President Trump's connections to Fox News got even stronger last week with his appointment of Bill Shine, a former network co-president, to serve as the White House's deputy chief of staff for communications.
Gabriel Sherman, who covers the White House for Vanity Fair, notes that Shine has been named in "numerous lawsuits" related to the sexual harassment claims filed against the former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.
"To me, it's mind-boggling that someone with this amount of baggage, who is too toxic for an institution like Fox News ... would become one of the highest-ranking members of the federal government," Sherman says of Shine.
Less surprising to Sherman is the overall influence that Fox News has on the Trump White House — and vice versa: "I saw this trend really started developing in the Obama years, as the right-wing media and the Republican Party started to fuse into this single entity."
Fast-forward to 2018, Sherman notes, and "there's almost no daylight now between the agenda of the White House and the agenda of Fox News. ... In many ways, Donald Trump is the logical conclusion of entertainment and right-wing media taking over the Republican Party."
On White House deputy chief of staff Bill Shine's purported role in covering up sexual harassment allegations against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes
One of the most disturbing [allegations] that comes to mind is a story that I reported in 2016 for New York Magazine about the case of former Fox News booker Laurie Luhn, who for years had a sexually and psychologically abusive relationship with Roger Ailes. And as Roger Ailes' deputy, it was Bill Shine's job to keep tabs on Laurie Luhn and prevent her from going public with these allegations that Ailes had abused her and blackmailed her into a sexual relationship.
And I reported — and it was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story — ... that Bill Shine arranged for her to be committed to a psychiatric institution when she had a nervous breakdown, because Roger Ailes was worried about her going public. And Laurie Luhn alleged in our interviews that Bill Shine was also involved in monitoring her emails and her communications — again, very cult-like — to prevent her from speaking to outsiders.
On what Shine's new role will be as deputy chief of staff
It's going to be interesting to see how he reacts in this new role, where part of his brief should be, historically, engaging with the national press corps and shaping and helping to communicate the White House's message. I don't think that's going to be a big part of his role. ... He's going to try to translate the president's ideas and impulses into something that the White House can put together as a message. ...
Bill Shine's first major assignment was to produce the rollout of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and he brought in a new set of stage lights and positioned the lights differently to improve the president's look on camera. So part of his job will be messaging and the other part of his job will be stagecraft and production.
On why Trump would hire someone who has been accused of enabling a culture of sexual harassment, when the president himself has been accused of sexual misconduct
People around the president say that his only way to survive the sexual harassment allegations [he faces] is to double down himself, to actually run toward the scandal, not away from it. And we're actually seeing that playing out in recent days with his unabashed support for Congressman Jim Jordan, who has been credibly accused of at least being aware of sexual abuse at Ohio State University and not doing anything to address it. And Donald Trump, I think, tweeted that he believes Jim Jordan 100 percent, he stands by him 100 percent.
So bringing in people like Judge Roy Moore, Jim Jordan and now Bill Shine, who have all of this baggage around sexual harassment and abuse in their pasts, it sort of shows that Donald Trump is not giving any daylight. He's not going to give an inch on this issue, and it's sort thumbing his nose. ... It's a sort of a form of trolling of his critics to say, "Not only do I not care about these allegations, I'm going to surround myself with people who have the very same issues."
On the dynamic between the White House and Fox News
In the wake of Ailes' departure from Fox News, there was a real power vacuum. I made the argument in a piece for Vanity Fair that Donald Trump really became the executive producer of Fox News. It's not only Sean Hannity that he speaks to. Donald Trump has, on his phone list, the numbers of many of the prominent Fox News personalities, and he will call them to suggest story ideas or to compliment them, and when they go on the air they are thinking of ways to speak directly to the president.
So there is this really bizarre and surreal dynamic that the president of the United States is the executive producer, the head of one of the three cable news networks, which exists to promote his agenda. ... I think it's more than a feedback loop, I think it's basically one organization.
On Trump's close relationship with Fox News host Sean Hannity
They speak almost daily, after Hannity's show, sometimes before, and sometimes for up to an hour a day. Hannity has become a de facto chief adviser/strategist/chief of staff. I mean, he recommends ideas, policy ideas, communications ideas to the president, and just the other day, I was told by someone who had spoken with Hannity that Hannity has been telling the president that the moment that Robert Mueller issues his report to the Justice Department on the obstruction of justice case that ... he's supposed to deliver this summer prior to the midterm elections, that Hannity has been telling the president that that is the moment he needs to fire Robert Mueller and [Rod] Rosenstein, because he can then go to the public and say, "Oh well, this isn't obstruction. I waited till they delivered the report, and now this witch hunt needs to end."
