The Murdochs and Trump aligned for mutual benefit. That may be changing.
But the owner of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, has been watching the hearings with a less dismissive eye. And there are signs that the proceedings have helped convince him that the former president is losing his political expediency.
Speculation over the 91-year-old media executive’s thinking crescendoed after the first set of hearings concluded this month and two of his papers published nearly simultaneous editorials. “Trump’s silence on Jan. 6 is damning,” the New York Post declared. “Character is revealed in a crisis,” the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board concluded. “Mr. Trump utterly failed his.”
Murdoch’s support for Donald Trump has been crucial to his political career and at times to his efforts to reverse his 2020 election loss. But as Trump inches closer to a third presidential run under the glare of criminal, civil and governmental investigations, multiple associates of Murdoch told The Washington Post that it appears he has lost his enthusiasm for Trump.
But Murdoch, who controls a vast swath of the political media world, has spent decades learning to ride the waves of U.S. politics and hedge his bets on candidates. Fox has tried to pull away from the 45th president before, only to return in the face of Trump’s fury.
Throughout his career, one of Murdoch’s favorite activities has been getting on the phone with his editors and talking about the big stories of the day. That has continued even as he has retreated from the day-to-day management of his business. (Lachlan Murdoch, his elder son, became executive chairman and chief executive of Fox Corporation in 2019.)
He remains an avid news consumer, and during the Jan. 6 hearings, Murdoch has been calling various executives to discuss revelations the committee has unearthed, according to five current and former Murdoch executives who have talked to him about the proceedings and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay private conversations.
One regular call is to Keith Poole, the editor in chief of the New York Post who Murdoch plucked in 2021 from the Sun tabloid in London. Murdoch calls Poole directly on his cellphone and has discussed the hearings with him several times. Another confidant is Paul Gigot, the longtime editor of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, these people say. (Poole and Murdoch declined to comment; Gigot did not respond to requests for comment.)
By all accounts, Murdoch remains deeply in the political mix and meets often with politicians and their operatives — mainly Republicans.
A conservative, Murdoch has always been a pragmatist when it comes to his political relationships, sometimes backing liberal candidates when it benefits him, as he did with former British prime minister Tony Blair.
To close readers of the Murdoch tea leaves, the editorials didn’t signal a major shift in his thinking regarding Trump but, rather, one more turn in the pair’s long, slowly disintegrating, on-again, off-again relationship.
Murdoch knew Trump for decades as a frequent source and subject for his New York Post tabloid, and he was not initially thrilled with the idea of a Trump presidency. “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?” he tweeted in July 2015, after the candidate disparaged Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) service in the Vietnam War. Murdoch even flirted with endorsing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy and invited her to meet. She declined, according to two people familiar with the exchange.
Once Trump emerged as the Republican nominee for president, Murdoch got over his reservations and started to build a mutually beneficial relationship with him. “Appearing loyal to Trump made them money, and the minute it stops making them money, they will stop doing it,” said a former Fox News commentator who closely follows the company. “If it’s bad for their business, they will magically move on, the same way they magically discovered an affinity for him after their last attempt to stop him — during the 2016 primaries — failed.”
On occasions when Fox appeared to show any disloyalty to the president, Trump railed against the network. Perhaps Fox’s greatest offense to Trump was an early election-night call in 2020 that voters in the traditionally conservative state of Arizona had chosen Biden. The prediction, which proved accurate, disrupted Trump’s premature victory party at the White House and brought on a furious backlash from the president, his family and aides — and most painfully for Fox, from millions of Trump supporters and TV watchers. (Murdoch resisted calls from Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to dial back Fox’s projection.)
Trump encouraged his supporters to turn off Fox and switch to Newsmax or One America News — smaller channels that relentlessly champion the former president.
Trump’s edict served its purpose. For one hour on the evening of Dec. 7, 2020, Newsmax’s “Greg Kelly Reports” drew more viewers than Fox’s programming in the valuable 25-to-54 age demographic. It was a blip — Newsmax has not posed a serious challenge to Fox’s ratings in the year and a half since; and One America has since been removed from nearly every major cable provider. But Fox personalities and staffers told The Post that the moment sent shock waves through the staff, who feared it could be a turning point.
