.

“I respect his commentary — I would say, based not on my talking to him but my listening, that he feels very strongly about strength at the border, and so do I,” Trump told The Post.

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Managing Dobbs can be treacherous. Former deputy White House chief of staff Bill Shine, a onetime top Fox News executive, strained to reassure Dobbs that Trump would follow through on promises to take dramatic immigration measures. A White House official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Trump grew frustrated with Shine as Dobbs carried on with monologues saying Trump was not taking a hard enough line on immigration.

“The president noticed that, and that was the start of Bill’s problems, in some ways,” the official said.

The firebrand anchor was pushing for quick action.

“This is the president of the United States,” Dobbs told his audience in January. “He says a wall should be built. That it’s a national emergency. At that point the nation should rally behind him.”

A month later, Dobbs got his wish: the president declared a national emergency.

Shine, in office for just eight months, was out of a job before the national emergency went to a vote in Congress.

Even after the national emergency declaration, Dobbs was grumpy. He set his sights on Nielsen, the beleaguered DHS secretary, who’d managed to anger immigrant advocates who thought she was too tough and the president who was pushing her to be tougher.

In early March, Dobbs was asking, “Why doesn’t Trump fire Kirstjen Nielsen?”

Within weeks Nielsen was announcing her resignation.

Many Trump allies say Dobbs’s repeated criticism of Nielsen, more than anything else, made her position untenable in the administration.

“Think about it,” said one ally who works closely with the administration on immigration and requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Every night at 7 p.m. on Fox you’re getting slammed by Lou as the president watches.”

'What time is it on, again?'

As Dobbs’s influence with the White House has seemed to grow, some Washington power players who’d barely paid attention to him have been forced to take notice.

“He matters because the president watches,” a White House official said. “Members of Congress who figure that out, will ask us, ‘What time is it on, again?’ ”

But at the White House, where Trump keeps his Super TiVo humming, the time doesn’t matter because the president can watch whenever he likes. The April 10 show gave Trump something he loved.

The anchor featured a poll showing Trump with a 55 percent approval rating. Trump tweeted an image of the graphic and wrote, “Great news! #MAGA.”

It turns out that poll actually showed 55 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the president, and only 41 percent viewed him favorably. Amid an uproar of condemnation, Fox Business corrected the error.

But two weeks later, the false poll results live on, undeleted and uncorrected — they’re right there on Trump’s Twitter timeline, for all to see. The American flag logo in the bottom left-hand corner reads: Lou Dobbs Tonight.

Alice Crites in Washington and Caren Lissner in Hoboken, N.J., contributed to this report.