Is Chris Ruddy the One Person to Make Trump Sound Sane?
The Newsmax chief executive, one of Trump’s more measured surrogates, wishes the president would rein it in on social media, and submit his tweets to White House staff for review.
Christopher Ruddy, chief executive and controlling owner of the right-leaning print and television outlet Newsmax, wishes his friend, Donald Trump, would rein in his incendiary, personally abusive social media presence, and submit all of his tweets to White House staff review before pulling the trigger.
Ruddy also wishes the president would stop antagonizing foreign-born residents of the United States with demagogic insults and harsh policies, and instead adopt a more humanistic approach that allows the American-raised children of illegal aliens to remain here, and embraces comprehensive immigration reform.
Ruddy reacted with bewilderment to Trump’s reported comment—in a private negotiating session Thursday with half a dozen senators—that he would rather welcome immigrants from countries like Norway instead of “shithole countries” in Africa and Latin America.
Ruddy noted that the president has denied the reports. “If he did say it, it’s not appropriate… I don’t know completely what to make of it.”
He added: “The president makes a lot of insensitive remarks, he is not a guy with a lot of filters… But in all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never heard him once say a racist comment about a black person, anything anti-Semitic, or make ethnic slurs. I know some people might find this hard to believe, but it’s true."
And Ruddy hopes his friend is no longer tempted by the possibility of firing special counsel Robert Mueller—an act that would doubtless prompt a political catastrophe—and instead starts to treat Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion and related issues with the caution and gravity it deserves.
“I don’t think the White House is fully prepared for a serious Mueller onslaught if that ever comes,” Ruddy told The Daily Beast, noting that the president’s abrasive public demeanor with his critics—and his inability to ignore them, no matter how trifling—is probably here to stay. “I don’t think he can make a change on that just yet. It may take lower poll numbers.”
Ruddy’s nitpicking comments—at a moment when the Trump White House is under siege from wall-to-wall coverage of Manhattan café society luminary Michael Wolff’s book-length claim that the erstwhile reality television star is mentally unfit for office—are unusual for one of the president’s highest-profile advocates.
They are at odds with Trump’s palpable demand for unquestioning devotion and obsequious flattery from his camera-ready surrogates and underlings: witness the crazed sycophancy of White House adviser Stephen Miller in his notoriously antagonistic encounter this past Sunday with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Yet much of the senior White House staff, and perhaps even Trump himself, consider the smooth-talking Newsmax founder perhaps the president’s most effective TV defender.
“Chris is a very talented communicator,” a White House official emailed The Daily Beast. “He can articulate policy as well as speak to the character and leadership skills of President Trump. His approach is to remain non-confrontational with even the most hostile opponents and because of that he is an effective defender and promoter of the President and his undeniable successes.”
In a rare instance of agreement with the Trump White House, a prominent cable news anchor also praised Ruddy’s performance (albeit absent the apple-polishing about the president’s alleged brilliance).
“Ruddy knows Trump, and he knows where Trump’s head is, and he’s able to contextualize Trump and to defend him, and that’s the value to me,” said the anchor, who spoke on condition of not being further identified. “He does it with a velvet glove. He’s not as caustic, and doesn’t employ the strategy that seems to be favored by other Trump defenders, which is to attack the questioner. You’re able to have a conversation with him instead of a scolding—and he ends up benefiting as a result.”
A case in point was Ruddy’s appearance this week on Don Lemon’s late-night CNN program, during which he calmly and smilingly deployed pointed sarcasm against Wolff’s assertion that the 71-year-old president is showing early signs of dementia.
Ruddy told Lemon that he ran into the president “quite a few times” over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach private club where Ruddy is a member, “and he remembered my face, he remembered who I was, we had coherent conversations. So when I watch Michael Wolff, it’s like a fantasy world. You know, he’s a psychiatrist, Michael Wolff—did you know this? I call him now ‘Dr. Michael Wolff.’… Don, you gotta ask yourself, what is his expertise to declare the president psychologically unfit?”