Amy Salit and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President Trump's connections to his favorite TV network, Fox News, got even stronger last week with his appointment of Bill Shine to serve as deputy chief of staff for communications. When Roger Ailes was president of Fox News, Shine served as his vice president and was considered Ailes' enforcer. When Ailes was ousted after several women at Fox alleged he'd sexually harassed them, Shine became co-president of Fox. But then he was forced out for having helped enable a climate of sexual harassment in the Ailes era. Shine was named in at least four lawsuits filed against Ailes and the network.
My guest is Gabriel Sherman, the author of a book about Roger Ailes and Fox called "The Loudest Voice In The Room." Sherman's book is being developed into a mini-series for Showtime starring Russell Crowe as Ailes. Sherman began writing about Fox News when he was national affairs editor at New York magazine. He's now a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, covering the White House.
Gabriel Sherman, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
GABRIEL SHERMAN: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: It seems unusual that a president would appoint someone who was let go from a TV network because of allegations that he helped cover up a climate of sexual harassment there. So what are the allegations about Bill Shine's role in the sexual harassment at Fox News in the Roger Ailes era?
SHERMAN: Well, Terry, you know, Bill Shine for 20 years was Roger Ailes' his closest deputy and executive. And Bill Shine has been named in numerous lawsuits that he had direct knowledge of sexual harassment claims filed by Fox News women against Roger Ailes and other senior employees at the network. And these credible allegations are that he not only covered up these allegations, but in some cases enabled them.
And one of the most disturbing that comes to mind is a story that I reported in 2016 for New York magazine about the case of former Fox News Booker Laurie Luhn, who for years had a sexually and psychologically abusive relationship with Roger Ailes. And as Roger Ailes' deputy, it was Bill Shine's job to keep tabs on Laurie Luhn and prevent her from going public with these allegations that Ailes had abused her and blackmailed her into a sexual relationship. And I reported it. And it was - perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story was that Bill Shine arranged for her to be committed to a psychiatric institution when she had a nervous breakdown because Roger Ailes was worried about her going public.
And Laurie Luhn alleged in our interviews that Bill Shine was also involved in monitoring her emails and her communications - again, very cult-like to prevent her from speaking to outsiders. So circling back to your question, it's - to me, it's mind boggling that someone with this amount of baggage who was too toxic for an institution like Fox News, which has sort of become a shorthand for a toxic company, would become one of the highest-ranking members of the federal government.
GROSS: Were there other employees of former employees of Fox News that alleged that Bill Shine monitored their emails?
SHERMAN: Well, I can't speak for other employees. I don't have other instances. I mean, I do know that it was company practice that all company emails were recorded, and Roger Ailes could request the legal department to look at them. So it's highly likely that Bill Shine was looking at other emails. And I knew - I have direct reporting that indicates Bill Shine participated in Roger Ailes' use of private investigators to track reporters, including myself, who are writing critically about Fox News.
So there is a body of evidence to suggest that Bill Shine had direct knowledge of Ailes' use of dirty tricks to both attack his enemies and maintain control over his employees at Fox News. But whether he personally monitored the emails of other employees, I can only know I can only know of the instance of Laurie Luhn because she, you know, directly told me that.
GROSS: The head of the group Judicial Watch is calling for prosecutors to investigate Bill Shine's role in the sexual harassment cover-up at Fox News. What have you heard about that?
SHERMAN: Yeah. So after Roger Ailes was fired, and I did a lot of reporting in the summer and fall of 2016, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York opened an investigation into whether Roger Ailes and other Fox News executives used public company money - because Fox News is owned by 21st Century Fox. It's a publicly-traded company. And prosecutors in the FBI wanted to know whether they used public company money to help pay off women into these private settlements and use private investigators and other dirty tricks to cover up this widespread culture of harassment.
And according to my sources, people who have direct knowledge of the interviews that the FBI and the Southern District did, Bill Shine's name did come up routinely in their inquiry into how Ailes and other executives perhaps misused company money. But what is curious is that after Donald Trump was elected president and he very publicly fired the federal prosecutor who ran the Southern District, Preet Bharara, that investigation went quiet.
I have not heard the status of the federal probe into Fox News, and my sense is that it has sort of petered out. And so obviously, there's no direct - I have no direct evidence that Donald Trump in any way meddled to wind down the investigation into his most prominent media supporter, Fox News. But it is a curious set of timing that the network was being investigated pretty aggressively by the Southern District of New York, and after his election, that investigation stalled.
GROSS: So I'm trying to figure out why President Trump would appoint sometime as his deputy White House chief of staff, someone who is implicated in enabling the climate of sexual harassment at Fox News. Like, does Shine have a pre-existing relationship with the president?
SHERMAN: Bill Shine's relationship with Donald Trump is relatively new. I mean, it does go back years because Donald Trump had a regular call-in slot on "Fox & Friends" that Roger Ailes gave him going back to 2011. So Donald Trump was - before a political figure, he was a Fox News contributor. And "Fox & Friends" is a show that is produced, you know, Bill Shine was the executive in charge of that program. So they, you know, they're sort of familiar with each other. But the relationship really gained steam as Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination and ultimately was elected president. And the conduit, really the connector that brought these two men together is Sean Hannity.
