Trump, a regular F&F viewer, frequently returns the favor by live-tweeting things he’s seen and heard on the show, turning a program derided by liberal critics into one of the most influential news sources on the air. The mutually beneficial relationship predates Trump’s run for office; Trump had a regular guest spot on the program for four years starting in 2011, phoning in weekly to advance, among other things, his discredited “birther” conspiracy theory about President Obama.
But over the past three days, a chill has crept into the friendly confines.
On Friday, co-host Brian Kilmeade pushed back on Trump’s plans to withdraw American troops from Syria. In an interview with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, Kilmeade said the policy would give Russian President Vladimir Putin “a big win.” He declared, “[Trump] said President Obama was the founder of ISIS. He just re-founded ISIS.”
The day before, Kilmeade said withdrawing from Syria was potentially “worse” than President Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2011. He called the decision “totally irresponsible.”
And on Wednesday, fellow host Steve Doocy sounded appalled by Trump’s apparent acquiescence to a temporary federal funding bill that didn’t contain funds for Trump’s cherished dream of building a wall on the southern border. “What a stunning turn of events,” said Doocy, adding, “If he agrees to the [bill] . . . he loses, and the Democrats will win everything they want.”
Perhaps attesting to “Fox & Friends’ ” influence, Trump reversed course Thursday, withdrawing his support for the bill backed by Democrats and setting the government on a path to a partial shutdown. But Trump seemed to react defensively to Kilmeade’s criticism of his Syria withdrawal, tweeting on Friday morning, “I’ve done more damage to ISIS than all recent presidents . . . not even close!”
It’s hard to say whether all this represents a portentous turn in the Trump-F&F alliance or just a momentary spat among the best of friends. But it is unusual. The Guardian newspaper once said the show “manages to serve as a court sycophant, whispering in the ear of the king, criticizing his perceived enemies and fluffing his feathers.”
F&F’s executive producer, Gavin Hadden, declined to address the program’s relationship with Trump. In a statement, he said F&F “covers stories that are most important to our viewers. That’s what we did this week and will always do.”
A network spokeswoman suggests criticism of the president is nothing new for the program. She offered a list of 28 instances during Trump’s presidency in which the show went rogue. Example: Kilmeade’s grilling of deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah earlier this year over the White House’s vetting of Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned after his former wives accused him of physical abuse. “You relied upon [background checks] and you got burned because you had a two-time accused domestic abuser there at a very sensitive position,” Kilmeade told Shah at the time.
Kilmeade also suggested last summer that Trump had been “outsmarted” by former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman after he allowed himself to be pulled into a feud that would help her sell a tell-all book.
Perhaps tellingly, however, 10 of the 28 examples cited by Fox occurred over the past three weeks, suggesting “Fox & Friends” may be getting feistier. One such example was a contentious tag-team interview by the co-hosts with presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway on Wednesday.
Although Fox’s prime-time opinion hosts — Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — are usually reliably in Trump’s camp, the president has skeptics elsewhere at Fox, particularly on its news side.
Anchors Bret Baier and Chris Wallace have been among Trump’s toughest TV interviewers. Weekday anchor Shepard Smith has irregularly lapsed into the role of on-air fact-checker and occasional critic. “An important note,” Smith said after Trump had suggested in October that “unknown Middle Easterners” were hiding amid the migrant caravan, “Fox News knows of no evidence to suggest the president is accurate on that matter, and the president has offered no evidence to support what he has said.”
In an interview with The Washington Post this fall, Baier noted that there are built-in divisions within Fox News, mostly between the opinion side and the news side: “It’s two different operations,” he said. “We are under one corporate umbrella, and they are very successful on the opinion side. On the news side, we have a different mandate.”
Baier also noted that Trump “is a president who takes things and goes right to Twitter. Over time, the country is getting a feel for how extraordinary that is. It is a different way of communicating that’s changed how we interact with the White House.”
In Baier’s case, he said that it made him want to be sure everything he said on air was accurate.
But as is often the case, Fox’s opinion hosts seemed to speak with one mind, driving the same message throughout the morning and evening hours, when Fox’s audience is at its peak. This “message discipline” was instilled by Fox’s late co-founder, Roger Ailes, who shaped the daily agenda.
This week, Doocy led the network’s charge to persuade Trump to hold firm on funding for the border wall. He was backed up by evening host Dan Bongino, who was filling in for Sean Hannity. Bongino led his program as Hannity probably would have: with a story about funding the wall. He noted that commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have urged the president not to back down. In Coulter’s case, Bongino said, she argued that Trump could lose the next election if he gave in.
Laura Ingraham started her show on the “can-do American spirit” of a man who had started a GoFundMe page to help fund the border wall. She noted that Trump was “making a stand for his wall. It’s what voters want, but leadership stood in his way.” She said Trump’s position now forces the hand of Democrats.
Message received. By Friday, Trump had reversed course and had placed himself at the head of the parade. “The Democrats now own the shutdown!” he tweeted.