The White House And Its 'Shadow Cabinet' Of Fox News TV Hosts

Mar 7, 2019
Originally published on March 7, 2019 3:18 pm

In July 2018, former Fox News co-President Bill Shine joined the White House staff as deputy chief of staff for communications and assistant to President Trump.

He wasn't the first — or only — Fox News personality to align with the president. In November, Fox News host Sean Hannity, who reportedly speaks to Trump "almost daily," faced criticism after joining Trump onstage during a rally. And New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer reports that 21st Century Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch speaks to Trump on a weekly basis and that Fox Business Network anchor Lou Dobbs has been "patched into" Oval Office meetings.

"In past White Houses there have been favored members of the press, but nothing where someone is so close in that they are coordinating on a daily basis with the president," Mayer tells Fresh Air.

She adds: "Some of the people who are still hosting shows on Fox are seen by many of the people who are in and around the White House — including some of the White House staff — as basically being a 'shadow cabinet.' "

Mayer's latest New Yorker article, "The Making of the Fox News White House," describes the ways in which the network has bolstered the president — and vice versa. One of the stories she uncovered involves Trump's attempt to get the Justice Department to stop AT&T from acquiring Fox News rival CNN's parent, Time Warner.

Mayer also reports that Fox News had the Stormy Daniels story before the 2016 election — and killed it because it would have hurt Trump's chances of winning. In this respect, Mayer says, the network is "not a regular news organization. ... What its critics say is that Fox is an arm of the White House. It's a mouthpiece for Trump."


Interview Highlights

On reporting that President Trump tried to order the Justice Department to file a lawsuit to stop AT&T from acquiring Time Warner

This was in the late summer of 2017, and Trump ordered Gary Cohn, who was then the head of the National Economic Council — so the top economic adviser in the White House — he ordered him to get the Justice Department to file suit and stop the deal. It was an Oval Office meeting. Trump said, "Block that deal. I want it blocked. I've told you 50 times. We need to get that suit filed." So you could see that the president was actually trying to interfere in the Justice Department's decision about one of the biggest deals involving billion-dollar companies that have to do with news organizations. ...

Gary Cohn turned to John Kelly, who had just become chief of staff, on the way out. The two of them were walking out of the Oval Office and he turned to Kelly and said, "Don't you dare do that. This is not how we're going to do business." But what was interesting to me, also, was just a couple of months later, the Justice Department did intervene in that case, filed a suit and tried to block the deal. And it's since lost that case, but they really did get into it. [Editor's note: In her article for The New Yorker, Mayer reported that a spokesperson for Cohn declined to comment, and Kelly did not respond to inquiries.]

On what that story shows about the Trump White House's relationship to Fox News

It's an example of a pattern that you can see, which is that many decisions that have to do with regulatory matters seem to favor Fox News and its chairman Rupert Murdoch. And that was one of the deals that took place that seemed to favor Rupert Murdoch. ... The reason is that Time Warner owns CNN and CNN is the rival of Fox News. They both have cable news operations, and so by blocking that deal when the Justice Department got in, it really tried to hurt Time Warner and CNN by doing that. It cost them hundreds of millions of dollars by filing that suit. So it was a matter that was very helpful to Rupert Murdoch, and it also was very hurtful to CNN, who President Trump has been very open about disparaging. ...

I think it would be very interesting to have an investigation here. It's hard, as a reporter, to ferret out all the information, but my sense is they would find that there's more there. This particular anecdote that I was able to get, that captures Trump ordering somebody ... very high up in this administration to block the deal and get the Justice Department to get in, is in itself quite eye opening and an abuse of power, I think many would say. But if, in fact, it affected what the Justice Department did, and influenced it, I think it's an incredibly serious matter.

On how Fox News had the Stormy Daniels story before the election — and killed it

This was in October 2016, so right before the election. A reporter at FoxNews.com had the story of the fact that the president was using his lawyer to pay off a porn star with whom the president had had an affair, and that they were trying to silence this porn star, Stormy Daniels, by paying her off, and that there was an actual contract, which the reporter saw.

The reporter, whose name is Diana Falzone, had first caught wind of this in March, and she had been reporting all the way up through October, and she was pushing to get her story in print or on the website at Fox, and she kept getting a runaround from her editors there. Eventually, she was getting more and more frustrated and worried; the election was approaching, she thought it was something voters should at least be able to consider, and she reached the editor in charge of the website, a man named Ken LaCorte, and according to what she told her friends and colleagues at the time — and I've interviewed them — Ken LaCorte said to her, "Good reporting, kiddo. But Rupert Murdoch wants Donald Trump to win — so just leave it alone." And that was the end of the story. It was shelved. [Editor's note: In her article for The New Yorker, Mayer reports that LaCorte denies ever saying this and denies shelving the story to protect Trump.]

On reporting that Trump was tipped off about Fox News host Megyn Kelly's question before the Republican presidential debate in August 2015

This is a report that's based on several Fox insiders who suggest that they have the information from an eyewitness who saw Roger Ailes tip off Trump prior to the big Republican presidential debate in 2015.