Skewering “Dr. Wolff” for allegedly embellishing his reporting in the service of selling books, and drawing upon a detailed private briefing provided by his White House allies (concerning internal phone logs and staff email chains) to mock Wolff’s claims of having spent three hours interviewing the president, Ruddy explained: “Look, Donald Trump’s a different type of guy…He operates differently, and I think that difference has made him very successful… So you can disagree with Donald Trump, but to say that he’s crazy because you don’t like his policies?...”
If many of Ruddy’s assertions were debatable, at least they also sounded reasonable and possibly worth considering—a notable departure from the usual run of Trump acolytes and defenders, including the president himself, who frequently seem to be living in Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative-fact” version of reality.
Unlike many of Trump’s on-air supporters, Ruddy manages to convey a certain degree of credibility by conceding at the outset that he doesn’t speak for Trump and has several substantive disagreements with a president who probably isn’t a “political genius”—the tribute Stephen Miller paid over and over on Jake Tapper’s show—but is, like most of us, a flawed human being.
“I have been pushing for him to support comprehensive immigration reform and embrace the DACA kids,” Ruddy told The Daily Beast. “He’s been stuck in the 30s for approval ratings,” he added, and then used the argot of reality TV. “But a new season’s coming up. It’s the end of the first year and he’s going to need a new script. Maybe he’ll need a new cast. He won’t be successful if he stays in the 30s. I think he needs to move more to the center.”
Ruddy said he was heartened by Trump’s seemingly open-minded performance Tuesday in a lengthy meeting in the Cabinet Room with bipartisan congressional leaders—a theatrical production clearly staged for the cameras to counter Wolff’s claims of presidential incompetence (although many commentators, notably The Daily Beast’s Margaret Carlson, said the president’s confused and ill-informed blurtings on live television amounted to proof positive of said incompetence).
“I blame a lot of it on Steve Bannon and the Breitbart policies that formed the first year of the Trump administration,” Ruddy continued, citing Trump’s struggles in public opinion surveys as a result of the ill-conceived exertions of the fired chief White House strategist Bannon, and of the angry nationalist/populist web site from which Breitbart News executive chairman Bannon joined the Trump campaign in August 2016.
Bannon, who had returned to Breitbart after his seven-month White House stint, was abruptly sacked this week by the outlet’s activist minority owner, right-wing billionaire Rebekah Mercer.
“I blamed a lot of it on some of the communications issues and the tweets,” Ruddy added concerning Trump’s troubles. “I’ve told him I think he has to have his tweets reviewed before they go out.”
So far, Ruddy’s advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Ruddy—who divides his time between a home on the edge of a golf course in West Palm Beach, Newsmax’s headquarters in Boca Raton, and a Manhattan apartment—has known Trump for two decades. Ruddy first encountered the celebrity real estate mogul when he was flirting with a presidential candidacy in 1996 and gave a speech at the Palm Beach Airport Hilton; they finally met at a Red Cross charity dinner at Mar-a-Lago (where Ruddy was one of the sponsors), and their frequent encounters there developed into a friendship.
“He was extremely charismatic, and there was an air of excitement around him,” Ruddy recalled.
Describing Ruddy’s relationship with the president, Trump ally Roger Stone told The Daily Beast: “He’s the closest thing to Bebe Rebozo that we have in this administration”—a cheeky reference to the late Miami businessman who was Richard Nixon’s loyal buddy and obliging companion. (Ruddy speaks to the 45th president frequently, as often as several times a week, but sees him in the flesh only sporadically, usually during the winter season at Mar-a-Lago.)
“Chris can tell you what Trump means and what he thinks,” Stone said. “He is the Trump whisperer.”
Former political adviser Sam Nunberg—who, like Stone, was pushed out of Trump’s presidential campaign before it gained traction (after Business Insider revealed Nunberg’s racially inflammatory Facebook posts)—recalled that Ruddy was among the earliest media figures to take Trump’s candidacy seriously.
