Protesters rally outside the Fox News headquarters in New York City on March 13. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Media critic

President Trump is an expert in imagining some glorious past that doesn’t exist. That delusion, after all, is the basis of “Make America Great Again.”

The glories of some bygone era crept into Trump’s comments to reporters on Sunday in Morristown, N.J. He was asked about a Fox News poll showing bad numbers for the president. Any mention of Fox News, of course, invokes on the president’s primary expertise; he knows cable news. So he spouted off: “I’ll tell you, Fox is a lot different than it used to be, I can tell you that. Juan Williams. Then they have the wonderful woman that gave Hillary Clinton the questions,” riffed the president, referring to Donna Brazile, a former CNN commentator who was busted assisting the Clinton campaign in the 2016 cycle with debate/town hall questions. “That was a terrible thing. And all of a sudden she’s working for Fox. What’s she doing working for Fox?"

The president paired his verbal outburst at Williams with an identically themed tweet:

Juan Williams, one of Fox News’s liberal commentators, brings a lot of traits to the television, none of them nastiness. His colleagues at the network delivered that point on Twitter:

There’s more to dismantle from Trump’s Fox News riff, in which he claimed, “Fox has changed. And my worst polls have always been from Fox.” (Whether that sweeping statement is true is unclear, but certainly Fox News has published many polls with unfortunate findings for the president. As we have reported before, that’s because the Fox News polling unit has integrity.) He continued: “There’s something going on at Fox, I’ll tell you right now. And I’m not happy with it," adding: "I don’t know what’s happening with Fox, but when they have, like, a Juan Williams, who has never said a positive thing, and yet, when I show up at the Fox building, he’s out there, ‘Oh, sir, can I have a picture with you? Could I have a picture?’ And he was 100 percent nice. I mean, you’ve never asked me for a picture,” Trump said, directing his response to the reporter who’d asked about Fox News.

“Fox is different. There’s no question about it,” claimed the president. It is not different at all, actually. Following the ouster of Fox News founder Roger Ailes in 2016 amid a sexual harassment scandal, there was speculation that Fox News would move in a different direction. Perhaps it would change the tone of its prime-time lineup, or it would dump the impossibly incompetent morning program “Fox & Friends.”

Alas, the ruling family of Fox News — the Murdochs, that is — discovered that the Ailes formula was engineered with the precision of a watchmaker: pro-Republican propaganda in the opinion hours of early morning and prime time; a right-tilting “straight news” operation in many of the daytime hours; a generalized embrace of culture wars on all hours; and an attitude that Fox News stood for the real America. In the Trump era, the recipe has translated into all-out apologism for Trump on most opinion shows, with pushback ranging from mild to robust on the other shows. Across the schedule, Fox News has always employed liberal commentators. Usually they are outnumbered, in a losing battle against network conservatives. Yet their mere existence in the Land of Hannity appears to irk Trump.

During the presidential election, the network’s failure to serve as a pro-Trump monotone angered the candidate. He fixated on then-Fox News star Megyn Kelly. After Kelly posed an epically tough question to him at the first Republican presidential debate in August 2015, the candidate carried on a one-sided “feud” with Kelly for months after the debate, and he even shunned a subsequent Fox News debate in Iowa over difficult-to-discern objections.

So: Whatever Fox News past the president was hailing in Morristown cannot be the Fox News past of 2015-2016.

Though the president swore that he was “not happy” about contemporary Fox News, his pronoun choice signaled that he feels part of the team up there in New York. “I’m not happy with Fox. I’m certainly happy — I think Sean Hannity, and Lou Dobbs, and I think Tucker Carlson and Laura and Jesse Watters, and Jeanine. We have a lot of great people. Even Greg Gutfeld; he wasn’t good to me two years ago. Now he sees all I’ve done, and he said 'Would you rather have a great President or a nice guy?’ I don’t know, I think I’m a nice guy,” said the president.

Bolding added to highlight Trump’s self-appointed role as Fox News editor-at-large.

Reading between the lines — never a complicated task when it comes to Trump — it’s clear that the president wishes that all the programming on Fox News hewed toward the work of those opinion hosts. Little does he realize that the whole operation counts on its so-called “straight news” programs to provide cover for the hosts who do his bidding with such spectacular results. Even if this dynamic has been explained to Trump himself, his narcissism would scramble the signal, rendering him unable to understand it.

Before he finished his spiel, Trump spewed a choice falsehood. Perhaps trying to play up his leverage with Fox News management, he noted that the Democrats shunned the network when it came to scheduling primary debates. “I think Fox is making a big mistake. Because, you know, I’m the one that calls the shots on that — on the really big debates,” said Trump in an apparent reference to the general election debates managed by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). “I guess we’re probably planning on three of them.”

In truth, the CPD runs independently of parties and candidates — which is the whole point of having a Commission on Presidential Debates. So Trump will have no say in whether whip-smart Fox News host Chris Wallace gets to moderate a “really big debate.”

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