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Bret Baier’s exclusive proves Trump and Fox News are still addicted to each other

At its heart, this week's sitdown was about the former president's relationship with Fox as the 2024 primary heats up.

Donald Trump’s two-night interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier ostensibly covered a lot of ground, including his federal indictment, the Covid-19 vaccination program and his various potential opponents for the presidency. But at its heart, the interview was about his relationship with Fox News as the 2024 primary heats up, and how the network will grapple with his demands for its support.

Fox’s alliance with Trump is currently in flux. After some initial ill will, the network’s endless promotion helped Trump to the presidency in 2016, and it effectively became state TV for his administration. Fox hosts gained unprecedented influence as the president regularly watched their shows, tweeted about their commentary in real time and took their advice. In turn, their assistance gave Trump a powerful propaganda tool. And since he left office in 2021, the network has continued rushing to the former president’s defense in his times of legal peril. But its support for his presidential bid has waxed and waned amid reports that the Murdochs prefer a fresher face for the Republican Party. 

Fox executives are aware that Trump’s grievances are deadly serious for the network’s viability.

The former president used his interview with Baier to repeatedly raise what he viewed as a lack of loyalty. “I’m no great fan of Fox anymore. They fought me — they fought me very hard,” he told Baier. “They fought me very hard in 2016, very much the way they’re fighting me now, very, very hard. And I won, then they became very nice.” 

When Baier asked him if he would commit to participating in the Republican presidential debates, the former president said he had concerns about debating on Fox, the host of the first such event (Fox announced earlier that day that Baier will serve as the debate's co-moderator). Trump called Fox a “hostile network,” adding that he had skipped a Fox primary debate during the 2016 cycle because the network “was treating me very unfairly.” When Baier questioned Trump about his standing with independent voters, he took a shot at Fox’s ratings. 

At one point Baier even interrupted Trump to call attention to the fact that the former president had said something nice about his network. “I just want to rewind, did you just praise Fox?” Baier asked after Trump highlighted its scandalmongering over the business dealings of President Joe Biden’s son Hunter. When Trump confirmed that he had, the anchor grinned, saying, “OK, thank you, we have been covering that.”

Fox executives are aware that Trump’s grievances are deadly serious for the network’s viability. They know from experience that the former president has an iron hold on their viewers, and, if sufficiently moved, he can exacerbate the downward ratings spiral underway since the network canceled Tucker Carlson.

But for all Trump’s jabs at Fox, and his description of the interview as it unfolded as “fair” but “on the hostile side,” he ultimately seems pleased with the results. He closed the interview by saying he had “enjoyed it,” promoted the Baier interview on Monday afternoon, and has offered no criticisms of the anchor since then. His campaign, meanwhile, has been tweeting out clips from the interview that it views favorably.

Trump’s assessment may have been shaped by Fox’s coverage in the hours after the first installment aired.

Rolling Stone reported Tuesday that behind the scenes, Trump has reportedly been bragging about how good Baier’s interview made him look: ”The former president and 2024 GOP frontrunner said the tension and parrying with Baier made him look tough, creating buzzy, attention-grabbing television, two sources with knowledge of the situation tell Rolling Stone.”

Trump’s assessment may have been shaped by Fox’s coverage in the hours after the first installment aired. When Fox conducts a high-profile interview with a Democrat, it typically follows with a parade of critics who work to undo any inroads that Democrat might have made with its audience. Fox’s treatment of the Trump sit-down was the mirror image, with the network subsequently hosting a coterie of his former aides who talked up how well he did.

Fox viewers who skipped Baier's program but tuned in later that night to Fox’s more popular “opinion-side” lineup saw former Trump White House aide Kellyanne Conway and former Trump press secretary and current Fox host Kayleigh McEnany lauding his comments to Baier. Former aides Stephen Miller and Monica Crowley defended his remarks about his handling of government documents. And on both nights, Baier made room in the post-interview panel for a former Trump aide to tout the former president's accomplishments.

Fox, meanwhile, has garnered some desperately needed reputational rehabilitation from the interview. Reviews of Baier’s performance have been very favorable, with CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy praising how the anchor “pressed Trump with smart questions and repeatedly confronted him with uncomfortable facts, countering the Republican presidential contender’s lies with cold hard reality.” 

Such praise couldn’t come soon enough following the devastating disclosure this year of internal Fox documents detailing how the network came to promote pro-Trump election fraud claims its hosts and executives knew were false, culminating in a record-shattering $787.5 million defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. And to get it without actually angering Trump himself, and perhaps triggering more calls for his supporters to stop watching Fox, is a real coup.

Fox’s association with Trump remains mutually beneficial. While Fox’s leadership may prefer a fresher GOP face in the White House, and Trump will never stop complaining that the network isn’t supportive enough, each is still getting too much out of their partnership to call it off for good.