It was August 2015. All eyes were on Trump to see whether he could hold his own, and he was given a famously tough question by Fox host Megyn Kelly, who asked him about the way he had disparaged women and supposedly mistreated women. It was a very tough question. And Trump handled it quite well. He broke the audience up in laughter with a quick one-line rejoinder where he said the only women that he spoke poorly of was just Rosie O'Donnell, and the hall just blew up in laughter.

Everybody thought that was an example of how Trump could think quickly on his feet, and occasionally flash some charm and survive almost any kind of assault from the press. But according to a couple of people I interviewed who were insiders at Fox, and in addition somebody in the Trump campaign, they say that Trump had gotten advance notice of this question. ... Several people say that Roger Ailes was overheard telling Trump himself that he should get ready for that question.

On how White House communication has changed under Bill Shine

People would argue that it's become increasingly difficult to get information from daily briefings. [White House press secretary] Sarah Huckabee Sanders has pretty much shut down most of the daily briefings for the press, and that instead, she started appearing quite frequently on Fox News, where she gets softball questions. So a number of Trump administration officials, including Sanders, have started popping up on Fox News rather than being available to the press corps at large. ...

Sean Hannity has now had something like 44 interviews with President Trump himself. That's in comparison with just 10 combined for all the other television networks. And CNN, which President Trump doesn't like, has been given no interviews. - Jane Mayer

The other thing that you can see easily is that Fox News has become very much the favored go-to network for the Trump administration officials, including Trump himself. Sean Hannity has now had something like 44 interviews with President Trump himself. That's in comparison with just 10 combined for all the other television networks. And CNN, which President Trump doesn't like, has been given no interviews. This is very unusual. I go back to covering the White House in the Reagan days and they they always tried to sort of play fair and distribute the interviews evenly. But you've really got one network that is almost inside the White House.

On the origin of Trump and Murdoch's relationship

[Lawyer Roy Cohn] thought that there was a great kind of deal that these two could strike where Trump would grow famous, get celebrity from [Murdoch's newspaper] the New York Post, his exploits could run on Page Six, the gossip section of the New York Post, and Trump was kind of a famous playboy and it would raise his public image. And Rupert Murdoch, who was just really launching Page Six at the New York Post, would have great copy, could sell copies of his paper and make money off the thing. So that was sort of the origin of the relationship between these two men. ... It goes way back to the '70s.

On how Murdoch has disparaged Trump behind his back in the past, seeing him as a "real estate huckster and a shady casino operator"

Trump, from what I understand — and I did tons of reporting for this piece --but Trump knows that Rupert Murdoch has often disparaged him behind his back, that Rupert Murdoch loves to dine out on stories about inane things that Trump has said, and Rupert Murdoch shares it with his friends at dinner parties. Michael Wolff, in his book on the Trump White House [Fire and Fury], actually quoted Murdoch as describing Trump as a "[expletive] idiot."

And so certainly President Trump knows that Rupert Murdoch is not always worshipful of him, but what I was told was that Trump is OK with it. He has made his peace with that, and I think in part it's also because Trump really needs Murdoch. Trump really needs Fox, and Murdoch is an incredibly powerful figure in the media world at this point, and his audience is the Trump base. So it's incredibly helpful to President Trump to have a good relationship with Murdoch, no matter what Murdoch is saying.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Has Fox News crossed the line from partisan to propaganda? That's what Jane Mayer investigates in her new article, titled, "The Making Of The Fox News White House," published in The New Yorker, where she's a staff writer. She says the White House and Fox News interact so seamlessly that it can be hard to determine during a news cycle which one is following the other's lead.

One of the stories she uncovered involves President Trump's attempt to get the Justice Department to stop a business deal that would be unfavorable to Fox. This revelation might lead to a congressional investigation. She reports that during the 2016 presidential campaign, Fox killed a story because it would have hurt Trump's chances of winning. Mayer also writes about Trump's relationship with Rupert Murdoch, the chair of Fox News, and Bill Shine, Trump's deputy of communications who formerly served as co-president of Fox and exemplifies what Mayer describes as the revolving door between Fox and the Trump White House.

After we recorded our interview yesterday, the chair of the Democratic National Committee Tom Perez issued a statement that The New Yorker's reporting on the inappropriate relationship between President Trump, his administration and Fox News led Perez to conclude that Fox is not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for Democratic candidates and therefore would not serve as a debate host for the 2020 Democratic primary debates.

Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So let me ask you about the story in your piece that's made the most news, and that's that President Trump tried to order the Justice Department to file a lawsuit to stop AT&T from acquiring Time Warner. Explain what Trump did.

JANE MAYER: So this was in the late summer of 2017. And Trump ordered Gary Cohn, who was then the head of the National Economic Council - so the top economic adviser in the White House - he ordered him to get the Justice Department to file suit and stop the deal. And President Trump - it was an Oval Office meeting. Trump said, block that deal. I want it blocked. I told you 50 times. We need to get that suit filed.

