For months, President Trump has refused to grace CNN or MSNBC with what he views as the gift of his presence. It’s a choice rooted not only in political and media strategy, but also in pure spite.
During the 2016 GOP primary, then-candidate Trump and his team relied on a game plan of booking the future president on as much cable news, TV, radio, and print media as possible, in an explicit effort to dominate the news cycle and drown out the competition. But as he heads into another election year, the president has repeatedly told friends and advisers that he sees little, if any, value in rewarding Fox’s major competitors with sit-downs or call-ins, three people who’ve spoken to him in the past two months tell The Daily Beast.
“Why would I give them the best ratings they’ve ever had, when they’ve been this nasty [and] so corrupt, so vile?” Trump said this past summer on the topic of doing a new exclusive interview with CNN, according to a source with direct knowledge.
Nowadays, faced with a rapidly escalating impeachment inquiry and a potentially tough re-election fight, Trump is going to even greater lengths than usual to try to banish—or retaliate against—news outlets he perceives as unfriendly, and to build an even more tightly packed media igloo of praise and flattery for himself.
It’s a comfort mechanism for the president that intensifies whenever he feels under siege and when scandal swirls. And it is all part of Trump’s ideal scenario of, as one senior White House official sardonically put it, erecting a defensive barrier between himself and news coverage that doesn’t “make him feel beautiful and powerful.”
Increasingly, the president has—outside the normal press gaggles and conferences for the White House—eschewed numerous mainstream networks or outlets in favor of keeping reliably in his comfort zone: the emphatically pro-Trump environments of Fox News and Fox Business, for instance.
And even Fox-levels of fealty sometimes aren’t enough for this president. Since at least March, when he’s felt too many Fox commentators or “hard news” hosts have crossed him, he’ll demand White House officials “keep an eye” on Fox, and encourage associates and supporters to switch over to One America News Network—a channel somehow Trumpier than Fox Business.
Still, he has consistently found his way home to Fox’s bastion of Trump adoration, especially in times of crisis. In the past four months, the president has granted interviews to Fox stars Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity (twice), Brian Kilmeade, Ed Henry, and Jeanine Pirro. Most of the aforementioned hosts also moonlight as some of Trump’s closest informal advisers on messaging, politics, and policy.
“If it wasn’t [for] your show, Sean, they would destroy him absolutely,” Trump pal and Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera said on Hannity early this month. “You’re the difference between Donald J. Trump and Richard Nixon. In Nixon’s case, if he had someone that stuck up for him, he wouldn’t have been, you know, motivated to cover up that burglary. He would’ve let the perpetrators get their just deserts.”
At the urging of some of his campaign brass, Trump has also given several congenial one-on-ones to local affiliates, including NBC 5 in Dallas and ABC (WDIO) in Duluth, when he’s out on the 2020 campaign trail.
In that same time, the president’s posture toward other channels and certain major newspapers has gone beyond mere snubbing. On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House planned to order federal agencies to stop renewing subscriptions to The Washington Post and The New York Times, two papers that publish critical coverage Trump routinely bashes as “fake news” that’s ruining the country. The move came the same week that the White House itself announced that, as Trump had requested, it was nixing its print subscriptions to the Post and Times, as well.
Although the president made a point of advertising such an apparently petty and catty move, several sources close to him noted that he has been an avid, daily consumer of print newspapers, including The New York Times, for many years, and predicted that it was only a matter of time before Trump began demanding aides bring him copies of the daily editions, or simply print out online versions of Times or Post stories.
In recent months, the president’s antipathy toward some of Fox’s cable-news competitors has risen to the level of legal threats.
Last week, celebrity attorney and Gawker-killer Charles Harder, representing both Trump and his reelection campaign, sent a four-page letter to CNN president Jeff Zucker and the network’s general counsel, David Vigilante, threatening to sue and seek “substantial payment of damage.” Harder alleged that CNN—perhaps Trump’s most hated channel—was somehow breaking the law with its on-air coverage of the president and his administration. Late last week, CNN blasted Trump and Harder’s document as a frivolous threat that was “nothing more than a desperate PR stunt and doesn’t merit a response.” (In August, Harder had also threatened to sue NBC for defamation, for a segment on MSNBC’s The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell.)
“In the  primary season, Trump totally dominated the media, completely dominated the media, [and] every political broadcast was about Trump and that made him indomitable in the primary, [when he was] going on every show and flooding the zone,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist at the Heritage Foundation and a member of Trump’s 2020 media advisory board. “And that proved to be very smart strategy. He vanquished the other Republicans running for president. This time around, he is president. He doesn’t have to show up at every CNN broadcast, or on MSNBC. He can be very selective about which shows he wants to go on.”
The informal Trump adviser recalled that one time during the 2016 presidential campaign, he asked the future president why he didn’t put more money into buying television ads. Trump replied, “I don’t have to buy TV ads because I’m on TV all the time—so they don’t have to watch me during the promotions.”
This time around, Moore, himself a former CNN contributor, said he didn’t see “any value whatsoever of Trump going on CNN [now],” adding, “why aid and abet the enemy? I was with CNN for two years, it’s the hate-Trump network. Why would you do anything that would help them in any way?”
Earlier this week, another sign of Trump’s retreat into a solidly right-wing and MAGA media ecosystem materialized, this one posted to Twitter by Tomi Lahren, a Fox Nation host and Trump superfan. On Wednesday, Lahren tweeted a photo of a sheet of paper the president had signed, thanking her “for everything.” The page, labeled “Reactions to President Trump’s Rally in Dallas, Texas,” was a compilation of tweets, including one of hers, featuring praise or positive news for Trump’s recent event. The print-out also had Twitter posts written by far-right blogger Jim Hoft, Fox News anchor Shannon Bream, the Republican National Committee, and former Wheel of Fortune host Chuck Woolery.
The autographed piece of paper the Fox Nation host received is actually the result of a long-standing demand that Trump has made of his aides, one that started during the 2016 campaign and continued into his presidency. Following a MAGA rally, staff began compiling packets, which would sometimes stretch numerous pages, exclusively displaying tweets about the rally Trump had just headlined. His campaign team began providing these packets to the candidate to review after each event, so much so that he began expecting them after every rally.
Trump became so accustomed to these pages that, according to a source familiar with the matter, he would complain to senior aides if he didn’t have the packet of Twitter posts in hand to read over within 20 minutes of the campaign rally ending.
“It remains to this day a source of joy for the president,” one senior administration official said. “He will sometimes wave [the post-rally print-outs] around, talking about how much people love him and what a great job he did.”
“It’s often,” the official added, “someone from Fox or some guy from the internet tweeting about the president.”