A marriage of convenience that paid huge political and financial dividends has ruptured in spectacular fashion after Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets branded Donald Trump a “loser” and the former US president hit back with a blistering statement accusing the media mogul of going “all in” for his rival Ron DeSantis.
The abrupt break-up between Murdoch and Trump came after the Republican party’s disappointing performance in this week’s midterm elections — which many rightwing pundits attributed to the former president — and amounts to an earthquake in the landscape of conservative media and politics.
Using his publications as his stationery, Murdoch moved first. The New York Post’s front page on Thursday featured an oversized picture of the former president tumbling from a brick wall, an allusion to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, with the tagline: “Don (who couldn’t build a great wall) had a great fall.”
The Wall Street Journal, also owned by Murdoch’s News Corp, published an editorial on the same day subtitled: “He has now flopped in 2018, 2020, 2021 and 2022.” The paper’s leader writers wrote: “Trump has botched the 2022 elections . . . he has led Republicans into one political fiasco after another”.
Even Fox News, the cable channel that has held Trump in a tight embrace for years, published a story on its website quoting conservatives calling for the party to “move on” from the former president.
On Thursday night, Trump responded with a furious statement in which he referred to the “no longer great New York Post” and blasted it and other Murdoch outlets for lining up behind DeSantis, the Florida governor who appears to be the new object of Murdoch’s attention. The row erupted just days before the former president is expected to announce he intends to run for the White House again in 2024.
“NewsCorp, which is Fox, the Wall Street Journal, and the no longer great New York Post . . . is all in for Governor Ron DeSanctimonious, an average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations,” Trump wrote in the rambling statement. He attacked DeSantis for being disloyal and “playing games” and slammed the governor’s supposedly deft management of the coronavirus pandemic, which brought him to national attention among conservatives.
One former News Corp employee said of Murdoch’s apparent shift from Trump to DeSantis: “Rupert likes to pick political winners, and he’s good at it.”
Rodney Tiffen, a University of Sydney professor and author of a biography of Murdoch, said: “A lot of the commentators at Fox were very keen on Trump, and some probably still are, but what [do] the Murdochs feel in their heart of hearts? I’m not sure they have a heart of hearts. They have a calculating machine about what’s best pragmatically.”
The pre-eminent media tycoon of his era and the developer-turned-politician have never had much of a rapport. Murdoch’s support for Trump has been inconsistent and at times reluctant.
Over a lunch arranged by Ivanka Trump in 2015, Trump told Murdoch he planned to run for president and the media billionaire “didn’t even look up from his soup”, according to a New York Times report. In July 2015, when Trump entered the Republican primary with a speech complaining about Mexican rapists, Murdoch wrote on Twitter: “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?”
In Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump White House, Fire and Fury, he quotes Murdoch in late 2016, shortly after the presidential election, calling the incoming president “a fucking idiot”.
But as Trump’s rise became inevitable, the two formed an alliance that benefited both of them. In his own book, Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law and adviser, claims to have smoothed the tensions between the pair.
With Fox News, in particular, Trump found a powerful megaphone to reach America’s conservative base. The network, in turn, gained access to the star of a new populist movement that overtook the traditional Republican party. In 2016, the year Trump won office, Murdoch’s Fox News became the most-watched basic cable channel on all of US television, outperforming even drama and entertainment shows during prime time.
Relations soured during the 2020 election, when Fox News projected Joe Biden would defeat Trump in the state of Arizona, making the call days before other networks. Fox News chief Suzanne Scott called Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert’s son and the chief executive of Fox Corp, to inform him they were making the Arizona call and Lachlan did not interfere, according to people familiar with the matter.
Lachlan, Rupert’s apparent successor, was “never a fan” of Trump, said a person close to him.
The Arizona move infuriated many Trump supporters and the president himself, prompting him to ask friends: “Why do you think Rupert attacks me so often?”
However, the latest split is different in that Murdoch appears to have found a new rightwing standard bearer in DeSantis. A day before the Trumpty Dumpty edition, the New York Post front page declared the Florida governor was “DeFuture”.
And an opinion column published by Fox News this week argued “Ron DeSantis is the new Republican party leader”. Even before the midterms, one DeSantis associate claimed that Murdoch was among a group of rightwing power players who appeared to be shifting allegiances.
“If [Murdoch] feels like the future is going to be DeSantis you’re going to see more and more of his properties . . . start to showcase [him],” said the former News Corp executive. The key to decoding the relationship will be how Fox News responds if and when Trump hits out at the network, the person added: “That will be a tell-tale sign.”
Tiffen said: “They’ve jumped ship to someone with a very similar set of appeals that Trump has, without all the baggage. And someone who looks like a winner. Which is always very important for Murdoch.”
In his broadside on Thursday night, Trump insisted that he would prevail with or without Murdoch’s backing: “This is just like 2015 and 2016, a Media Assault (Collusion!), when Fox News fought me to the end until I won, and then they couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive.”