So you could see that the president was actually trying to interfere in the Justice Department's decision about one of the biggest deals involving billion-dollar companies that have to do with news organizations.

GROSS: So Gary Cohn declined to do that, right? Then what happened?

MAYER: Well, so Gary Cohn turned to John Kelly, who had just become chief of staff, on the way out. The two of them were walking out of the Oval Office. And he turned to Kelly and said, don't you dare do that. This is not how we're going to do business. But what was interesting to me also, was, just a couple months later, the Justice Department did intervene in that case, filed a suit and tried to block the deal. And it's since lost that case. But they really did get into it.

GROSS: So how does this story fit into your story about the relationship between the Trump administration and Fox News?

MAYER: Well, so this is - (laughter). It's an example of a pattern that you can see, which is that many decisions that have to do with regulatory matters seem to favor Fox News and its chairman, Rupert Murdoch. And that was one of the deals that took place that seemed to favor Rupert Murdoch. And if you bear with me for one second, the reason is that Time Warner owns CNN. And CNN is the rival of Fox News. They both have cable news operations.

And so by blocking that deal, when the Justice Department got in, it really tried to hurt Time Warner and CNN by doing that. And it cost them hundreds of millions of dollars by filing that suit. So it was a matter that was very helpful to Rupert Murdoch, and it also was very hurtful to CNN, who President Trump has been, you know, very open about disparaging.

GROSS: Right. So President Trump sees CNN as one of the kings of fake news, and he's very much - and he very much has a good relationship with Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. So...

MAYER: He's got a very close relationship with Rupert Murdoch. I mean, this is one of the things that I found interesting. So I started by looking at Bill Shine, as I said, to try to take a look at the relationship between Fox and the White House. And what I found were, there were all these different layers of relationships that go all the way up to the chairman of 21st Century Fox, who is Rupert Murdoch, one of the great moguls in the media world. And he has a very close relationship with President Trump.

It's not always a happy relationship, but the two of them appear to speak regularly, maybe every week. Some say every day. And Rupert Murdoch also speaks quite regularly, as much as daily, with President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. So you've got these very close relationships going on.

GROSS: So before we get deeper into those relationships, I want to get back to AT&T acquiring Time Warner and the story that you broke about that. There've been some powerful reactions to that. George Conway, who is married to Kellyanne Conway, and he's a lawyer and he knows a lot about the Constitution. And he tweeted that, (reading) if what you wrote is proven, such an attempt to use presidential authority to seek retribution would unquestionably be grounds for impeachment.

And, let's see, Senator Chris Van Hollen tweeted, (reading) if this report is true, it's deeply troubling. Mergers need to be closely examined and reviewed on their merits, not because the president wants to retaliate against a news organization. I'll be writing to the DOJ to get to the bottom of this and make sure it never happens again.

And Adam Schiff, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted, (reading) I've long feared Trump would use the instruments of state power to carry out his vendetta against the press he has attacked as the enemy of the people. Congress must find out whether Trump did just that, by seeking to interfere in a merger or by raising postal rates on Amazon.

So what do you think the outcome of this revelation about President Trump's attempt to interfere and block AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner might be?

MAYER: I think it would be very interesting to have an investigation here. It's hard as a reporter to ferret out all the information. But my sense is they would find that there's more there. This particular anecdote that I was able to get, that captures Trump ordering somebody who's very high up in his administration to block the deal and get the Justice Department to get in, is in itself quite eye opening, and an abuse of power, I think many would say. But if in fact it affected what the Justice Department did and influenced it, I think it's an incredibly serious matter.

GROSS: So you also report that Fox killed a story because they wanted Donald Trump to win and become president. And they killed the story at a time when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were kind of neck-and-neck in the polls. And the story has to do with Stormy Daniels. Explain the story that Fox News killed.

MAYER: So this was in October 2016. And so right before the election. And a reporter at foxnews.com had the story of the fact that the president was using his lawyer to pay off a porn star with whom the president had had an affair, and that they were trying to silence this porn star, Stormy Daniels, by paying her off and that there was an actual contract which the reporter saw.

And so the reporter, whose name is Diana Falzone, had first caught wind of this in March. And she had been reporting all the way up through October, and she was pushing to get her story in print or on the website at Fox. And she kept getting a runaround from her editors there.

Eventually, she was getting more and more frustrated and worried. The election was approaching. She thought it was something voters should at least be able to consider. And she reached the editor in charge of the website, a man named Ken LaCorte.

And according to what she told her friends and colleagues at the time - and I've interviewed them - Ken LaCorte said to her, good reporting, kiddo, but Rupert Murdoch wants Donald Trump to win so just leave it alone. And that was the end of the story. It was shelved.

GROSS: So another related story that she broke and that Fox did not put on the air was that The Enquirer was doing catch-and-kill stories with other women who had had sexual relations, or alleged that they had sexual relations with the president. And catch and kill, again, is when a tabloid buys a story, buys the exclusive rights to a story with the intention of never publishing it, you know, effectually killing the story. So Fox didn't go with that, either. What was their reason for that?