Fox seemed to shore up its Trumpian bona fides after that. In January 2021, the network announced that it was converting its 7 p.m. hour from a news program to an opinion show now anchored by the pro-Trump host Jesse Watters.
Ratings have soared since Trump left office, as the network’s opinion shows have feasted on a buffet of perceived Biden administration failures, including the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the coronavirus pandemic, inflation, gas prices, the border with Mexico and crime.
Some hosts on the network also partially embraced Trump’s ceaseless efforts to delegitimize the 2020 election and remain in office.
In the months after the election, some Fox hosts invited Trump attorneys such as Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani to come on air, where they made baseless claims about mass election fraud. Two election technology companies sued Fox and its parent company in 2021 over segments that falsely suggested they helped Democrats steal votes.
“We are confident we will prevail in both cases as freedom of the press is foundational to our democracy and must be protected,” Fox said in a statement, adding that the suits are “a flagrant attempt to deter our journalists from doing their jobs.”
Fox News hosts have moved away from discussing the last election since those lawsuits were filed. Meanwhile, texts unearthed by the Jan. 6 committee showed that Fox personalities such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were deeply concerned by Trump supporters’ attack on the U.S. Capitol that day.
Overall, Trump has received limited criticism on Fox’s prime-time shows for his role in the riot, which he helped inspire with a speech and then attempted to join, according to testimony at the hearings. When their text messages from that day were made public in December, Ingraham and Hannity turned their ire on the House committee for releasing them and the media for reporting it, not Trump.
But as the former president continues to obsess over the 2020 election results despite signs that it could hurt Republican electoral prospects, some at Fox have urged him to move on.
Brian Kilmeade, who co-hosts the Trump-friendly morning show “Fox & Friends,” said in February that the former president’s continued efforts are “wasting our time.” During an interview with Trump in May on the Fox Business Network, host Stuart Varney made a similar plea.
“What I hear from a lot of Republicans is that they don’t want you to look back to the 2020 election and rehash it,” Varney told Trump.
“The press, including Fox, doesn’t want to talk about” election fraud, Trump shot back.
Some longtime backers of Trump, including Varney, even declared his political career to be over after the Capitol attack. “I think President Trump, Donald J. Trump, is done, politically,” Varney said on-air. When asked whether Trump should run again in 2024, Fox contributor Tomi Lahren replied, “I don’t know if that’s the best idea, given all of this.”
Murdoch himself made a similar point during a meeting with shareholders in November. “The current American political debate is profound, whether about education or welfare or economic opportunity,” he said. “It is crucial that conservatives play an active, forceful role in that debate, but that will not happen if President Trump stays focused on the past.”
Murdoch associates say his frustrations with Trump have only grown; the two have barely spoken since Trump left office. But Murdoch’s reputation for pragmatism and Trump’s political durability make it hard to say for sure where their relationship will end up.
That uncertainty was apparent after the Jan. 6 committee wrapped up its first set of hearings on July 21 and the Journal and the New York Post published editorials scolding Trump. It wasn’t the first time either of those Murdoch-owned papers had broken with the former president, but it invited pundits to weigh in, anyway.
“Why Rupert Murdoch Is Finally Done with Donald Trump,” a column in Politico concluded.
“No, the Murdochs haven’t turned on Trump,” Media Matters wrote the same day.
Industry watchers have made much of Fox’s recent decision to cut back on live coverage of Trump rallies, which he still holds regularly. But the network doesn’t lack for Trump stalwarts. Hannity, for instance, has stocked his show with former Trump administration officials and family members.
A Fox News on-air personality, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid, expressed doubt that Trump’s biggest boosters at the network “would ever turn on him” but suggested that hosts might prod viewers toward alternatives for the next Republican president — those they think stand a better chance at re-empowering the conservative movement.
On July 26, Trump returned to D.C. to deliver a speech — his first trip to the capital since he left office. Less than a mile away, his vice president turned potential rival, Mike Pence, addressed a smaller crowd.
Fox showed short segments of Trump’s speech throughout the day and aired Pence’s speech live for a…
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