Donald Trump’s relationship with Fox News grows more complex

The former president’s dinner engagement with Jay Wallace, the president, and Suzanne Scott, the chief executive, was reported by the New York Times on Wednesday afternoon. The timing was almost certainly coincidental; I have not dined with senior executives of a cable-news juggernaut, but I assume such things are arranged over days and not hours. But it is evocative. In that moment of unusual turmoil, it was Fox News and Trump, breaking bread.

Sean Hannity was supposed to be there, the Times’s Jonathan Swan and Maggie Haberman report, but he was otherwise engaged on Trump’s behalf, hosting his 9 p.m. program on the channel. A central focus of the evening’s program, naturally, was rebutting the allegations made by special counsel Jack Smith and rising to the defense of his friend Donald.

“Let me be very clear at the start here tonight,” he said to begin his show. “This is an incredibly weak, baseless, convoluted indictment. It is bizarrely centered around what is clearly protected speech. Zero criminal statutes, because there are none that were applicable that are actually written into law.”

A bit later, he declared that the indictment was “a political persecution through and through.”

It’s not worth evaluating Hannity’s claims, though it’s obviously and immediately the case that his assertion that the indictment centers on “zero criminal statutes” makes no sense. What’s important is that Hannity was engaged in doing what Hannity has done for Trump for some eight years now: defending the former president and framing the day’s news in ways that benefit him.

Back at Bedminster, the conversation was reportedly centered indirectly on the same instability that has defined the Fox-Trump relationship since Election Day 2020, the tug-of-war over their shared audience. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Fox embraced the reality of Trump’s loss, only to see the then-president savage their coverage and stars, sending some of his most die-hard backers to fringe-right networks. Fox News began giving more space to his unfounded accusations of fraud, a decision that proved costly, quite literally.

Since then, Trump has sporadically attempted to reshape Fox News’s coverage by criticizing what he sees on its airwaves. As he was gearing up his criticism of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this year, his strongest opponent for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Trump would blast Fox News for what he presented as inappropriately generous coverage of the governor. He encouraged his supporters to look elsewhere for news.

It was Fox News that reportedly sought Tuesday’s dinner. Trump has been flirting with skipping the first presidential debate, something that’s very much in keeping with his indifference to debating but also serves as leverage on Fox, the channel that’s hosting the engagement. Fox News is aware that a Trumpless debate would be a far less compelling one, and not only for Trump supporters. Trump has been keenly aware of the value of his participation for eight years now; more than once, he has used his participation as leverage against cable channels back in 2015. In early 2016, he even skipped a Fox News-hosted one.

According to Haberman and Swan, the dinner ended without this issue being resolved. Trump did, however, offer at least one bit of countervailing pressure, reportedly complaining about host Bret Baier’s recent interview in which he asked Trump challenging questions. Trump’s interviews on the channel are often ones facilitated by Hannity, in which the questions are some iteration of “You did this thing that was good, don’t you agree?” or “Joe Biden is bad, thoughts?”

There is another lingering issue, though, one reported this week by the media outlet Puck.

“[T]he former president has subpoenaed Fox News for Tucker Carlson’s unaired interview with Steven Sund, the former U.S. Capitol Police chief,” Eriq Gardner reported, “along with any communications about that interview. The channel declined to comply.

Being familiar with this issue requires some exploration of the murkier regions of right-wing theorizing. In an interview with actor Russell Brand last month, former Fox host Tucker Carlson said he’d conducted an interview with Sund shortly before his ouster from the network.

“I had no thought in my head as I watched [the Capitol riot] happen on television and in the subsequent weeks that U.S. law enforcement or military agencies [had] anything to do with it. That never crossed my mind,” Carlson said. “ … And then I interviewed the chief of the Capitol Police, Steven Sund, in an interview that was never aired on Fox.”

He noted that Sund was not a partisan actor. “And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, that crowd was filled with federal agents!’” Carlson claimed.

At no other point has Sund made this allegation. He did tweet about his aborted interview soon after Carlson was fired but made no mention then of any such claim. Nor was this claim picked out of his memoir, released this year — promotion for which was central to his appearance and his tweet.

On the day he was fired, @TuckerCarlson was planning to air parts of our 1-hour interview and showcase my book. It was an interview he was excited about and said it “made the hair on my arm stand up.” But Fox canned both Tucker and the interview. Coincidence? pic.twitter.com/QA9jdfFjsb

— Chief Steven Sund (@ChiefSund) May 5, 2023

Carlson, of course, has readily embraced the idea of government actors being present at the Capitol and is a central promulgator of the debunked claim that a former Marine named Ray Epps played a role in stoking the day’s violence. Epps is now suing Fox News for defamation.

Trump, though, seemingly believes that Fox is sitting on this interview and that its release would aid his side in a lawsuit filed by Capitol Police officers. According to Byers, Fox News’s response to Trump’s subpoena was to suggest that he simply depose Sund himself — a fair point.

Fox News and the former president have been deeply intertwined since soon after he first announced his candidacy. His administration traded staff with both the channel and its parent company; administration veterans often appeared on Fox’s payroll and some still do. Trump was a Fox News fan, like many of his supporters, and the network’s coverage often informed his worldview as president.

Since he left office — and in part because he left office — the relationship has gotten more complicated. He wants frequent softball coverage, explicit rejection of his opponents and the Carlson-Sund interview. Fox wants his base to keep tuning in, including for that important first debate.

On Tuesday night, Fox News’s prime-time coverage was an hour-by-hour parade of defenses against the third indictment. Trump, meanwhile, was dining in the comfort of his summer home with Fox’s top executives, with all three parties trying to figure out how to continue the symbiosis that served each side well from 2015 until January 2021.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post