“When I was working for Trump in 2013 and 2014, the only people to return my phone calls were Chris Ruddy and Steve Bannon”—and indeed, Nunberg added, Newsmax was covering Trump as a significant contender even before Bannon’s outlet was.
While Ruddy generally avoids White House talking points on the air, he has been careful not to risk his relationship with the president by making the sort of blunt observations that he’s apt to share, off the record, with journalists who consider him an affable, useful source.
The 52-year-old Ruddy, who grew up in an enormous Catholic family in suburban Long Island, the 12th of 14 children of a Nassau County police lieutenant and his homemaker wife, is preternaturally gregarious and a world-class networker in political and media circles.
It was Ruddy, for instance, who brokered New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s one-on-one interview with the president at Mar-a-Lago last month.
Although Ruddy these days is a multimillionaire and generous donor to Republican candidates and causes, he began his career—after graduating with honors from St. John’s University, teaching social studies to Hispanic kids at a couple of high schools in the Bronx, and getting his master’s in public policy from the London School of Economics—as a shoe-leather reporter for conservative publications.
He toiled for the now-defunct New York Guardian, a Long Island monthly he co-founded with perennial local candidate Herbert London in the early 1990s; then for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, then as top editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review owned by right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
He ultimately became the co-founder of Newsmax, with the financial backing of Scaife among others, in 1998. (Scaife, a mysterious and feared figure to the political left—much as the Mercers are today—died in 2014.)
In the 1990s, Ruddy made his reputation in conservative circles—tormenting Democratic office-holders as a member of what Hillary Clinton branded the “vast right-wing conspiracy”—with his obsessive exposés of the Clinton White House, especially the 1993 suicide death of deputy counsel Vince Foster. Ruddy fueled speculation—in his 1997 book, The Strange Death of Vincent Foster—that it was not a suicide at all, but instead a sinister, politically motivated hit job.
“I think I was overzealous, and I think I got caught up in the hyper-partisanship of the period,” recalled Ruddy, who compared the political antagonism against Bill Clinton in the 1990s to the negative energy being directed at the current president. “The hyper-partisanship has gone into overdrive against Trump,” Ruddy argued.
After Clinton left office and launched his global charitable foundation, however, both Ruddy and Scaife changed their tune on the 42nd president; they became not only admirers but actual friends of Bill Clinton’s—a relationship no doubt strengthened by Ruddy’s personal contribution of a cool million dollars to the Clinton Global Initiative.
“The guy is not that ideological,” said Ruddy, who keeps in touch with the former president and has accompanied him in close quarters on a CGI trip through Africa. “He is a no-nonsense guy who enlisted private business instead of the government to help underdeveloped countries in ways that are sustainable, not a handout… Bill Clinton is a guy who wakes up every morning with 10 ideas about how he’s going to help the country and help the world. That’s his DNA.”
Ruddy said he has tried more than once to explain to Trump why the Clinton Foundation is not, as the president can’t resist claiming, a corrupt criminal conspiracy.
So far, Ruddy’s pro-Clinton attitudes haven’t made much of an impression. “I don’t have to agree on everything with my friends,” Ruddy said.
He frequently hosts lunches and dinners for journalists and social friends at Mar-a-Lago—and less often plays a middling game at the nearby Trump International Golf Club, of which he is also a member—and delights in introducing his guests to the president. During the holidays, Ruddy brought Ralph Lauren’s brother Jerry and his wife over to the Trump table. The decidedly portly Ruddy deadpanned to the president and first lady: “I’ve been offered a contract.”
“A contract for what?” Trump demanded
“To model Ralph Lauren underwear—but I turned it down because I’m too busy.”
According to a witness, Donald and Melania thought this was hilarious; the president actually laughed. In contrast to Trump’s attempts at humor—which generally target perceived enemies—Ruddy is comfortable making himself the butt of jokes.
“Chris is having the time of his life,” Sam Nunberg said, “going on television and talking about the president of the United States with whom he has a close relationship. He loves it.”