Trump, DeSantis interviews show Fox influence on GOP field still strong despite troubled year

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FILE - Bret Baier appears during a Fox News town-hall style event in Bethlehem, Pa., on April 15, 2019. Fox News aired a Baier interview with former President Donald Tump in two parts Monday and Tuesday, where Baier pressed the former president about his indictment on hoarding confidential documents and pushed back on Trump's false claims about the 2020 election. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

NEW YORK – The two leading GOP presidential contenders had very different interview experiences with Fox News in the past week — each an illustration of the influence that even a damaged Fox has over the Republican nominating process.

Donald Trump's interview with Bret Baier, which aired in two parts Monday and Tuesday, was meaty and newsworthy. Baier pressed the former president about his indictment on hoarding confidential documents and pushed back on Trump's false claims about the 2020 election.

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Ron DeSantis' session with Trump's former press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, on Wednesday was far softer.

Their appearances alone are evidence that Fox, weakened financially by the $787 million settlement over defamation charges reached with Dominion Voting Systems and suffering in the ratings following Tucker Carlson's firing, remains the media kingmaker for Republicans who want to be president.

After the first part of his Trump interview aired, Fox announced that Baier and Martha MacCallum will moderate the first Republican presidential primary debate on Aug. 23.

Baier, in bringing up the documents charges with Trump, asked him simply: “Why not just hand them over?”

When the former president talked about being busy, Baier brought up the indictment's charge that he told an aide to move documents to other locations in his Mar-a-Lago estate after telling lawyers to say he had fully complied with a subpoena, “when you hadn't.”

He was specific in asking about a recording where Trump told someone about documents he could have declassified as president, while also keeping sight of the big picture. “Why do you want to hold on to these documents after you're president?” he asked.

“I don't say I do,” Trump replied.

Afterward, Baier received praise in places where Fox figures don't normally hear it, like MSNBC's “Morning Joe.”

“In many ways, Baier was the big winner of the interview, repeatedly pressing Trump on multiple hot topics and challenging the former president on his lies and questionable praise,” Politico's Playbook said.

It was important for Baier, whose reputation took a hit when some Fox communications were revealed through the Dominion lawsuit. Baier had complained internally following the 2020 election that he had become uncomfortable defending the network's controversial — but correct — election night declaration that Biden had won in Arizona, and suggested awarding the state to Trump instead.

He's interviewed other 2024 GOP contenders Nikki Haley and Chris Christie recently, but not DeSantis, who instead talked with McEnany, a non-journalist.

McEnany primarily teed up DeSantis to talk about Florida's economy, “culture war” issues and his stance on pandemic-era lockdowns. When DeSantis said that “(Dr. Anthony) Fauci was attacking everything Florida did,” she agreed.

“I came to Florida a lot on the weekends,” McEnany said. “People don't know that. I left the swamp, and it was pretty joyful to be in Florida.”

McEnany also brought up a lengthy Washington Post profile on DeSantis' wife Casey, who she called “a real rock star.”

“The best they could come up with in the liberal Washington Post, there are three things Ron DeSantis likes to talk about, the Constitution, baseball, and golf,” she said. “I think that's most men in this country.”

Another Post article, about DeSantis donors lending him a golf simulator and providing flights to political events, moved on the newspaper's website more than seven hours before the interview and was not brought up.

To be fair, Trump has faced his share of friendly interviewers on Fox, including Carlson and Mark Levin. Sean Hannity, who offered Trump advice when he was in the White House, hosted the former president for a town hall on June 1. DeSantis has also appeared on “Fox & Friends” and was interviewed by former GOP congressman Trey Gowdy the night he announced his candidacy.

Fox has had a rough two months since the Dominion settlement. Carlson's firing, for reasons never publicly unexplained, cut sharply into the network's audience, some of which decamped to rival Newsmax. Carlson reached an average of 3.25 million viewers in his time slot from January through March, and subsequent substitute hosts are far below that.

Brian Kilmeade reached 2.41 million when Trump's post-indictment speech was carried live on June 13, but averaged only 1.57 million viewers in Carlson's old time slot the next three nights, the Nielsen company said.

That same night, a message referring to President Joe Biden as a “wannabe dictator” appeared on Fox's screen, costing two of Carlson's former producers their jobs. This week, Geraldo Rivera quit as a panelist on the popular show “The Five,” saying he was tired of the political combat.

Still, Republican candidates have appeared for interviews on Fox a staggering 160 times this year, 15 already this week, the network said. The most frequent is entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has been on 76 times. Democrats Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson have been on 18 times. And in Carlson’s former timeslot, Fox remains the No. 1 cable news show despite the ratings decline.

There are more media outlets appealing to Republicans than ever, said talk show host Erick Erickson. Ben Shapiro's “Daily Wire” has been successful in reaching young people who don't watch television as much as their elders, and the rapid increase in cable cord-cutters is ominous for media executives.

Fox still reaches the most conservatives in the country, he said.

“They're not as dominant as they once were but that doesn't mean that they're not dominant,” Erickson said.

Despite its troubles, Fox retains a powerful agenda-setting role. It is particularly visible in the wake of Trump's indictment with the number of commentators who have been attacking the U.S. justice system, noted CNN media writer Oliver Darcy.

“Newsrooms often focus on what lawmakers are saying, but the popular talk show hosts have far more influence over the GOP base,” Darcy wrote. “And they're priming a large portion of the country to believe the government is being run by a menacing anti-democratic force and that law and order no longer exists.”

Many in conservative media are watching closely to see if it becomes clear that a majority of Fox personalities are favoring one candidate or another, in large part to attract attention by going in another direction, Erickson said.

“People feel there is chum in the water and the sharks are circling,” he said.

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