And it's impossible to have a conversation about Bill Shine and Donald Trump without really exploring Sean Hannity's role in becoming the de facto chief of staff of this White House and probably the most powerful political commentator in recent memory. Which is sort of shocking because at Fox News, you know, Sean Hannity was almost left for dead during the Obama years. His ratings were in decline. His show was moved from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., a less desirable hour.
And with the ascension of Donald Trump and Sean Hannity's unabashed boosterism of Donald Trump, he has emerged as the most powerful figure at Fox News. He talks to the president on a daily basis, sometimes for an hour or more. Friends and confidence of both men talk about this kind of innate intense bond between them, that Donald Trump uses Hannity's show to just have a relentless drumbeat of attack lines against his critics, especially the Robert Mueller investigation. And so it was Sean Hannity's support for Bill Shine that helped bring shine into the inner sanctum of Trump world.
Just going back as a bit more of context, when Bill Shine started at Fox News in 1996 as a young producer out of local news, his first assignment was to produce a fledgling "Crossfire"-style talk show called Hannity and Colmes. And so Sean Hannity and Bill Shine really rose up through the ranks at Fox together. And friends of theirs describe their friendship as very close in that they, you know, refer to each other as their best friends.
GROSS: I want to talk about Sean Hannity more a little bit later. But first, I have a couple of other questions. President Trump has sexual harassment charges against him. And a couple of those cases - Stormy Daniels, Summer Zervos - those suits are making their way through the courts. Might Bill Shine be helpful to President Trump in navigating that since Shine has worked, as you say, helping Roger Ailes when Ailes was accused of sexual harassment or assault?
SHERMAN: I've been struck - as a reporter who's written extensively about Fox News and Roger Ailes and now covering this White House for Vanity Fair, I've been really struck by the parallels between the cultures of the two organizations. And in many ways, Bill Shine has gone from working for a megalomaniacal boss in Roger Ailes to going to working for the current president of the United States, Donald Trump. And they are very similar personalities.
And I think Bill Shine has a lot to offer Donald Trump because of his experience helping Roger Ailes navigate a cascade of sexual harassment allegations, and not only allegations against Roger Ailes but other high-profile members at Fox News. So I think Bill Shine has a tool kit. He knows how these scandals have been weathered in the past. And it seems to reason that he can be part of Donald Trump's war room when he has to deal with these in the future.
GROSS: At the same time, you can argue that if President Trump is accused of sexual harassment, as he has been, it's not a good look to hire somebody who is accused of enabling a climate of sexual harassment.
SHERMAN: I think that's true if you're applying kind of the norms and logic that have governed politicians in the past. I think with Donald Trump, it's an entirely different playbook. And I think a way of example of looking at that is looking at Donald Trump's support for Judge Roy Moore in the state of Alabama who was credibly accused by multiple women of - advances on underaged women in the past.
And many people would say, well, why would Donald Trump embrace such a toxic figure like Roy Moore? And the truth is that people around the president say that his only way to survive the sexual harassment allegations is to double down himself - to actually run towards the scandal, not away from it. And we're actually seeing that playing out in recent days with his unabashed support for Congressman Jim Jordan who has been credibly accused of at least being aware of sexual abuse at Ohio State University and not doing anything to address it.
And Donald Trump, I think, tweeted that he believes Jim Jordan 100 percent. He stands by him 100 percent. So bringing in people like Judge Roy Moore, Jim Jordan and now Bill Shine who have all of this baggage around sexual harassment and abuse in their pasts - it sort of shows that Donald Trump is not giving any daylight. He's not going to give an inch on this issue, and it's sort of thumbing his nose. I mentioned this the other day to somebody. It's sort of a form of trolling of his critics to say not only do I not care about these allegations, I'm going to surround myself with people who have the very same issues.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman. He's a special correspondent for Vanity Fair. He's written extensively about Fox News. And his book about Roger Ailes, a book called "The Loudest Voice In The Room," is currently being developed into a miniseries for Showtime. So we'll talk more about President Trump's new deputy chief of staff, Bill Shine - former co-president at Fox News - after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "THE LONE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair. We're talking about President Trump's new deputy chief of staff for communications, Bill Shine. And Bill Shine is a former vice president at Fox News. Under Roger Ailes, he became co-president after Ailes left. Then he was forced out of Fox News after there were allegations that became public that Shine had helped enable a climate of sexual harassment.
So what was Bill Shine known for at Fox News, in addition to the allegations that he covered up and enabled sexual harassment?
