Many viewers of Monday night’s Fox News town hall with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders saw a left-wing candidate in the hot seat on a network known for its tight relationship with President Donald Trump.
But Trump himself saw something else: sinister forces at his favorite news network aligning against him. Trump complained twice about the event on Twitter over the next day, griping about an allegedly pro-Sanders audience and charging that the anchors had sucked up to one of his 2020 rivals.
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The political class may marvel at Trump’s perceived control over Fox, which liberal critics have likened to a propaganda outlet. But the president’s complaints suggest he’s frustrated that he doesn’t have enough. In particular, Trump has repeatedly aimed Twitter barbs at the network’s news anchors, griping that they are insufficiently enthusiastic about his agenda.
“So weird to watch Crazy Bernie on @Fox News,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning, the day after Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha McCallum hosted Sanders for an hour. “Not surprisingly, @BretBaier and the ‘audience’ was so smiley and nice. Very strange,” he wrote. Trump went on to question why the network had recently hired the former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile as a political analyst. He complained that the audience had been packed with Sanders fans while his supporters were stranded outside, asking: “What’s with @FoxNews?”
With the network, Trump is picking at an open wound. Long-fraught relations between the news side of Fox and its opinion arm have grown more tense in the Trump era, according to people familiar with the network’s dynamics. Some of the network’s news anchors question what they see as the pro-Trump cheerleading of their opinion-driven primetime colleagues. The opinion hosts say they draw bigger ratings and make more money for the network—and criticize their news colleagues for not breaking news. One primetime employee also casually referred to the news side of the network as “the resistance.”
“I don’t think he views Fox as a monolith. He’s upset with certain personalities on Fox News,” said a former senior White House official.
The official recalled hearing Trump criticize news anchors like Neil Cavuto and Shepard Smith when he worked in the White House. In March, Trump slammed Smith—perhaps the network’s most critical voice when it comes to the president—as Fox’s “lowest rated anchor” and said that he, along with two weekend news hosts, “should be working” at CNN.
As it happens, Smith has also come under fire from perhaps Trump’s top booster at the network, the host Sean Hannity. “I like Shep, but he’s so anti-Trump,” Hannity complained on his radio show in July 2017.
Trump has also come to the rescue of at least one friendly opinion host whom he felt was mistreated. Last month, he urged Fox to bring back host Jeanine Pirro from her brief suspension over comments appearing to question the patriotism of a Muslim member of Congress. He also tweeted that the network should “[s]top working soooo hard on being politically correct, which will only bring you down.”
Former White House officials say that—thanks in part to the mostly-fawning coverage Trump has enjoyed from the likes of Hannity and his fellow primetime hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham—the president, who sometimes spends hours a day watching Fox, has in effect become spoiled, and highly sensitive to any unkind words on a network he seeks out as an affirming refuge in a largely hostile media environment.
It’s the “same reason that he thinks everyone at the Washington Post is doing Jeff Bezos’ bidding,” said the same former official. Trump feels that “if you have a strong leader at the top, like Fox does with [co-chairman Rupert] Murdoch that they should just be falling in line and they shouldn’t be any question about this.”
Asked for comment on Trump’s relationship with Fox, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told POLITICO: “We expect all of the news to be fair and accurate and not trying to drive the liberal agenda. It’s astonishing that the country is doing so well yet the coverage of the president is 90% negative. … We just wish the media cared more about the great things happening than they did about attacking the president and palace intrigue.”
Another former White House official noted that Trump has criticized Fox for the network’s coverage of him before, and that he complained about their coverage of his early 2016 presidential campaign, when he thought the network was friendlier to GOP candidates like Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
The former official added that the network will inevitably be covering the crowded Democratic primary field as the 2020 campaign occupies more space in the news environment. “Part of it is realizing he’s not the only game in town anymore,” this person said.
While the president is a frequent guest on Fox, he tends to stick to interviews with friendlier personalities like prime-time opinion hosts Hannity and Tucker Carlson, or the network’s “Fox & Friends” morning show, which he watches regularly and where he receives consistently positive coverage. Hannity alone has conducted eight television interviews with the president, more than all other television networks in their entirety.
By contrast, it has been more than 300 days since Bret Baier—considered one of the network’s most balanced figures—landed an interview with the president.
“We’d love to have you on a town hall soon — or even an interview on @SpecialReport —it’s been awhile. We cover all sides,” Baier tweeted in reply to Trump’s complaints about Fox on Tuesday.
A Fox News spokesperson pointed POLITICO to several instances where the network’s opinion hosts have pushed back on Trump. They include an early 2017 instance when Hannity chided Trump for tweeting too often and a December segment in which Ingraham challenged Trump’s claim that he is already building a border wall, saying, “There’s no wall!”
Rebutting Trump’s charge that the Sanders town hall audience was improperly picked, FOX News also pointed to a report by the Pennsylvania newspaper The Morning Call which reported that Fox had “reached out to various political and local groups in the area and mined requests to attend after it publicly announced the event.”
Some former Trump White House officials argued that Trump’s ire poses a threat to the network, which has long been the highest-rated among the cable news channels.
“President Trump’s criticism of Fox News is a clear and present danger for the network,” said Andy Hemming, former rapid response director for the Trump White House. “The president knows Fox News viewers are far more loyal to him than the network, meaning he can push those supporters to more overtly friendly outlets like One America News Network or Newsmax with just a couple of tweets and some extra access. It also goes without saying that the financial implications for these networks are massive.”
A Fox spokesperson noted in response that the network’s ratings remain strong and that ratings for the Sanders town hall were the highest yet of any town hall featuring a 2020 Democratic candidate televised by a cable news network, including ones by rivals CNN and MSNBC.