Fed up with the coverage on his favorite cable news station, President Trump decided late this summer that a direct intervention was needed. So he telephoned the chief executive of Fox News, Suzanne Scott, and let loose.
In a lengthy conversation, Mr. Trump complained that Fox News was not covering him fairly, according to three people with knowledge of the call. Ms. Scott, who has led the cable network since last year, responded by urging Mr. Trump to sit for an interview with Bret Baier, the channel’s chief political anchor, the people said.
If the conversation placated Mr. Trump — who has taken to calling Fox News “HOPELESS & CLUELESS!” — his public statements in the weeks afterward did not show it.
Irked by their reporting, he taunted the Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, who resigned from the network on Friday, and its chief national correspondent, Ed Henry. He declared that the Fox News pollsters “suck” after they found majority support for impeachment and openly pined for the network’s “good old days.”
“@Fox News doesn’t deliver for US anymore,” Mr. Trump tweeted last week.
That tensions exist at all between Mr. Trump and the home of Sean Hannity and “Fox & Friends” has prompted incredulity inside the network and out. Fox News’s star commentators — including Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro — are among the president’s most vociferous media defenders, providing a punditry firewall that Mr. Trump arguably needs more than ever as an impeachment inquiry looms and the 2020 campaign intensifies.
But the president has rarely been satisfied with the adulation he receives from the network’s prime-time and morning opinion shows. Instead, he often fixates on any hint of criticism, deeming the network ungrateful for the high ratings that he attributes to himself.
When Mr. Henry, interviewing the pro-Trump commentator Mark Levin on a segment of “Fox & Friends” in September, suggested that Mr. Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian prime minister could be problematic, the president retweeted more than 20 posts from other Twitter users calling Mr. Henry names like “fake news.” Mr. Trump had sat for an interview with Mr. Henry less than two weeks earlier.
Trump-friendly hosts receive periodic reminders that the president is keeping tabs. At a rally in Minnesota last week, Mr. Trump ticked off the names of his favorite Fox News stars like an announcer at an all-star game. (“Sean’s got the No. 1 show,” he said. “And Laura Ingraham’s knocking them out of the park.”) But he also had a subtle warning for Brian Kilmeade, the “Fox & Friends” co-host who recently questioned Mr. Trump’s decision to remove troops from Syria.
“Brian has gotten a lot better, right?” Mr. Trump asked the crowd. “Brian was a seven, and he’s getting close to 10 territory.”
The president even tried to promote a fledgling Fox News rival, the Trump-friendly One America News, which he praised last week “for your fair coverage and brilliant reporting.”
In cajoling and bullying his closest media allies, Mr. Trump is wielding the total-loyalty litmus test that he has used to keep close associates in line. And the possibility of a vote on impeachment is upping the stakes.
Anthony Scaramucci, who served briefly as Mr. Trump’s White House communications director — and has recently become a vocal critic — invoked a popular story about Lyndon Johnson viewing Walter Cronkite’s reporting as a bellwether for the public mood on Vietnam.
“Fox News is Trump’s Walter Cronkite,” Mr. Scaramucci said in an email. “Once he loses the majority of them, it’s over. He knows it, which is why he is bashing and intimidating them.”
The ties between Mr. Trump and Fox News are so close that many Democrats deem the channel an external arm of the West Wing.
The network and its parent company, Fox Corporation, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch and his eldest son Lachlan Murdoch, employ former Trump aides like Hope Hicks, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Raj Shah. Mr. Trump installed a former Fox News co-president, Bill Shine, as his deputy chief of staff. (Mr. Shine lasted less than a year in the job and is now an adviser for the 2020 campaign.)
Mr. Trump has made dozens of appearances on the network, the vast majority of his one-on-one interviews as president. And he is a devoted viewer, often tweeting his real-time reactions to Fox News shows.
Stars like Mr. Hannity and Jesse Watters — “my Watters,” as Mr. Trump called him at a Friday rally — have dined at the White House. Mr. Hannity and Ms. Pirro once took the stage with Mr. Trump during a campaign rally in Rush Limbaugh’s hometown, Cape Girardeau, Mo.
At the Fox News headquarters in Manhattan, the closeness has brought unease, with the reporting staff and the opinion hosts increasingly at odds over how to cover Mr. Trump and the impeachment inquiry.