SHERMAN: Well, Terry, Bill Shine really grew up at Fox News. He came out of local news on Long Island - son of a Long Island policeman. And Roger Ailes kind of plucked him out of obscurity, like Ailes did with many employees. He liked to groom people who didn't have experience so that they'd be loyal to him. And Bill Shine started as a young producer on Sean Hannity's "Crossfire"-style show with Alan Colmes and kind of grew up through the network, moved into management.
And Bill Shine essentially became in charge of all of the prime-time opinion shows - really what we think of as the most bombastic and right-wing of all of the Fox News programming. The prime-time shows and "Fox & Friends" - that fell under Bill Shine's programming mandate. And he was known at Fox News for being Roger Ailes's enforcer. He was the person who executed on when Roger Ailes had a problem with a certain anchor. When Roger Ailes didn't like the look or the outfit or the wardrobe or the lighting of a certain program, he would have Bill Shine be the person who would go to that specific person and enforce change.
Bill Shine was feared at the network not because he necessarily is a fearsome person himself, but everybody knew that he spoke for Roger Ailes. And he kind of cultivated a cryptic, paranoid persona himself. He rarely put anything in an email. Like we said, he knew that emails were monitored at Fox News. So whenever he had to communicate something politically sensitive, he would just send a very short message to somebody saying, call me. And then he would transact whatever was to be talked about on the telephone.
And I have sort of personal experience with this because when I was writing my biography of Roger Ailes, Ailes was very paranoid about the book and commissioned a pretty extensive and elaborate smear campaign against me. And Bill Shine was part of that effort. And when Roger Ailes wanted prominent Fox News personalities to attack me on Twitter - such as Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin and Karl Rove - it was Bill Shine's job to call them directly and say Roger Ailes would like you to tweet X. And they would then send out the message. So he was, for all practical purposes, Roger Ailes's right-hand man.
GROSS: Roger Ailes demanded loyalty. I'm assuming that Bill Shine was good at giving that loyalty and acting out what Ailes wanted him to do. President Trump demands loyalty as well. So what does that indicate about the relationship they might have?
SHERMAN: Well, that's true. There is just so many similarities in the personalities of Donald Trump and Roger Ailes. And one thing at Fox News that Bill Shine was known for was knowing how to play to Ailes's paranoia. He would whisper in Ailes's ears that so-and-so might not be loyal or such-and-such senior executive is a leaker. Don't trust that person. His colleagues had told me he would constantly play other executives off of Aile (ph), which had the effect of keeping Shine tethered to Ailes as his most trusted lieutenant. So it would not surprise me that as Shine ascends through the ranks of the West Wing - and I imagine will play a similar role for Donald Trump - you could see him whispering in Trump's ear, oh, that cabinet secretary - I'm not sure he's sufficiently on our team. He will - he knows how to play to the fear and paranoia that these larger-than-life executives like Ailes and Trump have.
GROSS: So Shine is now deputy chief of staff, but that's the position that had formerly been called White House communications director. His official function will be to handle communications. Do you know if he will be having direct contact with the press?
SHERMAN: That is a great question, and I think it's too early to say. I mean, he has not, to my knowledge, done an on-the-record interview since getting this appointment. And at Fox News, notably, Bill Shine had almost zero contact with the press. He was sort of trained and inculcated by Roger Ailes to think that journalists were the enemy. And in my dealings with Shine - when I was reporting my book, I had nothing but, you know, pretty - a few and very hostile exchanges with him.
So it's going to be interesting to see how he reacts in this new role where part of his brief should be, historically, engaging with the national press corps in shaping and helping to communicate the White House's message. I don't think that's going to be a big part of his role. My sense is that he's going to - his primary constituency is the president. He's going to try to translate the president's ideas and impulses into something that the White House can put together as a message.
And as I reported yesterday, Bill Shine's first major assignment was to produce the rollout of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. And he brought in a new set of stage lights and positioned the lights differently to improve the president's look on camera. So part of his job will be messaging, and the other part of his job will be stagecraft and production. And one thing Fox News was known for - whatever you think of the network's style or politics - is it was the sharpest and best produced of all the three cable networks. And so I think he's going to bring some of those values to the White House.
GROSS: So one of his goals, according to your reporting - one of Shine's goals is to stop leaks coming from the White House. And there's certainly been plenty of them. Do you know anything about how he plans to do that?
SHERMAN: From talking to people who have gauged his early plans for his new job - I mean, they talk about him really kicking the tires of the press shop, I think, trying to suss out who is loyal to the president and who is not. You know, the White House has been - for months now - talking about a complete restructuring of the White House communications department and flushing out and firing people that deemed to be disloyal to the president. They've so far failed to do that.
And I think one of the reasons Donald Trump brought Bill Shine in is he wants him to evaluate who should be voted off the island. And so I think that's going to also be happening in the days and weeks ahead. You know, one of the problems Shine is going to have, though, in his mission to enforce discipline and stop leaks is that working for the federal government, there are rules and regulations of really what you can do. And, you know, at Fox News, the employees always felt that there were cameras around the offices, that their emails were being monitored, that private investigators may be tailing them.