MAYER: It's all of a piece, basically, which was that what she was hearing was that Fox did not want to stand in the way of Trump getting elected president. In fact, it wanted to help him get elected president. And the word she was getting was this came straight down from the top, from Rupert Murdoch. She was a young reporter. Not long after that, she was demoted. She eventually filed suit. And as part of the suit, she had to sign a nondisclosure agreement where she's not allowed to tell this story.

GROSS: So how did you get it? (Laughter).

MAYER: (Laughter) I reported - I spoke with her lawyer, who said she couldn't comment. But she confirmed that there was such a settlement. And I spoke with a friend in which the reporter confided. And I also confirmed it with someone she was working with at the time, who's quoted by name in the story. His name's Nik Richie (ph).

And interestingly, he was somebody who ran a - kind of a gossip blog site in Hollywood. And he is a Trump supporter. And he is a fan of Fox News. But nonetheless, he said Diana Falzone had the story. She did her homework. And he said to me, I told her Fox would never run it. But he also said he thought that it would have swayed the election if she'd been able to get it out there.

GROSS: So at the risk of perhaps stating the obvious, what does it say that Fox News is alleged to have killed a story because it would hurt Trump's chances of winning the presidency?

MAYER: Well, I mean, put it this way. It makes it not a regular news organization, not like any I've ever worked for, specifically. And it - it makes it sort - what its critics say is that Fox is an arm of the White House. It's - it's part - it's a mouthpiece for Trump.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new piece is called "The Making Of The Fox News White House." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. And her new piece is called "The Making Of The Fox News White House." And, like it - like the title says, it's about the connections between President Trump, his White House and Fox News.

So getting back to Bill Shine, who became director of communications and deputy chief of staff in July of 2018, he had been the co-president of Fox News after Roger Ailes was forced out. And I think while Ailes was president, Shine had been his No. 2.

He was named in several lawsuits - that is, Shine was named in several lawsuits - by women who alleged that Roger Ailes had sexually harassed them. They described Shine as being complicit in the culture of cover-ups, payoffs and victim intimidation. He had also formerly been Sean Hannity's producer. So how has White House communications with the press changed under Bill Shine?

MAYER: Well, people would argue that it's become increasingly difficult to get information from daily briefings - Sarah Huckabee Sanders has pretty much shut down most of the daily briefings for the press - and that instead, she started appearing quite frequently on Fox News, where she gets softball questions. So a number of Trump administration officials, including Sanders, have started popping up on Fox News rather than being available to the press corps at large.

GROSS: Yeah, you have some numbers - do you remember them? - comparing the number of times President Trump has appeared on Fox News compared to other news shows and news networks.

MAYER: Yeah, and the other thing that you can see easily is that Fox News has become very much the the favorite go-to network for the Trump administration officials, including Trump himself. So you've got - Sean Hannity has now had something like 44 interviews with President Trump himself. That's in comparison with just 10 combined for all the other television networks. And CNN, which President Trump doesn't like, has been given no interviews.

I mean, this is very unusual. I have - I go back to covering the White House in the Reagan days, and they - they always tried to sort of play fair and distribute the interviews evenly. But you've really got one network that is almost inside the White House.

GROSS: Bill Shine has also taken a punitive approach to members of the press who are seen as being too critical of President Trump, like Jim Acosta.

MAYER: That's right. I mean, when - and I think this goes back to who Bill Shine...

GROSS: Jim Acosta of CNN, I should say - CNN's White House correspondent.

MAYER: Sure. This, in a way, goes back to what Bill Shine was like when he was at Fox. He was known as the enforcer and the enabler for a very tough boss who was Roger Ailes at Fox. And over at the White House now, he is known as the enforcer and the enabler for another very tough boss. And that is Donald Trump. And when Trump is mad at the press, which happens quite frequently, he has Shine crack down on reporters.

And so Shine took the step of trying to strip the credentials away from Jim Acosta, the aggressive White House reporter that CNN has over there. Shine also, he claimed, disinvited is the word that he wanted to use, Kaitlan Collins, who was a CNN reporter - is a CNN reporter - covering the White House, barred her from covering a Rose Garden statement that the president was making even though she was the pool reporter that day.

And he's - he's also tried to crack down on The New York Times. He was quite threatening to Peter Baker, who is a veteran reporter for The Times covering the White House. And someone reported to Shine that Peter Baker had laughed at an amusing moment in a summit where the president of Japan had complimented President Trump on his historic victory in the midterm elections. And as we all know, it was actually quite a terrible defeat for Trump in the midterm elections. And so Peter Baker evidently smiled but was reported to have laughed.

This was reported to Bill Shine, the director of White House communications, who berated Peter Baker and said, did you laugh? Have you laughed now? Did you laugh earlier in the day? And poked a finger in his face. And Baker had to - I think it was quite threatening - had to come up with a tape, that - an audiotape that he shared with Bill Shine to show that, actually, there was no sign or sound of laughter.

