IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Fox News can’t decide how to treat Donald Trump

The network's executives and stars believe he is a destructive force, but he controls their audience.

Fox News is floundering this week as the network tries to calibrate its relationship with former President Donald Trump. Its executives and stars believe that he is an unhinged, destructive force in American public life — and that he controls their audience and thus their ratings and profits. The result has been coverage that swings wildly back and forth between promoting his 2024 candidacy and trying to stymie it.

Trump returned to Fox on Monday night after a six-month absence that had triggered complaints from his cronies that the network had given him a “soft ban.” The interview, unsurprisingly, was with Sean Hannity, the Fox prime-time host and Trump confidant who had so much influence over the last administration that White House officials referred to him as a “shadow” chief of staff. Hannity’s show had hosted Trump at least 38 times since August 2017, according to Media Matters data, by far the most of any weekday cable news show over that period.

The network that spent years as Trump’s personal propaganda outlet treated him like a Democrat.

Trump’s interviews with Hannity are notoriously boring, and Monday’s full-hour installment hit all the same marks: The host echoed his guest’s talking points and tried to steer the conversation away from potential trouble spots.

But what came next was striking.

Fox typically promotes its interviews with prominent Republicans with segments up and down the lineup. On Monday night and Tuesday, though, Hannity’s colleagues alternated between ignoring his Trump interview and bashing the former president’s responses. 

Right-wing commentators criticized Trump to the Fox audience for “constantly dwelling on grievance,” being excessively critical of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential primary opponent and a Fox favorite, and “whining.” And the one Trump line that other news outlets picked up on — his claim that DeSantis might be “working in a pizza-parlor place” if Trump hadn’t endorsed his 2018 gubernatorial campaign — didn’t get covered by Fox’s own website, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out.

In other words, the network that spent years as Trump’s personal propaganda outlet treated him like a Democrat. When Fox hosted town halls for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Pete Buttigieg, then the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, during the 2020 presidential primaries, they faced relatively inoffensive questioning and were able to generate some viral moments for social media. But once Sanders and Buttigieg were off the air, Fox’s propagandists used clips from those appearances to bash the candidates, dissipating potential gains they might have made with the Fox audience.

But by Thursday morning, Fox’s coverage had shifted back in his favor. In between, the network released a new poll showing Trump  leading DeSantis by 30 points, 54-24% — double his margin in February. The co-hosts of "Fox & Friends" were in awe of his poll numbers, with Brian Kilmeade stressing that “he is just killing the field, lapping the field.”

The explosive filings in the Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox help explain these incoherent gyrations. The internal emails and text messages Dominion amassed show Rupert Murdoch’s personal disillusionment with Trump over his election fraud lies. Soon after Election Day, the Fox News co-founder and Fox Corp. chairman privately described Trump as “increasingly mad” and predicted that he would “be becoming irrelevant” and Fox could move on from backing him. 

According to Dominion’s filings, Fox’s leadership is acutely aware that the channel’s ratings depend on keeping its pro-Trump viewers happy.

After the Jan. 6 insurrection, Murdoch told a former subordinate that Fox was “very busy pivoting. ... We want to make Trump a non person.” On the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Murdoch told Fox CEO Suzanne Scott that Trump’s election theft claims had been “pretty much a crime” and added, “Best we don’t mention his name unless essential and certainly don’t support him.”

Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson, perhaps the network’s most influential personality, was more succinct. “I hate him passionately,” Carlson wrote in a Jan. 4, 2021, text message; (after the message became public, Carlson claimed that, in fact, “I love Trump”).  

Fox’s treatment of its Hannity interview certainly resembles an attempt to render Trump a “nonperson.” But the filings also explain why Fox cannot entirely cut Trump loose — and will inevitably support him if he remains in the lead in Republican primary polls, whatever the likes of Murdoch and Carlson may privately desire. According to Dominion’s filings, Fox’s leadership is acutely aware that the channel’s ratings depend on keeping its pro-Trump viewers happy. When they revolted after Fox called the state of Arizona for Biden, the network’s executives panicked and recalibrated its coverage as it frantically sought to shore up its angry audience.

Since then, Fox’s treatment of Trump has waxed and waned — but despite overblown claims to the contrary, the network has repeatedly eschewed opportunities to abandon him altogether. Instead, at crucial moments, Fox has had Trump’s back. The network made excuses for the Jan. 6 insurrection instead of condemning Trump, and treated both the FBI’s search of his Mar-a-Lago residence, which uncovered hundreds of classified documents, and Trump’s claim that he was about to be arrested for an alleged hush money payment to a porn star as corrupt assaults on Trump, his voters and the rule of law.

In part because of the bubble Fox itself created, Trump retains a hammerlock on the Republican base — and the Fox brass can read its own polls and recognize that that leaves the network vulnerable.

“Nobody wants Trump as an enemy,” Murdoch said in his Dominion deposition this year. “We all know that Trump has a big following. If he says, ‘Don’t watch Fox News,’ maybe some don’t.”

As long as that’s the case, Fox will never abandon Trump.