You know, there really was this culture of fear - this almost Scientology-like culture of control that Ailes was able to create. And all the employees signed very draconian nondisclosure agreements, and the network made clear that they would sue to enforce them. Now, the White House is a federal agency, and you don't work for Donald Trump. You work for the United States government. You work for the American people, and so Bill Shine's not going to have some of those tools at his disposal to leverage the fear and control to keep people in line.
GROSS: My guest is Gabriel Sherman, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, covering the White House. He's also the author of a book about Fox News and its former longtime president Roger Ailes called "The Loudest Voice In The Room." We'll talk more about the connections between the Trump administration and Fox News after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "I MEAN YOU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Gabriel Sherman, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, covering the White House. He's also the author of a book about Fox News and its longtime president Roger Ailes called "The Loudest Voice In The Room." It's being adapted into a Showtime series starring Russell Crowe. We're talking about the connections between the Trump administration and Fox News. Last week, Trump appointed Bill Shine as deputy chief of staff for communications. Shine was Fox News vice president under Roger Ailes. After Ailes was ousted, Shine was later forced out for enabling a culture of sexual harassment at Fox.
You've reported that sources tell you that John Kelly, the chief of staff, might be on his way out - is likely on his way out. And that one of the reasons why Bill Shine is being called deputy chief of staff is so that he'll be in a position to become chief of staff if/when John Kelly leaves.
SHERMAN: That's correct. Yeah, you know, reporters who have covered the White House have been hearing, you know, for months that the Trump-Kelly relationship has all but broken down. Kelly has told people privately that he wanted to last in the job a year. His year-tenure is coming up in August. So it's highly possible and likely that he will be departing.
And what I'm hearing is that, you know, Donald Trump may not replace John Kelly when he goes as chief of staff, that the White House is sort of already been restructured to model itself on the Trump organization. And when Donald Trump worked out of his 26th floor of Trump Tower in New York, he didn't have a strong, one deputy beside him. He had about four or five kind of co-equals who would all jockey for his attention and loyalty. And he played them off of each other, and they would all have direct access to him.
And we have, over the last few months, seen a similar organization take place at the White House. You have national security adviser John Bolton. You have economics adviser Larry Kudlow. Now you have deputy chief of staff for communications Bill Shine. So you're seeing these kind of larger-than-life principals around the president have direct access while John Kelly has been completely marginalized. So that seems to be the case. Now, that said, Sean Hannity has, for almost a year now, been telling people that he has been wanting to push Bill Shine forward as a candidate for chief of staff.
So it will be interesting when and if John Kelly does leave this White House, if Trump does promote Shine to give him that chief of staff title or he just ultimately decides he doesn't want anyone to hold it.
GROSS: I just want to say that the three people who you mentioned in that answer - not John Kelly - but Bill Shine, John Bolton and Larry Kudlow are all from television. I know Bolton has a history beyond television, but he'd become a commentator on Fox News. Larry Kudlow, for a long time, had had his own financial TV show. And I forgot if that was ever on Fox or not.
SHERMAN: No, but important to note that in Roger Ailes' early career, before starting Fox News, he was the president of CNBC, which was the financial news network that Larry Kudlow worked for.
GROSS: OK. So it's just kind of remarkable how many TV people, Fox News people and beyond, that are in the administration or have been - because some of them have left.
SHERMAN: Yeah. You know, it's true. And that's - you know, one of the motivations I had in writing my biography of Roger Ailes is I saw this trend really sort of developing in the Obama years as the right-wing media and the Republican Party started to fuse into this single entity. I saw that television and entertainment were basically taking over one of the two political parties in our country. And, you know, Roger Ailes, through the growth of Fox News into, you know, the most powerful media organization that spoke to Republican voters, was the de facto head of the Republican Party.
And the issues and the emotions that Fox News pushed forward became the obsessions of the Republican base. And so, you know, you had politicians like Jeb Bush and others and Marco Rubio wanting to do something a little more moderate on immigration reform. And it was dead in the water because, for years, the Republican voters heard on Fox News that immigrants were criminals. And they had just seen this sort of demagogic-like messaging projected at them. And so they were never going to get on board with that.
And then along comes Donald Trump who is a politician who speaks the language of Fox News, who actually had a weekly call-in slot on Fox News. And in many ways, Donald Trump is the logical conclusion of entertainment and right-wing media taking over the Republican Party.
GROSS: Brian Stelter, who's the media correspondent for CNN and has a Sunday show called "Reliable Sources" about the media, has talked about what he describes as the feedback loop between Fox and Trump, where a Fox host or reporter says something and sometimes that thing isn't true. Trump repeats it on Twitter or in a speech, and then Fox reports on it, creating this whole feedback loop of things that sometimes are not true.