It ended amicably, I should say, on - on behalf of all their parts. And Baker declined to comment about it. But, you know, this is, again - it's a kind of intimidating thing. It's a - it's treating the press as the president often describes them - as enemies of the people.

GROSS: Let's get back to the relationship between Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox News, and President Trump. Their relationship goes back to 1975 when Murdoch bought The New York Post, the tabloid in New York. And Murdoch and Trump were brought together by Roy Cohn, who had been something of a mentor to Trump and is most famous for having been Senator McCarthy's chief counsel during the witch hunt for communists and communist sympathizers. So what did Cohn see as the potential synergy by bringing Murdoch and Trump together?

MAYER: He thought that there was a great kind of deal that these two could strike where Trump would grow famous, get celebrity from the New York Post. His exploits could run on Page Six, the gossip section of the New York Post. And Trump was kind of a famous playboy, and it would, you know, raise his public image. And Rupert Murdoch, who was just really launching Page Six at the New York Post, would have great copy, could sell copies of his paper and make money off things. So that was sort of the origin of the relationship between these two men. And as you say, it goes way back to the '70s.

GROSS: You also write that in private at that time, Murdoch regarded Trump with disdain, seeing him as a real estate huckster and a shady casino operator. As I read that line, I was trying to imagine Trump reading this article and reading that line if he didn't know that, in private, Murdoch had regarded him that way. I think their relationship is better now, but still. I - you don't know the answer to that, I'm sure, but it sure made me wonder.

MAYER: Well, you know, the thing is that a Trump, from what I understand - and I did, you know, tons of reporting for this piece - but Trump knows that Rupert Murdoch has often disparaged him behind his back and that he - that Rupert Murdoch loves to dine out on stories about inane things that Trump has said. And Rupert Murdoch shares it with his friends at dinner parties. And Michael Wolff, in his book on the Trump White House, actually quoted Murdoch as describing Trump as a expletive deleted idiot.

And so certainly, President Trump knows that Rupert Murdoch is not always worshipful of him. But what I was told was that Trump is OK with it, you know, and that he has made his peace with that. And I think, in part, it's also because Trump really needs Murdoch. Trump really needs Fox. And Murdoch is an incredibly powerful figure in the media world at this point. And he has - his audience is the Trump base.

GROSS: My guest is investigative reporter Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her latest piece in The New Yorker is titled "The Making Of The Fox News White House." We'll talk more about the relationship between President Trump, his White House and Fox News after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with investigative reporter Jane Mayer. Her new article, "The Making Of The Fox News White House," is published in The New Yorker, where she's a staff writer. It's about the close connections between President Trump and Fox News and the revolving door between the two. When we left off, we were talking about the long relationship between Trump and Fox News chair Rupert Murdoch.

So in 1996, Rupert Murdoch hires Roger Ailes to create Fox News, and then Trump starts making regular appearances in 2011. And you write a little bit about how that changed things at Fox News.

MAYER: Yeah, so when Trump was asked on, one of the first things he started talking about in 2011 was this birtherism issue, challenging whether or not President Obama was authentically born in America. And it was an issue they'd been kicking around on the fringes of American politics. But even the hosts at Fox - Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck at the time, who both had shows then - that - both of them thought it was an idiotic subject. And they, you know, had kind of knocked the whole idea of it as ridiculous.

But when Trump comes on Fox, he starts pushing it, and Fox gives him a national platform to push it. And you begin to hear Sean Hannity pick up on it, too. So you begin to see the - kind of the beginnings of what was going to be the later kinds of issues that Trump pushed in his own campaign.

GROSS: Have you been watching a lot of Fox News while reporting...

MAYER: So much.

GROSS: ...The piece?

MAYER: So much Fox News (laughter).

GROSS: So...

MAYER: Morning, day and night.

GROSS: For people who aren't watching Fox News, what are some of the counternarratives Fox News is offering?

MAYER: Well, it's so much Fox News (laughter)...

GROSS: So for...

MAYER: ...Morning, day and night.

GROSS: For people who aren't watching Fox News, what are some of the counternarratives Fox News is offering?

MAYER: Well, it's really - it's like an alternative universe. I hadn't realized till I really started watching it so much how completely different the narrative is on Fox. But it explains a lot about what's going on in American politics. I would recommend people take a look at it because you'll understand much better. What it's got going on is, you know, kind of an explanation and an argument for why everything that you see on the mainstream media is wrong.

And so the basic storyline is that Robert Mueller's investigation is the witch hunt that Trump talks about, that this deep state is trying to push a coup in the country to push out Trump, that all the investigations into Trump are corrupt and that the law enforcement agencies that are undertaking them, the FBI or whatever, they're the crooks rather than Trump and the people around him. It's just a completely opposite viewpoint from what you would get in most of the other news organizations.

GROSS: Is Fox News still advocating for further investigation into Hillary Clinton and her email server?

