Before Fox News put her on ice last April—ultimately prompting her $49 million sexual-harassment and retaliation lawsuit against ousted Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, Co-President Bill Shine, and three other executives—Andrea Tantaros was one of Donald Trump’s more reliable on-air boosters.
Tantaros, who has styled herself as a take-no-prisoners conservative over nearly a decade on cable television, says she’ll be voting for the Libertarian ticket on Nov. 8, and only wishes former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld were in the top spot instead of ex-New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.
“He’s a good man, and he treats women with the utmost respect,” Tantaros told The Daily Beast about Weld, a liberal Republican for whom she toiled as a campaign spokesperson during his quixotic effort 10 years ago to be elected governor of New York.
And why has she forsaken the GOP standard bearer? Not for the predictable reason.
“I’m disappointed that Donald Trump turned to Roger Ailes for advice,” the 37-year-old Tantaros said in a wide-ranging interview in which she discussed her ongoing public relations and courtroom crusade against her former employer. “There were plenty of other really talented political operatives he could have gotten advice from. As a woman, I’m really disappointed to see him bringing Ailes into his circle.”
The disgraced Ailes—who last July 21 was forced out of the right-leaning cable channel he created, a mere two weeks after fired Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him—was for a time helping the reality show billionaire on debate preparation.
“It’s despicable and inexcusable,” Tantaros finally conceded about her once-favorite candidate.
It took several attempts during the interview in her lawyer Judd Burstein’s Manhattan office, where she spoke by phone from an undisclosed location, to get her to weigh in on Trump’s “locker-room talk” and alleged misconduct.
“I think there is a problem in this country with powerful men thinking they can get away with that kind of talk and that kind of behavior—much like Roger Ailes,” she said, keeping her eyes on the prize. (Fox News offered no comment for this article.)
The 76-year-old Ailes—a former Republican strategist and admaker who in 1996 founded the enormously profitable cable network for Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and ran it as his personal fiefdom—is Tantaros’s great white whale.
“It wasn’t until I was, in Ailes’s mind, in a very vulnerable position that his harassment of me started,” said Tantaros, who began appearing on Fox News in 2007 as an unpaid guest, became a paid on-air political analyst in 2010, and later signed on full-time.
By 2014, “my father had passed away, and my brother [who was autistic and suffered from a fatal seizure] had passed away, and I had ended a very long-term relationship. I had recently become single and was grieving. That’s when he started.”
Tantaros cited a New York magazine story in which Ailes was portrayed as offering to mentor young women, only to exploit their psychological and emotional weaknesses and groom them for future harassment.
In one case in 2006, Gabriel Sherman reported, Ailes made an unwelcome sexual advance on Megyn Kelly, who was in the midst of a divorce while her career, under Ailes’s guidance, was on the rise. (Ailes, through his attorney Susan Estrich, has denied all such allegations.)
“It’s a way for Roger to control people,” Tantaros said. “He helps them when they’re wounded birds.”
According to the allegations in her lawsuit, which both Ailes and Fox News have denied, his misconduct included demanding that she twirl for him to show off her body, leering about how she’d look in a bikini, prying into her love life, and then punishing her for rebuffing him—first removing her from The Five, the highly-rated 5 p.m. program on which she was an original panelist in 2011, and finally axing her from Outnumbered, the less-popular noontime show that launched in April 2014.
But her lawsuit may not survive a judge’s ruling in coming weeks on whether she’s entitled to a jury trial (Tantaros’s position) or whether she must submit her complaint to secret arbitration (the position of Fox News and Ailes, whose lawyers argue that confidential settlement of all workplace-related disputes is required by her employment agreement). Oral argument on the matter is likely to be scheduled sometime next month.
Among those trying to compel arbitration is Ailes’s attorney and friend Estrich, a former Democratic political operative (in 1988, she was the first woman to run a major-party presidential campaign as Michael Dukakis’s campaign manager), and a well-regarded expert on sexual harassment.
Her influential book, Real Rape, draws on her experience of having been sexually assaulted as a young woman.
“I have debated Susan Estrich on television,” Tantaros said. “I admire the fact that she once took a really firm stand on sexual harassment, and she invented what is called—this is a Susan Estrich original—the ‘nuts and sluts defense.’
“At the time, when she was on the side of victims, she said that the harassers either accuse the woman of being a nut, and crazy, or being a slut. I think it’s so disappointing to see Susan Estrich commit the exact same crime against women—and doing it for a paycheck.”
Last August, Estrich—who was on Fox News’s payroll for many years as a political commentator—referred to her client’s accusers as “deeply troubled”; and in a court filing she criticized Tantaros for “plaster[ing] pictures of herself in a bikini all over the internet (actually nearly nude),” adding that “many people at Fox News were shocked and perplexed by this; there was certainly talk.”
Tantaros fired back: “So every woman in America who has posted a picture of herself in a bathing suit on social media deserves to be sexually harassed? Isn’t that akin to the warped legal argument that ‘she asked for it’?”
By way of response, Estrich emailed: “We are adjudicating this case in arbitration not in the media”—a departure from her previously press-friendly representation of her client.
Tantaros, meanwhile, said that contrary to descriptions of her as someone who didn’t make a lot of friends at Fox—much as Gretchen Carlson was portrayed as cold and businesslike in some press accounts—she actually was close to some of her female colleagues. She said she hosted baby showers, for instance, for Fox News anchors Jenna Lee and Ainsley Earhardt.
