The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The long love affair between Fox News and Trump may be over. Here’s how it all soured last week.

In a scene from a happier time in the Fox-Trump relationship, anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum greet the president at a Fox News town hall in Scranton, Pa., in March. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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The last day of Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign began just after 7 a.m., as polls opened on the East Coast, with a call to “Fox & Friends,” the television morning show that had turned the reality star into a U.S. president. He got his usual hero’s welcome. But it was no longer enough.

“This has been a very special show for me,” he told the hosts of this broadcasting safe haven where he had workshopped his birther message, shared gossip and conspiracy theories, and repeatedly set the tone for his entire administration’s day. “We’ve had a great relationship, and you have a great show. So, it’s my honor.”

But his remarks quickly turned pointed that Tuesday morning as he boasted about how well he had done in the job of president, despite unexpected challenges — not from China or Russia or North Korea, he said, but from the United States. And he mused rhetorically about what had changed the most for him since 2016.

“Fox,” he said, answering his own question. “It’s much different now.” As the hosts sputtered, he elaborated: “In the old days, they wouldn’t put sleepy Joe Biden on every time he opened his mouth. . . . It’s a much different operation — I’m just telling you.”

It was the last day of a campaign Fox had done so much to support, but it was a preview of the war — now one week old but months in the making — that may have permanently ruptured the bond between President Trump and his once-favorite television channel. As he faces expulsion from the White House, Trump has vowed revenge on the network that propelled his political career, according to close White House aides — perhaps by publicly attacking Fox or undermining its business model by endorsing a competitor.

His early-morning grumblings flew in the face of the friendly venue Fox has been for him — as well as the personal guidance he has taken from its marquee stars. Opinion hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity advised him on his reelection strategy, from how to conduct himself in a debate to where he should hold his rallies, according to three people familiar with these exchanges.

What was Trump talking about? How the language of Fox News invaded the final debate.

Trump has also maintained the unswerving support of other Fox opinion hosts, including Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro, both of whom were at the election-night party in the White House’s chandeliered East Room. Fox was on the big-screen TVs as Trump won the key state of Florida, and the room filled with increasing optimism that Trump had again defied the polls.

Until 11:20 p.m., when Fox News called Arizona for Biden with 73 percent of the expected vote counted — a “screeching of tires” that brought the party to a halt, said one official present.

Fox News was unequivocal on Nov. 7 about President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, but some hosts and guests were eager to spin it. (Video: The Washington Post)

This account is based on interviews with 11 current and former Fox News and Trump officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive dynamics between Fox News and Trumpworld.

Trump erupted in anger, telling others in the White House to “get that result changed,” a senior administration official said. His chief of staff, Mark Meadows, phoned Fox News’s decision desk repeatedly. Top aide Hope Hicks, who had returned to the White House earlier this year after a stint at Fox Corp., messaged Raj Shah, a former Trump White House staffer whom she hired at Fox, about how to get the call reversed. Kellyanne Conway got in touch with Fox News chief political anchor Bret Baier to complain. Jared Kushner reached out to Fox Corp.’s billionaire owner, Rupert Murdoch.

But even as White House officials vowed to Fox executives that they had data from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) demonstrating that Trump could still win, and as all the other major networks continued to hold off on a call, Fox decision-desk chief Arnon Mishkin remained unmoved. Stick with us, he and his deputies told the anchors. We’ll be right. And that was the path Fox News chose.

It is almost impossible to overstate the closeness of the relationship between Fox News and the Trump White House.

In 2018, Pirro complained personally to the president that she had been unable to get any White House staffers to appear on her show for two weeks running. Little wonder, said one administration official: “No one wanted to do it every week, because it was on Saturday night and it screws up your weekend.” But Trump came to the rescue — volunteering to call into the show himself. After that, his staff set up a rotation system to make sure one of them would perform the duty for Pirro’s show every week.

Yet even as Fox opinion hosts reliably cheered for Trump, the relationship with the network could be problematic for top White House staffers, largely because of the president’s thrall to what it broadcast. While he was White House chief of staff, John Kelly regularly complained to aides that the show hosted by conspiracy-minded immigration opponent Lou Dobbs on Fox Business Network had far too much sway over the president, according to two former senior administration officials. Another former White House official described the constant angst over how Fox might cover certain White House initiatives, because of the potential blowback from the boss.

“What we were always concerned about inside is that when he’d do a spending deal or make an announcement that was controversial, and then Fox would attack him, and he’d blow it up the next day,” the former official said. “We’d call the hosts and say, ‘Please can you tamp it down a bit?’ Because we were afraid the next day he’d rip it up. . . . They usually were pretty good about working with us.”

But Trump demanded an unattainable level of loyalty from the network. His reelection campaign at one point asked for a bulk discount advertising deal. Fox said no, noting that everyone has to pay the same rates, according to two people familiar with the exchange — leaving Trump extremely unhappy with Fox.

In recent months, he had begun to complain — on Twitter and to his aides — that Fox had turned on him. That impression was only heightened when reports emerged that Murdoch was telling associates that the president was going to lose. Even as the New York Post, another Murdoch-controlled property, published a dubious front-page article last month, facilitated by Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, that alleged nefarious business dealings by Biden’s son Hunter, the personal relationship had undeniably cooled.

What happens to Fox News if Trump loses? Rupert Murdoch is prepared.