MAYER: It is, but I get the feeling that that may be losing a little bit of juice. But even as of a week or two ago, they were still saying - I think it was - Sean Hannity was saying that if the Justice Department doesn't open investigation into Hillary Clinton, the Constitution will be shredded. So it's that kind of thing that you're going to see on Fox News still and many other kind of odd conspiracy theories that sort of explain away any kind of criticism of Trump.

GROSS: There are several people who have gone from Fox News into the Trump administration. Some of them have left the administration. But can you talk a little bit about that cross-pollination?

MAYER: You know, there's almost a revolving door there. You've got - and in other administrations, to be fair, there have been people who've gone from news organizations to go work in White Houses before. You know, we think of, you know - Jay Carney, for instance, went from Time magazine to go work in the Obama White House. But what you see in the Trump White House that's a little different is that many of the people who were talking heads on Fox are assuming important positions of all sorts not just press positions.

GROSS: Can you give us some examples?

MAYER: Sure. So you've got John Bolton, who's now the national security adviser. And he had come from Fox. You've got Ben Carson, who's now the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He came from Fox. You've got the under - the deputy national security adviser, who also came from Fox. You had the ambassador to the United Nations, Heather Nauert, who was appointed by Trump. But she didn't get confirmed. She withdrew herself. But she was also a talking head on Fox. These are all very complicated positions, major positions in an administration. They're not just press kinds of positions. And there just seems to be one after another there.

And you also see people going from the Trump administration back onto Fox. So you would see Sebastian Gorka, who was in the Trump administration's National Security Council. And until just a couple days ago, he was very often on Fox as a supposedly independent commentator. Another example is Hope Hicks, who was the White House communications director and now has become the top communications director for 21st Century Fox.

GROSS: Lou Dobbs, who hosts a show on Fox News and is very anti-immigration, you say he's been patched into Oval Office meetings. He's - you know, he's a host on Fox News.

MAYER: Exactly. I mean, some of the people who are still hosting shows on Fox are seen by many of the people who are in and around the White House, including some of the White House staff, as, basically, being a shadow cabinet. So you've got Lou Dobbs being patched into Oval Office meetings and the same thing with Sean Hannity, who's got a kind of a uniquely powerful role in the White House, so much so that people refer to him as the shadow chief of staff.

GROSS: They talk frequently after Hannity's show, right?

MAYER: Hannity's told people that he and President Trump speak almost every night after Hannity's show.

GROSS: That's a very unusual relationship, isn't it?

MAYER: I've never (laughter) heard of anything like it in any other White House. I mean, there've been - in past White Houses, there've been favored members of the press but nothing where someone is so close in that they are coordinating on a daily basis with the president.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new piece is called "The Making Of The Fox News White House." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new piece is called "The Making Of The Fox News White House."

You report that Donald Trump was tipped off about a couple of key questions in the debates. What were those questions? And how was he tipped off?

MAYER: So this is a report that's based on several Fox insiders, two who suggest that they have the information from an eyewitness who saw Roger Ailes tip off Trump prior to the big Republican presidential debate in 2015. It was August 2015, where Trump was - you know, all eyes were on Trump to see whether he could sort of hold his own.

And he was given a famously tough question by Fox host Megyn Kelly, who asked him about his - the way he had disparaged women and supposedly mistreated women. And it was a very tough question. And Trump handled it quite well. He broke the audience up in laughter with a quick, one-line rejoinder, where he said the only women that he spoke poorly of was just Rosie O'Donnell. And the hall just blew up in laughter.

Everybody thought that it was an example of how Trump could think quickly on his feet, and occasionally flash some charm and survive almost any kind of assault from the press. But according to a couple of people I interviewed who were insiders at Fox, and in addition, somebody in the Trump campaign, they say that Trump had gotten advance notice of this question.

GROSS: Is the implication that maybe somebody helped him come up with the Rosie O'Donnell rejoinder?

MAYER: Or that maybe he had rehearsed it. I mean, it's hard to know. I don't have that from anyone saying that they specifically know that. But several people say that Roger Ailes was overheard telling Trump himself that he should get ready for that question.

GROSS: You know, in talking about leaking debate questions to Donald Trump, when Donna Brazile, who'd been a Democratic operative, was also working with CNN - and was, I think, working as a commentator then - she leaked questions to the Hillary Clinton campaign that were going to be asked on the debate. What did candidate Trump have to say when he learned that?

MAYER: I mean, he has used it as a reason to sort of flog CNN as fake news, and unfair and all of that sort of thing. So I mean, there's certainly an irony if it really does turn out that he was given the answers himself in advance. Excuse me. It's really an irony if it does turn out he, too, was given questions in advance.

GROSS: And you say that sources have told you it wasn't CNN who leaked those questions?

MAYER: It was not CNN. Supposedly, Donna Brazile got the questions from a different source. And she was actually put through a very tough interview with Megyn Kelly afterwards, the Fox host, and kind of raked over the coals for it. So the whole thing looks quite ironic in retrospect.