“We commiserated a lot” about the sexist workplace atmosphere, she said concerning her conversations with some of the on-air women. “That’s why it was so stunning to see women who had actually commiserated with me about being asked to do ‘the twirl’ by Roger Ailes, going out and smearing a female colleague,” i.e. Carlson, “simply to better their position at the channel.”
While Fox News personalities Greta Van Susteren, Jeanine Pirro, and Kimberly Guilfoyle were among those who publicly questioned Carlson’s motives, Tantaros declined to identify her allegedly two-faced co-workers.
Her attorney, Burstein, jumped in to say, “What I don’t want to do is have Andrea truthfully identify people and have Fox get to these people and then say Andrea is not telling the truth. That would get us down a rabbit hole I don’t want to get down.”
Fox News initially suspended her with pay, claiming she violated her contract by publishing a book without approval. She denies any wrongdoing, insists she received the required approval, and says the real reason she was taken off the air was her repeated complaints about Ailes’s inappropriate behavior. (Her court filings also assert that Fox News personalities Bill O’Reilly and John Roberts, former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown and actor Dean Cain also allegedly were inappropriate with her. O’Reilly, for one, allegedly mused that she was “wild” and invited her to his “very private” beach house.)
Tantaros’s lawsuit claims Bill Shine advised her during a spring 2015 meeting, in which Tantaros attempted to enlist Shine’s help in getting Ailes’s harassment to stop, that Ailes was a “very powerful man” and that Tantaros “needed to let this one go.”
But Fox News’s court filing in response to her lawsuit asserts: “She claims now that she too was victimized by Roger Ailes, when…she never complained of any such conduct in the course of an investigation months ago.”
Last month, however, Tantaros produced a sworn affidavit by her former psychotherapist, clinical psychologist Michele Berdy, who supported her account, saying that far from concocting her complaints about Ailes and others, as Fox’s lawyers suggested, Tantaros shared her workplace problems with her therapist at the same the time they were occurring.
“Do you really think I wanted to waive patient privilege?” Tantaros asked concerning her therapist’s affidavit. “But I had to vindicate myself…The harassment was very real and pervasive, and had been going on for a long time.”
The suit also names Fox News’s programming vice president, Suzanne Scott, media relations chief Irena Briganti and in-house counsel Dianne Brandi, as defendants who allegedly undermined her career, harmed her reputation and, in Brandi’s case, sent a letter—on the eve of her book’s publication, as Tantaros was booked to promote it on various Fox News shows—abruptly banning her from entering any of the cable outlet’s offices worldwide.
“Fox News masquerades as a defender of traditional family values, but behind the scenes, it operates like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency, and misogyny,” claimed her August 22 lawsuit, crafted with an eye toward maximum publicity in headline-ready prose.
After 21st Century Fox, Fox News’s parent company, paid $20 million to Carlson to drop her own suit on Sept. 6 (and apparently secure her silence: the former Miss America declined to speak to Time magazine, which celebrated her as a heroine on its Oct. 21 cover, about Ailes or Fox News), Tantaros’s legal action is the last one standing.
“I’m the last chance, I’m the last hope, of accountability at Fox News Channel,” Tantaros said, noting that she turned down a settlement offer that would have continued to pay her for zero work—at a rate of $850,000 a year, which reflects a $50,000 raise that, ironically, was awarded in the midst of her lawsuit—until next August.
But the offer also would have obliged her to admit she didn’t obtain proper approval for her book, Tied Up in Knots: How Getting What We Wanted Made Women Miserable (for which she appeared on the dust jacket in a cheeky S&M pose, with her arms upraised and bound in restraints) and also to zip her lip.
It’s unclear if that disputed book—published, ironically, by HarperCollins, a Murdoch subsidiary—will receive a paperback release.
Tantaros revealed she’s at work on a new volume, titled Tales from the Leg Chair—a reference to Fox News’s penchant for featuring female anchors in short dresses to display camera-ready gams.
“The reason I chose not to take that big check and shut up is because Fox News needs accountability,” Tantaros said. “And I think Roger Ailes needs to be deposed [that is, compelled to testify under oath in a pre-trial discovery proceeding]. I think women everywhere are owed that. I think America is owed that.”
Indeed, Tantaros went ahead with an Oct. 4 appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, “a Fox News competitor…even though Fox News had warned her in advance that this appearance would be a material breach of [her contract’s] confidentiality and exclusivity provisions, and instructed her not to do so,” according to a legal brief filed by Fox News’s attorneys.
“Ailes harassed me numerous times,” she said on the air to anchor Amy Roback. “I’ll give you an example. I was walking to a taping once and just said simply ‘hello’ to him. And he looked at me and he said, ‘We need to get you a tighter dress.’…But this was, Amy, after numerous times of him insulting me, making degrading comments about personal relationships, about my figure. That’s what he did, and then the retaliation was even worse…I think a culture change at Fox News is in order…If you get loud, they will act punitively.”
The ABC appearance was costly: Fox News immediately stopped sending paychecks, leaving Tantaros with negligible income and mounting legal fees.
“They left me with no choice,” she insisted. “They publicly smeared me by calling me a liar and an ‘opportunist’ and a ‘wannabe,’” she added, citing comments in legal responses from Fox News and Ailes. “A wannabe? That is so warped to think that any woman would want to be sexually harassed, that a woman would want to be taken off the air and suspended, and have her book destroyed and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to be called a liar. No woman wants that.”