Trump took any perceived slight from Fox News especially personally because he viewed Fox as “my network,” three administration officials said. “I give Fox these mega-ratings. It’s all me,” Trump has told advisers, according to a person who heard the comments.

In reality, ratings have been buoyed across all networks by increased audience interest spurred by the drama of the Trump presidency — and while Fox, too, has prospered, it has also been the top-rated cable news program for more than 18 years. And for all its Trump sympathies, Fox remained an independent business and a news organization — one that couldn’t help turning its attention to the wider pantheon of political personalities as the 2020 campaign heated up.

“People think Fox and they think what they think. And you can’t do anything about that,” a Fox executive said. “But on election night, I’m telling you, the news side is running the show.”

The fury with which Team Trump fought back against Fox's call for Arizona signified the extent to which it saw it as a dire omen — and a betrayal. It was the birthplace of Barry Goldwater's conservative movement, a state that had gone blue only once since 1948 and the home of Trump's GOP antagonist John McCain, whose widow, Cindy, had endorsed Biden.

Yet the state had long been trending more liberal, and Mishkin maintained that his projection was rooted in pure math — hardly a concerted attempt by the network to kneecap Trump.

In the following days, Fox’s opinion hosts doubled down on their show of loyalty to the president — even going so far as to obliquely cast doubt on their own network’s call by repeating Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.

On Wednesday evening, Ingraham took the airwaves to declare that Democrats were trying to “destroy the integrity of our election process with this mail-in, day-of registration efforts, counting after the election is over, dumping batches of votes a day, two days, maybe even three days after an election.”

She interviewed Republican Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who was even more strident: “As they watch Joe Biden’s Democratic Party steal the election in Philadelphia, steal the election in Atlanta, steal the election in Milwaukee, I think the more information that comes out, the greater the rage is going to be.”

Here are the GOP and Trump campaign’s allegations of election irregularities. So far, none have been proved.

On Friday night, Hannity told his viewers that “we have serious reports of irregularities and fraud and not allowing vote counters to observe counting.” And on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox show Sunday morning, attorney Sidney Powell baselessly alleged that Democrats “were flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist” — and the host listened intently without asking the Trump ally to offer proof.

But other Fox personnel stood their ground — even as Trump fans gathered outside vote-counting locations in Arizona’s Maricopa County, chanting “Fox sucks.”

“Lawsuits, schmawsuits,” scoffed Fox’s politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, assessing the Trump campaign’s threats of legal challenges over the election results. “We haven’t seen any evidence yet that there’s anything wrong.”

Baier, Fox’s nightly news anchor for the past decade, repeatedly pushed back against claims of voter fraud leveled by Trump allies. And when correspondent Eric Shawn was asked Friday by host Dana Perino about Trump allegations that GOP poll-watchers were being blocked in Philadelphia, he responded: “That’s not true. That’s not true. That’s just not true.”

“To come out and say that there is voter fraud . . . to make a statement about an election being stolen or an election being rigged, that can be a dangerous statement,” said Jedediah Bila, a co-host of “Fox & Friends Weekend.” “I haven’t seen any evidence.”

And in the most startling rebuke, Fox cut away from White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s Monday news conference when she alleged that Democrats were welcoming illegal votes. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” anchor Neil Cavuto said. “We have to be very clear: She’s charging the other side as welcoming fraud. . . . Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue to show you this.”

Fox News cuts away from Kayleigh McEnany press conference for alleging vote fraud with no evidence

A Fox executive acknowledged that regular viewers, attuned to messaging from the campaign, were “really pissed off” at the network. “But we aren’t backing down from it.” On Thursday, after the Trump campaign tweeted a list of Mishkin’s political contributions — including $1,500 to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign — to make the case he was biased against Republicans, the network came to his defense by putting the analyst on the air with Baier and MacCallum to point out that he had also given money to Republicans.

Still, Trump and his allies have become convinced that the Arizona call represented a strategic decision by Fox to “go to great lengths to prove their objectivity at Trump’s expense,” said one friend of the president.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh amplified this theory on his Friday show: “The cable networks are waiting for Fox” to declare the race, he said. “They want you to eat crow. They want you guys to be the ones to repudiate Trump.”

As it happened, after Fox’s early call on Arizona — which as of Monday evening still had not yet been matched by any other major news organization other than the Associated Press, as Trump continued to narrow the gap through the counting of mail-in ballots — the network seemed to slow down to meet the pace of its rivals, who all refrained from making aggressive calls in other states this year. Having placed Arizona in Biden’s column, Fox could well have been the first news organization to call the presidency for Biden, with only the addition of another small state such as Nevada. Yet the network was loath to do so, according to two Fox executives. Ultimately, Fox called Pennsylvania and the presidency for Biden on Saturday 16 minutes after CNN.

The Trump campaign is vowing to push forward with lawsuits, but some of his advisers are counseling him not to fight too hard, so he can leave with his dignity intact and prepare for his next step, whether it is as the leader of a resistance or a 2024 candidate.

But officials said Trump was in some ways angrier about Fox News on Wednesday than his actual loss. One ally said that when Trump called Wednesday, he expected him to complain about the results. Instead, the ally said, Trump “railed about Fox.”

Trump’s advisers had long discussed the possibility that when he left office, he would support a news network to compete with Fox or start his own. “This,” said one of his close advisers, “only exacerbates that desire.”

Jeremy Barr contributed to this report.