One evening last week, Neil W. McCabe, a Breitbart veteran who now works as a weekend White House correspondent at One America News Network (OAN), found himself in the lobby bar area of Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The hotel is a top hangout for Donald Trump’s fans, administration officials, campaign brass, Republican staffers, and the like. And as he mingled in the lobby, McCabe started talking to one of those denizens: Meredith Hope, an avowed Trump supporter and designer who runs a jewelry and accessories business in the Palm Beach and D.C. markets.
Hope, a “Trumpette,” showed McCabe one of the pro-Trump scarves she had designed, prompting him to praise her product and hand her his business card.
“Hey, OAN!” she said, after peeking at the card. “The president told me to watch One America News.”
McCabe was taken aback. “I said, ‘Really?’ and she said ‘Absolutely,’” he recalled.
Hope later corroborated the conversation to The Daily Beast, adding that when Trump had visited Mar-a-Lago this past Easter weekend, she exchanged a few words with the president. It was then that Trump started talking about different TV networks, and brought up OAN. The jewelry designer didn’t initially recognize the network’s name and asked the president about it.
“He then told me I should watch it, and complimented it,” Hope said.
Most news networks would shudder at receiving compliments from the powerful politicians they cover. But for OAN, it is a triumph.
For years, the channel has tried to supplant Fox News as a dominant force in conservative media. For the past two years, it has prolifically churned out glowing coverage of the Trump administration and its achievements. OAN’s top executives have beseeched the president on Twitter to forget about Fox and to signal-boost them instead. And in the first year of Trump’s presidency, the network produced a commercial mocking CNN’s “Facts First” apple-and-banana ad campaign, and declaring OAN the “Real News.”
The overt flattery seems to be paying off. Fox News is still the president’s favorite media behemoth. But OAN’s team has been catching his eye. This year, Trump has tuned in more often than ever to OAN, two sources close to him say. There’s been a conspicuous uptick in his public promotion of OAN’s segments, including on his personal Twitter account. And, it appears, he’s even pitching the network to those roaming the halls at Mar-a-Lago.
Others outside the network have noticed this trend. According to a source familiar with the matter, over the last six months OAN has seen a clear rise in the number of groups strategically pitching stories to the channel in the hope of catching the president’s attention. It’s similar to the way that activists and conservatives have often used their airtime on Fox News to get their causes in front of the cable news-obsessed president.
McCabe, for example, said that the legal team of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher—a Navy SEAL platoon leader set to stand trial for allegedly gunning down civilians and knifing a captured ISIS fighter—worked to get One America News to cover their story, as a way to get it noticed by sympathetic audiences, including President Trump. McCabe, for his part, has interviewed Gallagher’s wife, attorney, and brother for OAN.
OAN wasn’t always a respected channel for those in and around Trump’s political orbit. In fact, the president himself used to routinely deride it. One former White House official recalled that early on in the administration, Trump described mocked OAN for the production value of its broadcasts: “Such great words, such awful visuals.”
According to another source, early last year Trump was sitting in the White House and killing time by flipping through TV channels. Soon enough, he landed on OAN, and paused for a moment and squinted at the screen while leaning in.
“What the hell is this?” Trump said, as he began critiquing what he saw as the poor production values and lighting of a particular show, according to this source with direct knowledge of the exchange. After roughly a minute of mocking the look of the right-wing, vehemently pro-Trump cable news network, the president clicked back to Fox News.
Despite churning out content that left Trump unimpressed, OAN kept at it. The network, which was launched in 2013—two years before Trump’s makeover and takeover of the Republican Party—has produced flattering segments on “why Christians support Donald Trump,” why the supposed Obama-era “SPYGATE” effort to monitor the 2016 Trump campaign is the real scandal, and why the 45th president is one of the all-time American greats. Beyond the positive coverage, OAN also took to different forms of direct appeals. In late March, for instance, a seemingly bitter and snubbed network tweeted, “President Trump recently gave a speech, thanking his supporters in the media. Not a single mention of One America News -- one of his GREATEST supporters...@OANN calls bullshit...” (The tweet has since been deleted.)
That Trump eventually warmed up to its product may affirm his love for praise of himself on TV. But multiple people—including those close to Trump—say there is a secondary motive as well: He wants to put Fox News in its place.
Over the past few months, Trump has repeatedly voiced his displeasure at certain on-air talent and journalists at Fox News, arguing that the cable channel has not shown the fealty he expects from a like-minded broadcaster. The Daily Beast reported last month that since at least March, the president has been telling White House officials to help him “keep an eye on” Fox News and to monitor it for even the slightest sign of a leftward shift.
Recently, President Trump knocked Fox for hosting 2020 Democratic hopefuls, such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for town-hall events. And earlier this month, Trump whipped up his crowd at a Pennsylvania rally into booing Fox News, alleging to the audience, “They’re putting more Democrats on than Republicans,” and that “something strange is going on at Fox, folks! Something very strange!”
The president’s embrace of OAN, one source close to Trump said, was in part done to make the Fox News brass jealous, with the source comparing the situation to showing off a new girlfriend.
If the brass at OAN had any problems being the president’s fallback lover, they haven’t shown it. If anything, they’ve viewed it as an opportunity. “Fox News has hired Paul Ryan and Donna Brazile. Is [CNN’s] Jim Acosta next?” Robert Herring, OAN’s chief executive, posted to Twitter in March, tagging, “@realDonaldTrump” for good measure. In November, Herring announced his network would file an amicus brief in favor of the Trump administration when CNN sued President Trump over Acosta’s revoked White House “hard pass” press credential. (Fox News, for its part, sided with CNN in this case.)
Staff at OAN have done everything they can to maintain close ties to the upper echelons of Trumpworld, even when it ends up backfiring. Shortly after Trump won, OAN and Herring jumped at the chance to hire his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. It took barely half a year for OAN to fire Lewandowski, in part because he angered OAN leadership by continuing to appear frequently on competitors—such as Fox. Last year, OAN brought on board Carter Page—the former Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser who found himself at the center of multiple probes into potential ties between Team Trump and Russian officials—to host his very own TV special. And according to a source familiar with the situation, OAN approached Hope Hicks, Trump’s former comms czar, about taking a position at the network, shortly after it was announced that she would depart the White House. Hicks declined (though she did recommend other Trumpy names for a possible OAN gig). She eventually ended up landing a top comms position at the corporate parent of Fox News.
As One America News forges its path in the Trump era, it’s increasingly adopted the traits of the president it supports and defends: chief among them, a clear antagonism toward media that isn’t fully in the tank for Trumpism.
Reached for comment on this story, OAN President Charles Herring, Robert’s son, told The Daily Beast, “Let’s not kid ourselves, anything that you write will be negative. I don’t see any effort to ‘report,’ but rather attack. I realize that ‘advocacy’ is your primary mission.”
The younger Herring then proceeded to plug some rehearsal footage for the then upcoming OAN show, Headlines Tonight with Drew Berquist, a right-wing comedy show about the day’s big headlines, and then said, “One America News outperforms CNN Headline News, CNBC, Fox Business, Bloomberg, Fusion, BBC World News and others.”
—With additional reporting by Will Sommer