SHERMAN: Exactly. And you know, I've written how, in the wake of Ailes' departure from Fox News, you know, there was a real power vacuum. And I made an argument in a piece for Vanity Fair that Donald Trump really became the executive producer of Fox News. It's not only Sean Hannity that he speaks to, you know? Donald Trump has, on his phone list, you know, the numbers of many of the prominent Fox News personalities. And he will call them to suggest story ideas or to compliment them. And when they go on the air, they are thinking of ways to speak directly to the president.
And so there is this really kind of bizarre and surreal dynamic that the president of the United States is the executive producer, the head, of one of the three cable news networks who exists to promote his agenda. And so yes, I think it's more than a feedback loop. I think it's, you know, basically one organization. There's almost no daylight now between the agenda of the White House and the agenda of Fox News. And I think that is a development that is both new and, from my vantage point, slightly frightening in American politics.
GROSS: What do you find frightening about it?
SHERMAN: Well, what I find frightening about it is that we have a situation in which there's a sizable portion of the American public - whatever Robert Mueller comes up with or whatever some other sort of outside source of information is presented that is contradictory to the goals of this president, they will simply not believe it. You know, I was reporting a piece, and I attended the president's rally in Duluth, Minn., several days ago.
And, you know, just being in the hockey arena with thousands of the most loyal Trump supporters and they're hanging on every word, it really is a case of a sort of a cult of personality. And one of the ways cults are maintained is having a shared information source and belief system. And Fox News has such a hold over the Republican Party. You know, the statistics show that a sizable percentage - I don't have the specific number. But a very sizable percentage of Republican Party base voters, their primary source of news is Fox News.
And so this is one of those key reasons that I believe we have seen Republican politicians, especially in Congress - people like Speaker Paul Ryan - reluctant to challenge Donald Trump on some of his most outrageous and incendiary actions - whether it's the travel ban, the child separation policy - because the politicians know that the base of the party is getting a daily supply of programming that says that Donald Trump can do no wrong. And so the grip that Fox News has on the base of the Republican Party gives Donald Trump tremendous power. Yes, of course, there's CNN; there's the New York Times, Washington Post. There's a whole variety of other media. But when one of the political parties' voters are told on a daily basis not to believe that, it really has an outsize effect on our political system.
And so that's why I think the sort of state media analogy actually holds some validity because of the political effects that Fox has on keeping the Republican Party in line behind Donald Trump. I mean, I've had, you know, very significant Republicans tell me in private that if Fox News broke from Donald Trump, you know, you would see people on Capitol Hill also feeling comfortable breaking with him. But they don't want to do that because they know that the Fox News audience will be told that they are turncoats, they are disloyal. I mean, there are examples of the politicians that have broke with Donald Trump. They've been demonized on places like Fox News and subsequently have been basically railroaded out of the Republican Party.
GROSS: Nevertheless, you report that one Fox executive told you that when Trump calls in, he's sort of viewed as this crazy person who calls all the time.
SHERMAN: (Laughter) That's a common refrain you hear from people who either work for Donald Trump or have contact with him. His power doesn't mean they respect him. And as you mentioned, his speech patterns are often incoherent. But that said, being loyal to him and promoting programming that channels his message is very good business. A lot of the people that work at Fox News are not necessarily right-wing ideologues. You know, I've interviewed, you know, liberal Democrats who just think of it as a job and sometimes a very well-paying job.
So you know, when you are a television producer, you live and die by your ratings. Those ratings determine whether you get to live another day. And so if you know that programming a segment that is helpful to Donald Trump is going to hold your audience or expand your audience, you're just going to have that constant motivation to do that. You know, I have interviewed Fox News producers who told me that the times that they did segments that were critical of Donald Trump, the ratings would go down.
Yes, I think there's certainly an element of eye-rolling at Fox that Trump can, you know, be pretty insane. But at the end of the day, everyone knows that he is the major thing propping up their ratings.
GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman, who's a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and the author of a book about Roger Ailes and Fox News called "The Loudest Voice In The Room. And that book is being developed into a Showtime miniseries. We'll talk more about Fox News, President Trump and Trump's new Deputy Chief of Staff of Communications Bill Shine after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Vanity Fair special correspondent Gabriel Sherman, who's also the author of a book about Roger Ailes and Fox News called "The Loudest Voice In The Room." And we're talking about President Trump, his relationship to Fox News and Trump's new Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Bill Shine, who had been vice president of Fox News under Roger Ailes and was considered Ailes' enforcer and then, after Ailes left, became co-president of Fox News. He was forced out because of allegations that he helped enable a climate of sexual harassment at Fox.
Let's talk about Sean Hannity's relationship with President Trump. You've talked about how Bill Shine was Sean Hannity's producer in the early days when Hannity co-hosted a show called "Hannity & Colmes" on Fox in which Hannity was the conservative and Holmes (ph) was the liberal. And they would discuss the issues of the day from opposite points of view. So Hannity has become very close to President Trump. How would you describe their relationship now? How much do they communicate?