Chris Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” host, has conducted tough interviews with administration players like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But last month, a guest on Mr. Carlson’s show heckled Andrew Napolitano, the network’s legal analyst, calling him a “fool” for saying that Mr. Trump may have committed a crime. The next day, on his 3 p.m. news program “Shepard Smith Reporting,” Mr. Smith called the guest’s comment “repugnant”; Mr. Carlson fired back with the suggestion that Mr. Smith had a liberal bias.
On Friday, Mr. Smith, the network’s chief anchor and managing editor of its breaking news unit, who had once called out Mr. Trump for “lie after lie after lie,” revealed that he had had enough. In a surprise announcement, he said he would leave the network after 23 years; friends said he was dismayed at the in-house deference given to Mr. Trump’s prime-time cheerleaders.
Such is the scrutiny on Fox News that a theory sprang up on social media tying Mr. Smith’s departure to a meeting last week between Rupert Murdoch and the attorney general, William Barr. In fact, Mr. Smith had been considering an exit for weeks. (It remains unclear what the Barr-Murdoch meeting entailed; aides to both men have declined to elaborate, and the president claimed, in comments to reporters on Friday, that he was unaware of what they discussed.) Still, the Barr-Murdoch meeting hinted at the unusual closeness between a news network and a presidential administration.
Which, to some observers, makes Mr. Trump’s recent gripes all the more inexplicable.
“Blasting Fox, which is one of his last redoubts of a lot of support, makes no sense strategically,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican strategist who has opposed Mr. Trump. “But when he sees a show or comment he doesn’t like, he just reflexively attacks that personality or that journalist.”
Fox News commands a significant audience of Trump supporters. A Pew study found that 40 percent of Trump voters in 2016 cited the network as their “main source” of news about the campaign. Among all voters, 19 percent cited Fox News as their primary news source, the highest of any network. The channel has been the No. 1-rated cable news network over all since 2002.
But Fox News executives see some tactical advantages to Mr. Trump’s jibes.
For one, the rebukes offer a useful rejoinder to critics who deride Fox News as “state TV.” The network has also sought to highlight skeptical Trump coverage to advertisers who may be leery of provocative right-wing punditry. Mr. Carlson and Ms. Ingraham have both faced ad boycotts for offensive on-air comments.
At a panel for advertisers in Manhattan last month, the network gathered Mr. Baier, Mr. Wallace and the news anchor Martha MacCallum to talk about covering the White House. The message: Trump doesn’t own us.
“Contrary to the opinion of some people, he’s not our boss,” Ms. MacCallum said, marveling at Mr. Trump’s criticism of Fox News for airing interviews with Democratic presidential candidates. “It is kind of shocking to hear that he really — that’s the way he thinks about how we should cover the election.”
Mr. Wallace joked about the president’s tendency to compare him unfavorably to his father, the “60 Minutes” legend Mike Wallace, who died in 2012. “He often likes to say about me, ‘You know, I was covered by Mike Wallace, I liked him much more,’” Mr. Wallace told the advertisers. “To which my reaction is always: One of us has a daddy problem, and it’s not me.”
While the anchors have noted their independence from the administration, many opinion hosts have continued to show loyalty. Mr. Hannity has devoted his top-rated prime-time show to denouncing the impeachment inquiry, calling it a “witch hunt” led by “the radical, destructive, delusional Democratic Party.” Ms. Pirro, during a live interview with Mr. Trump on Saturday, concluded by complimenting the president’s stamina. “Do you take vitamins? How do you do this?” Ms. Pirro asked admiringly.
It wasn’t always so cozy. In the 2016 race, Mr. Trump clashed with the network, feuding with its anchor Megyn Kelly after she questioned him at a debate about his derogatory comments toward women. Later, he boycotted a Fox News debate in Iowa, because the network would not remove Ms. Kelly as a moderator. At the time, Ms. Kelly told her viewers that Mr. Trump “doesn’t get to control the media.”
Ms. Kelly has since left Fox News. Mr. Hannity replaced her in the key 9 p.m. time slot. And Mr. Trump has continued working to influence the network.
“With me,” he said of Fox back in 2016, “they’re dealing with somebody that’s a little bit different.”