In Depth

US election: how Donald Trump lost the backing of Rupert Murdoch

One of the president’s most powerful patrons appears to have switched sides

After winning the big prize of Florida in early results from the US presidential election, Donald Trump and his political allies wasted no time in predicting further victories across the remaining swing states. 

But just hours later, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kusher was embroiled in an argument with Trump’s favourite television channel Fox News after the Rupert Murdoch-owned media outlet became the first to call Arizona in Joe Biden’s favour. Fox’s surprise move sparked “major ire in President Trump’s re-election camp and resulted in a phone call between Kushner and Murdoch”, The Hill reports.

Yet as the dust settles following Biden’s ultimate victory in the battle for the White House, all the signs are pointing to a further devastating blow to Trump: the loss of his long-time support from Murdoch’s empire.

Big backer

From the outset of Trump’s decision to run for president, back when HuffPost was still reporting on his campaign in its entertainment rather than politics section, Murdoch’s outlets took his campaign seriously. 

In May 2016, “half a dozen” sources close to Murdoch told New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman that the Australian media mogul had signalled that he planned to “fully back Trump in the general election against Hillary Clinton”. 

The Murdoch-Trump alliance followed “at least two private meetings between the billionaires” over the preceeding months, “as well as phone calls” from Kushner, according to Sherman, who reported that the private lobbying convinced Murdoch that Trump was “a winner whom the ‘elites’ failed to take seriously”.

The New York Post led Murdoch’s many newspapers in endorsing Trump in the Republican primaries, and Sherman tweeted that the would-be president had met with Fox News’ then-chair Roger Ailes for a “two to three hour” private lunch prior to his campaign launch.

After Trump pulled off his shock victory, his relationship with Murdoch strengthened further. The Guardian’s Lucia Graves described a “billionaire bromance” between the two men, while Murdoch topped The New York Times’ list of Trump’s key outside advisers, identified as someone the president speaks to “on the phone every week”.

On election night 2020, however, those ties began to unravel.

Turning tides

The decision to call Arizona for Biden just hours after polls closed last Tuesday prompted a furious Kushner to get the phone to Murdoch to complain about the move, “which seemed crucial at the time”, Fox News correspondent Howard Kurtz confirmed on Sunday.

Prior to calling the big boss, Trump’s team had also rung the Fox decision desk - the experts who call states for network’s during US elections - and “unloaded” on its head, Arnon Mishkin, The Hill reports. 

In a statement later released by the Trump campaign, Mishkin was described as a “Clinton-voting, Biden-donating Democrat”. But those allegations of bias faded into the background as more networks called the state in Biden’s favour.

Meanwhile, Murdoch’s newspapers also began to change their tone.

As the world waited for the final few states to be called, The New York Post - a launchpad for attacks on Biden’s son Hunter during the campaign - ran a story headlined: “Donald Trump Jr calls for ‘total war’ in clueless tweet.”

And on Saturday, as Trump tweeted a series of claims about electoral fraud, the same paper suggested the Democrat had won, with the splash: “Ready, set, Joe?”

The coverage of Trump’s fraud allegations is also telling, with CNN noting that there are “signs that arms of Murdoch’s empire have taken a more assertive position against the president”. 

Fox has been “pushing back on Trump’s baseless refusal to accept defeat and priming viewers for a post-Trump future”, including interrupting White House Press Secretary “Kayleigh McEnany on Monday to fact-check her voter fraud allegations”, reports Forbes.

And while the influential outlet has given Trump’s various legal challenges more credence than most, “Fox’s news anchors and reporters have routinely acknowledged Biden’s status as president-elect and said Trump’s voter fraud claims lack evidence”, the news site adds.

Shortly before Biden clinched the presidency on Saturday, Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention, advised the incumbent to accept defeat “if and when that does happen” with “grace and composure”.

And according to two sources inside The New York Post, top editors have “told some staff members this week to be tougher in their coverage” of Trump, The New York Times says.

So while Trump may not be willing to concede the White House just yet, it appears that one of his most powerful patrons is proving more adaptable.

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