SHERMAN: Well, I was speaking just yesterday to a very prominent Trump adviser who was just remarking on the intensity of the Trump-Hannity relationship. And I was told just yesterday that they speak almost daily after Hannity's show, sometimes before and sometimes for up to an hour a day. And Hannity has become a de facto chief adviser, strategist/chief of staff. I mean, he recommends ideas - policy ideas, communications ideas to the president.
And just the other day, I was told by someone who had spoken with Hannity that Hannity has been telling the president that the moment that Robert Mueller issues his report to the Justice Department on the obstruction of justice case that has been - reportedly, he's supposed to deliver this summer prior to the midterm elections - that Hannity has been telling the president that that is the moment he needs to fire Robert Mueller and Ron (ph) Rosenstein because he can then go to the public and say, oh, well, this isn't obstruction. I waited till they delivered the report, and now this witch hunt needs to end.
So that's in a case where Hannity really is indulging the president's most combative and, in some cases, self-destructive impulses. And it is just really, you know, remarkable because, for much of his time at Fox News, Hannity was something of an internal punchline for being a GOP hack, of just repeating talking points. And you know, his show was moved after the 2012 election from 9 p.m., which is a very desirable timeslot, to 10 p.m., further down the lineup, because his ratings were softening. And it wasn't only until he decided to hitch himself to Donald Trump that he has had one of the most remarkable comebacks in television history, to the point where he is, I would say, amongst the three or four most powerful people in America right now.
GROSS: How often is President Trump on Sean Hannity's show?
SHERMAN: He's given him multiple interviews. Also, "Fox And Friends" is a popular outlet for the president. But yes, he does grant Hannity interviews, and Hannity gets significant behind-the-scenes access. He was over at Donald Trump's golf club in Bedminster, N.J., this past weekend, people who had lunch with him told me. And he enjoys being sort of an unofficial part of the president's West Wing staff. He plays golf with him, and there is just this back-and-forth.
And one thing that I find so remarkable is that when Trump doesn't watch "Hannity" live, he will DVR the show and watch it the next day in the small annex room off of the Oval Office where he's installed televisions. And he likes to sit with all of his newspapers watching cable news. So he's probably one of the few people in America that actually TiVos Sean Hannity and likes to watch clips of it.
GROSS: So here's something I'm thinking now. President Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, believed that presidents should not be subjected to facing criminal charges because the job's just too hard. They're too busy. You're telling us that President Trump spends an hour a day on the phone talking to Sean Hannity and then another hour watching Hannity's program.
SHERMAN: Well, there is - if you look at - I believe it was Axios reported when they got a copy of the president's schedule that there were chunks of hours of the day that were referred to as, quote, "executive time." And, you know, the president has had a well-documented obsession with television. And he retires to the residence, you know, at the end of the day, 7 or 8 o'clock and will most nights spend his night in the residence watching cable news. And so this is a large part of the Trump presidency is him engaging with television.
And I think one thing people have talked about is the president's reversal on child separation and his decision to sign an executive order to keep migrant children with their parents after for days saying he had no power to do so was a result of the fact that he had watched hours of cable news and had seen - these are heart-wrenching images of children being separated from their parents by border agents. And those visual pictures were the thing that broke through to him.
And so this president, by all accounts, doesn't really read briefing books. You know, Barack Obama would stay up late into the night reportedly reading, you know, briefing papers and writing memos. This president consumes information and dictates policy by what he sees on television. And so understanding his relationship to television and specifically Fox News and individuals like Sean Hannity, I think, is really important for people to understand how this White House works.
GROSS: So Hannity has this really close relationship with President Trump now and seems to be a kind of informal adviser to him. What kind of political background does Sean Hannity have? I mean, he's an opinion person on Fox News. We know he has opinions. What are those opinions based on in terms of education or life experience?
SHERMAN: Yeah. It's a great question. You know, Sean Hannity grew up on Long Island really as a student of right-wing talk radio. He's been wanting to be a right-wing provocateur from the time he was a teenager. He grew up listening to people like Bob Grant, who had, you know, racist and really extreme views on minorities. And Sean Hannity didn't go to college after high school. He moved out to California and was working as a house painter and a construction worker and really kind of started at the ground floor of - first at a local college radio station. Then he moved to a very local Alabama right-wing talk radio station and then slowly moved up to a bigger market in Atlanta.
