President Obama is no stranger to the Washington Sunday shows—he’s appeared on ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, and NBC’s Meet the Press—but, until now, and for his entire time in the White House, Obama has cut and shunned Fox News Sunday.
“I don’t know that there was a formal explanation [from the Obama White House], but basically, they made it clear they weren’t very happy with Fox News,” said Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace, who finally got his presidential exclusive for this weekend’s broadcast after countless scorned invitations.
Wallace taped his interview with Obama on Thursday for the show, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on April 28, and their conversation, at the White House’s insistence, is embargoed until 9 a.m. Sunday.
Wallace predicted that the president’s remarks concerning his former secretary of state’s ongoing email troubles will generate headlines.
“I think where he makes the most news is about Hillary Clinton,” Wallace said—an assessment that is likely to be greeted with apprehension at Clinton campaign headquarters in Brooklyn. “He hasn’t been asked about it in awhile. Back in October, on 60 Minutes, he said she had not jeopardized national security with her private email server. Since then, we’ve found out that 2,000 of her emails were classified and 22 were top secret. So could he say flatly that she didn’t give away America’s secrets?”
Wallace continued: “In addition, we talked about the FBI investigation. Can he assure the American public, and does he direct his people, that any decision on the Clinton emails be a legal decision, not a political decision? And he makes some news there.”
The Fox News Channel will re-run Sunday’s program three times, at 2 p.m., 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., after its initial airing on the Fox Television Network—presumably a ratings windfall courtesy of a president who hasn’t been inclined to do Fox any favors.
“I think, generally speaking, they don’t think they get a fair shake from Fox News,” Wallace said about the Obama White House.
Don’t they have a point?
“I think Fox News is more critical of this President than most other news organizations,” Wallace answered in an email to The Daily Beast. “The White House sometimes doesn’t like that. But I think we are doing our job—telling all sides of the story. I also think the White House doesn’t distinguish between our hard news operation and the opinion shows.”
So what made the White House, at long last, relent?
“He has nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, and they’re very frustrated with the fact that the Republican Senate refuses to even hold confirmation hearings, let alone to give him an up or down vote,” Wallace said in a phone interview, adding that he “pushed particularly hard” in his pitch to the White House that his program was well-positioned to serve their interests. “They saw Fox News Sunday as an opportunity to reach out to Republicans or Independents or conservative Democrats to try to put pressure on Republican senators to give a full vetting, a normal vetting, to Judge Garland.”
Obama told Wallace that even if Clinton is elected in seven months, and the Senate goes into a lame-duck session, he plans to stick by Garland as his preferred nominee instead of pulling the nomination to let Clinton fill the seat vacated by the death last month of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
Wallace, meanwhile, declined to wade into the intrigue surrounding Fox News star and frequent Donald Trump target Megyn Kelly, who has been critical of her colleague Bill O’Reilly for not defending her more robustly, and recently confided to Variety that while she’s grateful for Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes’s staunch support, she must “keep [her] options open” on whether to re-up with Fox when her next contract talks come up after the November election.
“Let me just say I’ve been too busy interviewing the president of the United States to worry about any of that stuff,” Wallace demurred.
What about before he started preparing for his presidential interview?
“I was too busy interviewing Donald Trump last week to worry about that stuff.”
In any case, the Washington-based Wallace, who joined Fox News 13 years ago after working at NBC and ABC, feels he’s insulated from the ongoing melodrama in New York.
“I do my job,” he said. “My feeling is, cover the campaign, talk to the candidates. Do your job.”
The announcement of Wallace’s presidential “get” this week was sufficiently newsworthy—the media-centric equivalent of “man bites dog”—that White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked in his daily briefing to explain why this liberal-leaning, Democratic president would subject himself to a grilling on an outlet widely perceived as Republican- and conservative-friendly.
“I think any time that the president is doing an interview with a television program that he hasn’t done an interview with for a while”—in this case, not since Obama’s sole Fox News Sunday appearance in 2008, when he was a mere candidate for president—“it’s an opportunity to reach a new audience, or at least an audience that may not have heard from the president directly in a while.”
Certainly, while they personally exempt Wallace, a registered Democrat, Obama and his aides haven’t been shy about expressing their disdain for the top-rated cable channel founded by former Republican strategist Ailes at the behest of media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 1996, around the same time that Obama was launching his political career back in Chicago.
Obama has frequently made Fox News the butt of his comedy routine at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, and in April 2011, at the height of Trump’s birther antics, showed the audience what he termed “my official birth video,” which turned out to be the nativity scene from the Disney animation The Lion King.
“I want to make clear to the Fox News table, that was a joke,” Obama deadpanned. “That was not my real birth video. That was a children’s cartoon. Call Disney if you don’t believe me. They have the original long-form version.”
And in February 2009—in one of two interviews Wallace has conducted with the president outside the purview of his Sunday show—Obama acknowledged that he told a meeting of House Republicans: “Go ahead. Feel free to whack me. I’ll watch Fox News and feel bad about myself.”
“Let me just raise the possibility—are you a trifle thin-skinned?” Wallace asked.
“No, no, no,” Obama replied with a grin. “I said it in good humor. I think everybody understood that it was a joke.”
Wallace, who later that year referred to Obama and his minions as “the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington,” didn’t get another shot at interviewing the president (again, not on Fox News Sunday) until September 2013, when they discussed the carnage in Syria.
On Thursday, he grilled Obama for the better part of half an hour after the president gave a talk at the University of Chicago Law School, where in a previous life he taught constitutional law for a decade while serving for some of that time as an Illinois state senator.
“I asked him about all the anger among Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, whether it’s Bernie Sanders supporters or Donald Trump’s supporters—people who feel dealt out of the game in Washington and on Wall Street—and does he take any responsibility for the fact that after eight years, people still feel the game is rigged.”
Wallace said he also asked the president why he appeared to be so disengaged and emotionally contained when reacting to acts of terrorism that made many Americans angry—cheerfully golfing in Martha Vineyard after commenting on the beheading by ISIS of journalist James Foley, and enjoying a baseball game in Cuba after the horrific attacks in Brussels.
“We also had a very interesting conversation when we did a walk-and-talk, where I asked him what is best day and worst day at the White House was,” Wallace said. “We were in the law library where he wrote the book Dreams from My Father…There couldn’t be a sharper contrast with the Oval Office.”