GROSS: So what does that say about Fox News? I mean, if what you're reporting is true, what ethics did the Fox News people break by leaking this to Trump?

MAYER: Well, I mean, it's - (laughter). It's a form of cheating, basically. It's putting a thumb on the scale for one candidate in particular. And it's engaging in politics, not journalism. I mean, there's supposed to be a line between being the press and being part of somebody's campaign. And in the past, actually, it's interesting to me that Fox has laid down that line in - as recently as 2010.

I mean, Fox has always been a partisan network. It was founded to be a kind of a conservative alternative to the mainstream media, but a journalistic operation. You know, it had its own motto, which was, fair and balanced. But it's changed, according to a number of people.

And what I was saying was, as recently as 2010, it laid down the line and reprimanded Sean Hannity for crossing it. Sean Hannity was going to appear on the stage doing a fundraiser for the Tea Party. And he got in a lot of trouble for doing that. And Roger Ailes said, we're not shilling for the Tea Party or any other party. And Rupert Murdoch himself said, I don't think we should be supporting any party, including the Tea Party. And they kind of hung Hannity out there for doing it. But when he crossed that line again in 2016, Fox just issued a very kind of limp statement. And it seems like there were sort of no repercussions.

GROSS: Well, what was the line that he crossed?

MAYER: Well, so at the very end of the midterm campaign, the night before the election, there was a grand final rally. And Sean Hannity was called onto the stage by Donald Trump. And he hopped up there and joined Trump and was praising him as if he was a member of the Trump campaign himself. And not only did he praise Trump standing up there with him, but then he castigated the other members of the press, calling them fake media. And that actually even included reporters from Fox News.

So there was a, you know, huge hullabaloo within the press where reporters felt like that line had been crossed. But Fox really didn't seem to - it issued a very sort of milquetoast reprimand and moved on.

GROSS: Toward the end of the piece, you write about how Fox News has been preparing for the release of the Mueller report. And a guest on Laura Ingraham's show, Joseph DiGenova, who's a lawyer, who's been a frequent guest over the years on Fox News, he said, it's going to be total war, and as I say to my friends, I do two things. I vote, and I buy guns.

MAYER: That's right. And I think, you know, that it's potentially very dangerous the way that Fox has torqued up anger in the base to try to suggest that if law enforcement were ever to close in on President Trump, that they should do something like take to the streets and maybe even turn to violence. I mean, it's an extraordinary situation to have the single largest cable news operation in the country airing those kinds of sentiments.

GROSS: So in your reporting for your New Yorker story on Fox News and the Trump administration, you spoke to several people who had been a part of Fox News in various capacities, whether it's, like, working behind the scenes as a, you know, producer or booker, or somebody who - you know, people who'd been commentators on there. What are some of the things you learned from them, from people who were really, you know, insiders and who are conservative?

MAYER: Well, what was interesting was a number of them are unhappy with the direction that Fox has taken. I mean, they feel that Fox has become too much a mouthpiece for President Trump, that it's no longer conservative. And they worry that it's giving a platform for kind of authoritarianism.

And so, you know, you have people in this story that were on the record, people like Bill Kristol, who is conservative but he is a critic of President Trump's. And he used to be a contributor to Fox News, but he is no longer. He no longer has a contract with them. And he says it's changed a lot, and he feels that it's really becoming propaganda.

GROSS: So I have to ask you a question about Laura Ingraham (laughter). This is...

MAYER: (Laughter).

GROSS: This is a departure from your piece. There's a piece about you, a profile of you in Elle magazine. And in that profile, it says that when you went off on a reporting trip, your boyfriend at that time took up with Laura Ingraham. (Laughter) And the fact that you - you know, that you're reporting on her now and you're reporting on Fox News - I - just makes my head spin.

MAYER: Mine, too. It was...

(LAUGHTER)

MAYER: It was, I think, something like 30 years ago. And I've been happily married for, I think, 26 ever since.

GROSS: To somebody else.

MAYER: But - to somebody else. So, you know, yeah, that was - it was ancient history. And - I mean, I have to say it was a situation where I got my dog, and she got the guy. And I kind of think I got the better end of the deal.

GROSS: Yeah, because she had taken - she and the guy had taken the dog, and you got the dog back (laughter).

MAYER: I did, actually. Yeah.

GROSS: Was she political at the time? Did you have any clue who she would become?

MAYER: I think she was pretty political at the time. I mean, she was a summer associate in my boyfriend's law firm. That was what was going on. But I think she'd already - I think she'd clerked, maybe, for Clarence Thomas. But given that back history, I was pretty careful to stay away from writing about her in this piece. There - I think it's a piece that's about 11,000 words, and I think she gets two mentions along the way.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new piece is called "The Making Of The Fox News White House." We'll be right back. And when we come back, we're going to talk about some of her reporting on the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the women who accused him of sexual harassment or assault. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new piece is called "The Making Of The Fox News White House."

