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The White House And Its 'Shadow Cabinet' Of Fox News TV Hosts43:07
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President Trump listens as Fox News host Sean Hannity speaks during a rally Nov. 5, 2018, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
President Trump listens as Fox News host Sean Hannity speaks during a rally Nov. 5, 2018, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

In July 2018, former Fox News co-President Bill Shine joined the White House staff as deputy chief of staff for communications and assistant to President Trump.

He wasn't the first — or only — Fox News personality to align with the president. In November, Fox News host Sean Hannity, who reportedly speaks to Trump "almost daily," faced criticism after joining Trump onstage during a rally. And New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer reports that 21st Century Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch speaks to Trump on a weekly basis and that Fox Business Network anchor Lou Dobbs has been "patched into" Oval Office meetings.

"In past White Houses there have been favored members of the press, but nothing where someone is so close in that they are coordinating on a daily basis with the president," Mayer tells Fresh Air.

She adds: "Some of the people who are still hosting shows on Fox are seen by many of the people who are in and around the White House — including some of the White House staff — as basically being a 'shadow cabinet.' "

Mayer's latest New Yorker article, "The Making of the Fox News White House," describes the ways in which the network has bolstered the president — and vice versa. One of the stories she uncovered involves Trump's attempt to get the Justice Department to stop AT&T from acquiring Fox News rival CNN's parent, Time Warner.

Mayer also reports that Fox News had the Stormy Daniels story before the 2016 election — and killed it because it would have hurt Trump's chances of winning. In this respect, Mayer says, the network is "not a regular news organization. ... What its critics say is that Fox is an arm of the White House. It's a mouthpiece for Trump."


Interview Highlights

On reporting that President Trump tried to order the Justice Department to file a lawsuit to stop AT&T from acquiring Time Warner

This was in the late summer of 2017, and Trump ordered Gary Cohn, who was then the head of the National Economic Council — so the top economic adviser in the White House — he ordered him to get the Justice Department to file suit and stop the deal. It was an Oval Office meeting. Trump said, "Block that deal. I want it blocked. I've told you 50 times. We need to get that suit filed." So you could see that the president was actually trying to interfere in the Justice Department's decision about one of the biggest deals involving billion-dollar companies that have to do with news organizations. ...

Gary Cohn turned to John Kelly, who had just become chief of staff, on the way out. The two of them were walking out of the Oval Office and he turned to Kelly and said, "Don't you dare do that. This is not how we're going to do business." But what was interesting to me, also, was just a couple of months later, the Justice Department did intervene in that case, filed a suit and tried to block the deal. And it's since lost that case, but they really did get into it. [Editor's note: In her article for The New Yorker, Mayer reported that a spokesperson for Cohn declined to comment, and Kelly did not respond to inquiries.]

On what that story shows about the Trump White House's relationship to Fox News

It's an example of a pattern that you can see, which is that many decisions that have to do with regulatory matters seem to favor Fox News and its chairman Rupert Murdoch. And that was one of the deals that took place that seemed to favor Rupert Murdoch. ... The reason is that Time Warner owns CNN and CNN is the rival of Fox News. They both have cable news operations, and so by blocking that deal when the Justice Department got in, it really tried to hurt Time Warner and CNN by doing that. It cost them hundreds of millions of dollars by filing that suit. So it was a matter that was very helpful to Rupert Murdoch, and it also was very hurtful to CNN, who President Trump has been very open about disparaging. ...

I think it would be very interesting to have an investigation here. It's hard, as a reporter, to ferret out all the information, but my sense is they would find that there's more there. This particular anecdote that I was able to get, that captures Trump ordering somebody ... very high up in this administration to block the deal and get the Justice Department to get in, is in itself quite eye opening and an abuse of power, I think many would say. But if, in fact, it affected what the Justice Department did, and influenced it, I think it's an incredibly serious matter.

On how Fox News had the Stormy Daniels story before the election — and killed it

This was in October 2016, so right before the election. A reporter at FoxNews.com had the story of the fact that the president was using his lawyer to pay off a porn star with whom the president had had an affair, and that they were trying to silence this porn star, Stormy Daniels, by paying her off, and that there was an actual contract, which the reporter saw.