And when Roger Ailes plucked him out of obscurity in '96 to be the right-wing face of this "Crossfire"-style show, you know, that's Sean Hannity's background was talk radio. I mean, he has been listening to it from the time he was a teenager. He has no policy - formal policy experience, no formal education. And so it's remarkable that somebody with that kind of background - I mean, it almost has echoes of the Elia Kazan film "A Face In The Crowd," where this kind of drifter from nowhere builds an empire through mass communications and suddenly has the ear of the president of the United States and is shaping world affairs.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. My guest is Gabriel Sherman. He's a special correspondent for Vanity Fair. He's the author of a book about Roger Ailes and Fox News called "The Loudest Voice In The Room." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY'S "25 YEARS OF RUTABAGAS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about President Trump's relationship with Fox News. And we're also talking about Trump's new deputy chief of staff, Bill Shine, who had been vice president under Roger Ailes at Fox News, then became co-president after Ailes was forced out. And then Shine himself was forced out for helping foster a climate of sexual harassment. My guest is Gabriel Sherman. He's a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and the author of a book about Ailes and Fox News called "The Loudest Voice In The Room."
So another question I want to ask you about the relationship between President Trump, his White House and Fox News has to do with Don Jr., who is divorcing his wife Vanessa and is now dating Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is one of the hosts of "The Five" on Fox News. So, you know, that would seem journalistically like a conflict of interest. She is not stepping down, at least has not yet, from that position. What impact do you think that is having?
SHERMAN: I mean, when you even raise the question of conflict of interest and Fox News, it's almost like where to begin because of, you know, the network's ties to Trump and, historically, the Republican Party. You know, I think partly the network explains this away by saying that, you know, "The Five" is an opinion/entertainment show. And she's not a, quote, "capital-J journalist." I think the lack of management at the top, there's really no one person who's strong enough in the management ranks at Fox that could go to her and get her off the air is a sign that, you know, the network is very different than the Roger Ailes era. People's loyalty at Fox, especially amongst the talent, are to Donald Trump, not to Suzanne Scott, who's the current president of Fox News.
GROSS: Fox News, I think, has been kind of bragging, like, we have our first woman CEO now. And that sounds great after dealing with a climate of sexual harassment, but she's been implicated in some of the sexual harassment climate of the past. So where does she come in in the allegations made against Roger Ailes and sexual harassment?
SHERMAN: You know, one of the ironies is that in promoting Suzanne Scott as the first woman CEO, they're making a gender and identity politics argument. And, you know, the right is supposed to hate that stuff. You know, the truth is that Suzanne Scott was for years Bill Shine's deputy. She was the one who Bill Shine groomed to succeed him. And she was, by all accounts from my reporting and others, aware of sexual harassment at the network. Women went to her and complained about sexual harassment.
I know directly from my reporting that when Gretchen Carlson was in meetings with Roger Ailes in which he was harassing her and being verbally abusive, sometimes Suzanne Scott was also attending that meeting and was there for that. Suzanne Scott was also involved in the cover-up of Laurie Luhn, the Fox News booker who was abused psychologically and sexually by Ailes for years. When Laurie Luhn had a nervous breakdown, Suzanne Scott drove her to the Warwick Hotel in midtown Manhattan, booked a room under an assumed name and basically corralled Laurie Luhn in a hotel room for six weeks so that she could kind of get better and not go public and blow the whistle.
And if I'm Suzanne Scott and I did that, I would, you know, she didn't, to my knowledge, ask questions or go public with, you know, this really shaky operation that Ailes had put her in charge of. And so the fact that she's now CEO, yes, it's a culture change because she's a woman, but she was very much a part of the Roger Ailes culture.
GROSS: So when you reported that Laurie Luhn alleged that Suzanne Scott helped cover up the sexual harassment, how did Suzanne Scott respond to that?
SHERMAN: Through a spokesperson. At the time, she denied it. And, you know, I - Laurie Luhn had extensive documentation. She let me review her nondisclosure agreements or contracts. And I found her account to be incredibly compelling and credible. So I don't really buy the denials that Suzanne Scott wasn't involved in Ailes' effort to contain Laurie Luhn.
GROSS: Well, again, in terms of the connection now between the Trump White House and Fox News, you're saying that Trump's deputy chief of staff for communications mentored the person who's now the head of Fox News.
SHERMAN: Exactly, yeah. It said - there is a direct lineage between Bill Shine and Suzanne Scott. And she did rise up, again, through the right-wing opinion ranks of the network, not the newsroom. And so there really is not - beyond her gender, there is really not much any of a culture change that I've learned.
GROSS: Well, Gabriel Sherman, thank you so much for talking with us.
SHERMAN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, covering the White House. His book about Roger Ailes and Fox News is called "The Loudest Voice In The Room." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews about omega fish oil supplements or how the mentally ill are often warehoused in prisons, or our interview with Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who used to be a leader in the militant anti-abortion movement and now has deep regrets about it, check out our podcast.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHEL CAMILO'S "THE SIDEWINDER")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this interview, Gabriel Sherman mistakenly refers to Rod Rosenstein as Ron Rosenstein.]
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHEL CAMILO'S "THE SIDEWINDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.