For the first two years of his presidency, Donald Trump rarely let a chance to praise Fox News go by.
“Was @foxandfriends just named the most influential show in news,” he tweeted in December 2017. “You deserve it - three great people! The many Fake News Hate Shows should study your formula for success!”
In February 2018, he was back at it: “Thank you to @foxandfriends for exposing the truth. Perhaps that’s why your ratings are soooo much better than your untruthful competition!”
And at a rally late last month in Michigan, Trump praised Fox for its “through-the-roof” ratings before running through a list of “great, great friends in the media” that included, among others, Fox News anchors Laura Ingraham, Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, Tucker Carlson and Jeanine Pirro.
All of which makes Trump’s tweets about Fox News over the last 24 hours all the more notable.
“So weird to watch Crazy Bernie on @FoxNews,” Trump tweeted of the town hall featuring the Vermont senator that ran on Fox News Monday night. “Not surprisingly, @BretBaier and the ‘audience’ was so smiley and nice. Very strange, and now we have @donnabrazile?”
Later in the day, Trump was at it again: “Many Trump Fans & Signs were outside of the @FoxNews Studio last night in the now thriving (Thank you President Trump) Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for the interview with Crazy Bernie Sanders. Big complaints about not being let in-stuffed with Bernie supporters. What’s with @FoxNews?”
Let’s deal with the facts first. According to the Allentown Morning-Call, the local paper for the town of Bethlehem, where the town hall was held, the audience was composed of “various political and local groups in the area” and an assortment of public requests made after the town hall was announced.
There were some pro-Trump people protesting Sanders outside the town hall, but the Morning-Call also quotes a Trump supporter who attended the town hall.
So, there’s zero evidence for Trump’s insinuation that Fox News purposely packed the town hall audience with Sanders’ supporters and barred pro-Trump voices from being let in. Zero.
This sort of factless claim by the President isn’t really anything new, of course. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog found that Trump made more than 9,000 false or misleading claims in his first 773 days in office. And Trump is also – and has always been – a conspiracy theorist at heart. His entire political life was begun amid a debunked conspiracy theory about former President Barack Obama’s birthplace. He claimed, without any proof, that 3 to 5 million people had voted illegally in 2016. He said, without proof, that Obama had ordered a wiretap of his phones at Trump Tower. He believes there is a “deep state” within the federal government out to get him. And on and on.
What’s changed over the past 24 hours is the target of Trump’s ire – he’s turning on his biggest media ally, biting the hand that feeds him. It is a simple fact that Fox News as a network did more to help elect Donald Trump than any other person or entity in the country. And it is also true that Fox News – particularly its prime-time lineup including Trump’s most loyal media ally, Sean Hannity – have continued their advocacy for the President and his policies since he came into the White House.
Which is why Trump is so stunned at what he views as a betrayal. Fox News, in his mind, is his network. They’re the good guys. So why are they even offering Sanders a chance to have town hall at all? Sanders isn’t nice to Trump. Heck, he’s downright mean. So why is the President’s network giving him a platform?
That response from Trump is incredibly telling as it relates to how he views and interacts with the media. Trump has either no understanding or no concern with the idea that the media, at their best, are supposed to be neutral arbiters in the never-ending political struggles in the country. That the media’s job isn’t to always side with one party, but to hold both parties to account for their policies and statements.
In Trump’s mind, there are only two kinds of media: Those who hate him and those who love him. The former are the so-called “fake news.” The latter is, well, Fox News.
Trump’s understanding of the media allows for no nuance. If you are on Fox – even if you are a long-time journalist with a record of fairness like Baier or “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace – Trump expects you to be rabidly pro-Trump. If Hannity does it – and gets great ratings! – why wouldn’t you? Why do you hate Trump? And why are you allowed to be on air if you hate Trump? (The reality, of course, is that Baier doesn’t hate Trump. Neither does Wallace. They are simply journalists who believe in asking real – and sometimes tough – questions and hearing from all sides on important matters of the day.)
None of that computes for Trump. His Manichean worldview doesn’t allow it. Fox News is supposed to be fully in his camp. So, why is Bernie Sanders on in prime time? And getting cheered!
Trump’s sense of betrayal is as predictable as it is palpable. Even for a network like Fox News that, with a few notable exceptions, has given itself over to pro-Trump coverage, it can never meet the President’s expectations of only good stories about “your favorite president.” Trump expects Fox News, and really all media, to function as cross between a public relations firm with him as the sole client and a hype man.
That – even in these polarized political times – is a recipe for disappointment.