Through the end of 2020 and the early part of 2021, as Donald Trump’s political world fell apart in the wake of his election loss, the former US president was receiving advice and aid from a range of sources.
As Trump raged against non-existent election fraud, he took counsel from his actual staff. He also had help from acquaintances and associates like Rudy Giuliani.
But, less conventionally, Trump’s White House was also getting guidance from some of Fox News’ best-known personalities, in a level of coordination rarely, if ever, seen in top-level politics.
The direct interactions between Trump’s administration and the Fox hosts Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo were revealed in leaked text messages from the phone of Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff during the November election and the January 6 insurrection.
The texts, revealed by CNN, show how the lines between Fox News and the Trump White House had become jarringly blurred in Trump’s final months. On election day 2021 Hannity, the second-most watched host on Fox News, was texting Meadows asking which states he particularly needed to “push” – to encourage people to vote.
On 29 November, an hour before Trump was to sit down for a first interview since losing the election, the president received a bit of help with his preparation; from Bartiromo, who sent her list of questions to Meadows, along with a suggestion.
“Pls make sure he doesn’t go off on tangents,” Bartiromo wrote, a request that ultimately would go unheeded.
In total, Meadows exchanged more than 80 text messages with Hannity between 3 November and 20 January, when Joe Biden was inaugurated. CNN obtained 2,319 of Meadows’s texts, which the former chief of staff had provided to the House select committee investigating the attack on the Capitol.
They show Hannity variously giving and asking for advice from the White House. After seeking direction on where he should help get out the vote, Hannity would later give Meadows suggestions on how Trump could fight the election results.
The implications of a Fox News-Trump White House alignment are “scary”, said Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters for America, a media watchdog.
“Because you cannot have any kind of functional authoritarian or anti-democratic environment unless you have some really powerful propaganda tools. And once you have this kind of synchronization, then basically what you have is a pretty important ingredient in order to drive a whole range of policies,” Carusone said.
Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson and Brian Kilmeade were also in contact, to varying degrees, with Meadows over the three-month period, meaning a slew of Fox News personalities had their own lines into the White House. The select committee had previously released texts which showed Ingraham and Kilmeade pleading with Trump to intervene as his supporters swarmed the Capitol.
“Hey Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home. This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy,” Ingraham wrote.
“Yes, I’m a member of the press,” Hannity said.
“I’m on the Fox News Channel – which is a news channel – but I don’t claim to be a journalist. I claim to be a talkshow host.” (“I’m a journalist,” Hannity said in an interview with the New York Times in 2017. “But I’m an advocacy journalist, or an opinion journalist.”)
Coordination between rightwing media and Republican administrations is not necessarily new. Scott McClellan, press secretary under George W Bush, admitted working with Fox News on “talking points” during the 2004 presidential campaign, while Rolling Stone reported that John Moody, a top Fox News executive during the Roger Ailes era, wrote a memo to staff that Bush’s “political courage and tactical cunning are worth noting in our reporting throughout the day”.
What’s different this time, Carusone said, is that even though the network and Bush’s team “were in close alignment” in 2004, “they still felt independent”. As chairman and CEO of Fox News, Ailes had close control over the network’s editorial policy, and he alone would make decisions on direction. As Trump flailed in the dying days of his presidency, there was no Ailes-like figure to steer the coverage.
“There was no gatekeeper. It’s not like the White House was coordinating with all the hosts back in the day,” Carusone said.
“They were coordinating with Roger Ailes, who was doing the editorial meetings. He was functioning as the conduit for coordination. In this case, it was like a free-for-all.”
The interaction between Fox News and Trump’s White House appears to have flowed both ways. Under Bush’s administration, it seemed to be the politicians leading the line, with Fox News supporting the president’s policies.
Under Trump, it wasn’t so clear who was in charge of policy. According to Media Matters, Trump “tweeted in response to Fox News or Fox Business programs he was watching” 1,146 times from September 2018 through August 2020.
To journalists, Bartiromo’s handing of questions to Trump’s team might seem to be the most egregious action.
“1Q You’ve said MANY TIMES THIS ELECTION IS RIGGED… And the facts are on your side. Let’s start there. What are the facts? Characterize what took place here. Then I will drill down on the fraud including the statistical impossibilities of Biden magic (federalist). Pls make sure he doesn’t go off on tangents. We want to know he is strong he is a fighter & he will win. This is no longer about him. This is about ????. I will ask him about big tech & media influencing ejection as well Toward end I’ll get to GA runoffs & then vaccines,” Bartiromo texted to Meadows an hour before the November interview.
The interview, as CNN reported, mirrored the questions in Bartiromo’s message.
Heather Hendershot, a professor of film and media at MIT who studies TV news and conservative media, said the advent of cable TV news, which began in the 1980s and accelerated through the 1990s – the Fox News channel was launched in 1996 – had prompted a change in acceptable, or permitted, journalistic standards.
“In the pre-cable, network era, an anchorperson or reporter would obviously be fired – with no room for discussion – if it was found that he or she had provided questions in advance of an interview with a politician,” said Hendershot, who is writing a book about how coverage of protests at the 1968 Democratic convention contributed to a shattering of faith in US media.
“This would be seen not simply as a political gaffe but perhaps even more strongly as a professional gaffe. The norms of journalistic practice dictated against this sort of behavior.
“In 1963, Walter Cronkite of CBS interviewed JFK. Immediately following the interview, the president said he was unhappy with the interview and wanted a ‘do-over’. Cronkite did not hesitate: that was out of the question. They would run the interview as it had happened.”
Today, Hendershot said, one can easily imagine the same scenario, where a president or politician was unhappy with an interview question, and requests another go at answering.
“Would a network correspondent allow this?” Hendershot said.
“Probably not. Would Fox News allow it? Definitely yes, but only for a Republican politician.”