I want to get to some earlier reporting you did in the recent past, and this had to do with the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. You reported with Ronan Farrow about Christine Blasey Ford's accusation that when she and Brett Kavanaugh were in high school, he and another young man sexually assaulted her.

And then you reported on Deborah Ramirez coming forward and saying that at a party - and I think they were both in college at the time - he exposed himself and took out his penis and stuck it in her face. Here's my question. You - The New Yorker is famous for its rigorous fact-checking. So I always assume when The New Yorker goes to press with something, that it's been rigorously fact-checked.

I want you to compare the kind of fact-checking you went through for your pieces about the women who came forward about Brett Kavanaugh with the kind of fact-checking you observed the Senate Judiciary Committee having done for the confirmation hearings.

MAYER: Well, I mean, it was so frustrating because we were all told in this country that the FBI was going to be doing a background check and looking deeply into the allegations that were - had been lodged by a variety of women against Justice Kavanaugh. And instead, it really wasn't a fact-finding effort. It was just a political fight going on, and there was no really serious effort to get beneath the surface.

GROSS: I don't know if you've done follow-ups, but I wonder what's happened to these two women. You know, Brett Kavanaugh is a Supreme Court justice now. I know Christine Blasey Ford had to move at least a couple of times for her own self-protection. Do you know what her situation is now, or what Deborah Ramirez's situation is?

MAYER: You know, I hear through the grapevine that Christine Blasey Ford, you know, changes her mind from moment to moment about whether she feels it was worth it to have come forward, and some days feels good about it and some days doesn't and - understandably, I think.

GROSS: And you're talking about the - in terms of the toll it's taken on her life, not about her credibility. Yeah.

MAYER: Yeah, in terms of - yeah. I don't mean that she has any doubts about the credibility of her story. I think it's just that it was - it just was so personally draining to be put into this position, and she was trying to do what she thought was right. But, you know, she was - she's had to go through a lot because of it. I hear that Deborah Ramirez, who was the woman at Yale, was - that she feels really good about it, that she feels that she did the right thing.

She tried to tell the truth. She tried to get the information to the public. And then it was out of her hands. And I think she probably would've liked to have of an actual, thorough investigation. She called for the FBI to do that. And I'm sure she was disappointed that the FBI never did a thorough investigation. But, at least, she feels very good about having tried to play her part and do the right thing.

GROSS: You co-wrote a terrific book about Clarence Thomas and the women who came forward about him and what the Senate judiciary confirmation hearings were like for him. And then you did subsequent reporting on that. So can you compare how the judiciary committees in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and in the Kavanaugh hearings handled these women coming forward? A lot of people have thought, well, the Clarence Thomas hearings - that was - you know, that was in the past. That was before the #MeToo movement. Things would be really different today if women came forward. Were they very different?

MAYER: No. I mean, to my amazement, it was almost like a replay. I just couldn't believe we haven't come further. The one difference is the Republicans on the committee, who include a number of members who were still on the Committee way back when Clarence Thomas was in front of them - the Republicans figured out that they needed to have a woman do the questioning for them.

So they brought in a woman to ask the tough questions. But other than that, it was just so much the same. And the posturing and the anger and, you know, it was just - it was - it really felt like a replay to me. I thought it was depressing to see that we haven't come further.

GROSS: So now we have two justices on the Supreme Court with a shadow hanging over them, like a shadow of doubt. Like, if these women are to be believed, Anita Hill and other women who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment and Deborah Ramirez and Christine Blasey Ford in the case of Brett Kavanaugh - if they're to be believed, then, you know, we have two justices who are sexual harassers.

And, you know, many people believe that Anita Hill and the women who came forward in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were never really taken seriously enough, that they were never - their assertions were never thoroughly vetted enough. So - and now it's kind of like it's a done deal.

MAYER: It's - I mean, the problem is it so undercuts the credibility and the prestige of the Supreme Court to have these questions unanswered the way they were. They just - in both cases, the supporters of the justices just pushed those confirmations through in a very political, hardball way and did not really look deeply into the allegations. And so these - the - you know, the public never will - there really is doubt hanging over two of the justices on the court.

My feeling as a reporter, someone who's just, you know, out here sort of trying to figure out what the truth is every day - my feeling is over time, the truth comes out. And I wouldn't be surprised if the public will eventually learn a lot more about the Kavanaugh story. There - I think there's several books being done about him now.

And I think the public knows a lot more about the Clarence Thomas story now. In fact, there was an interview with Anita Hill not very long ago, where she was asked whether she regretted what she had done in coming - in testifying against him. And she said, the truth matters. The truth is the only thing that matters. And I agree that the truth really matters, regardless.

GROSS: Jane Mayer, it is always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. And thank you for your reporting.

MAYER: Well, it was great to be with you. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new article is titled "The Making Of The Fox News White House."

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GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with screenwriter and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose new film "Never Look Away," set in Nazi Germany, East Germany and West Germany, is about an artist faced with questions about art, like, why make art? And who and what is art for? Check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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