The reporter, whose name is Diana Falzone, had first caught wind of this in March, and she had been reporting all the way up through October, and she was pushing to get her story in print or on the website at Fox, and she kept getting a runaround from her editors there. Eventually, she was getting more and more frustrated and worried; the election was approaching, she thought it was something voters should at least be able to consider, and she reached the editor in charge of the website, a man named Ken LaCorte, and according to what she told her friends and colleagues at the time — and I've interviewed them — Ken LaCorte said to her, "Good reporting, kiddo. But Rupert Murdoch wants Donald Trump to win — so just leave it alone." And that was the end of the story. It was shelved. [Editor's note: In her article for The New Yorker, Mayer reports that LaCorte denies ever saying this and denies shelving the story to protect Trump.]

On reporting that Trump was tipped off about Fox News host Megyn Kelly's question before the Republican presidential debate in August 2015

This is a report that's based on several Fox insiders who suggest that they have the information from an eyewitness who saw Roger Ailes tip off Trump prior to the big Republican presidential debate in 2015.

It was August 2015. All eyes were on Trump to see whether he could hold his own, and he was given a famously tough question by Fox host Megyn Kelly, who asked him about the way he had disparaged women and supposedly mistreated women. It was a very tough question. And Trump handled it quite well. He broke the audience up in laughter with a quick one-line rejoinder where he said the only women that he spoke poorly of was just Rosie O'Donnell, and the hall just blew up in laughter.

Everybody thought that was an example of how Trump could think quickly on his feet, and occasionally flash some charm and survive almost any kind of assault from the press. But according to a couple of people I interviewed who were insiders at Fox, and in addition somebody in the Trump campaign, they say that Trump had gotten advance notice of this question. ... Several people say that Roger Ailes was overheard telling Trump himself that he should get ready for that question.

On how White House communication has changed under Bill Shine

People would argue that it's become increasingly difficult to get information from daily briefings. [White House press secretary] Sarah Huckabee Sanders has pretty much shut down most of the daily briefings for the press, and that instead, she started appearing quite frequently on Fox News, where she gets softball questions. So a number of Trump administration officials, including Sanders, have started popping up on Fox News rather than being available to the press corps at large. ...

Sean Hannity has now had something like 44 interviews with President Trump himself. That's in comparison with just 10 combined for all the other television networks. And CNN, which President Trump doesn't like, has been given no interviews.

Jane Mayer

The other thing that you can see easily is that Fox News has become very much the favored go-to network for the Trump administration officials, including Trump himself. Sean Hannity has now had something like 44 interviews with President Trump himself. That's in comparison with just 10 combined for all the other television networks. And CNN, which President Trump doesn't like, has been given no interviews. This is very unusual. I go back to covering the White House in the Reagan days and they they always tried to sort of play fair and distribute the interviews evenly. But you've really got one network that is almost inside the White House.

On the origin of Trump and Murdoch's relationship

[Lawyer Roy Cohn] thought that there was a great kind of deal that these two could strike where Trump would grow famous, get celebrity from [Murdoch's newspaper] the New York Post, his exploits could run on Page Six, the gossip section of the New York Post, and Trump was kind of a famous playboy and it would raise his public image. And Rupert Murdoch, who was just really launching Page Six at the New York Post, would have great copy, could sell copies of his paper and make money off the thing. So that was sort of the origin of the relationship between these two men. ... It goes way back to the '70s.

On how Murdoch has disparaged Trump behind his back in the past, seeing him as a "real estate huckster and a shady casino operator"

Trump, from what I understand — and I did tons of reporting for this piece --but Trump knows that Rupert Murdoch has often disparaged him behind his back, that Rupert Murdoch loves to dine out on stories about inane things that Trump has said, and Rupert Murdoch shares it with his friends at dinner parties. Michael Wolff, in his book on the Trump White House [Fire and Fury], actually quoted Murdoch as describing Trump as a "[expletive] idiot."

And so certainly President Trump knows that Rupert Murdoch is not always worshipful of him, but what I was told was that Trump is OK with it. He has made his peace with that, and I think in part it's also because Trump really needs Murdoch. Trump really needs Fox, and Murdoch is an incredibly powerful figure in the media world at this point, and his audience is the Trump base. So it's incredibly helpful to President Trump to have a good relationship with Murdoch, no matter what Murdoch is saying.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright NPR 2019.

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