President Donald Trump received at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s businesses through a series of massive and at times fraudulent tax-dodging inheritance schemes -- in sharp contrast to the image he has painted of himself as a self-made billionaire. That’s the takeaway from The New York Times’ devastating 18-month investigation, based on a trove of more than 100,000 pages of documents related to the Trump family’s real estate empire, that was published online yesterday and splashed across eight pages of today’s paper.
Unless, of course, you work at Fox News, the right-wing network that spins an alternate reality for Trump’s core supporters.
Several commentators at the Trump-friendly network have explained away the Times’ damning reporting, arguing that the story was a hatchet job from a biased outlet that shows no wrongdoing and in fact proves the president both savvy and virtuous. And those were the commentators who actually bothered to tell their viewers the story existed. Most Fox programs between 3 p.m. yesterday and 9 a.m. this morning -- including its entire prime-time lineup -- completely ignored the report. Only Shep Smith, whose reporting frequently contradicts the commentary of others at his network, discussed what he termed an “exhaustive” story in detail without dismissing it during that period.
Neil Cavuto, who hosts the show immediately following Smith’s, used his platform to explain why the Times report actually wasn’t a big deal -- merely evidence of the president’s financial and public relations acumen. The Your World host downplayed the report as merely describing “a little bit of creative accounting,” and concluded, “I don’t know if there’s a there there, outside of the fact that the president benefited from having a rich father and a good marketing skill.” He later added that the Trumps’ tax schemes were not “deemed ultimately illegal” by the Internal Revenue Service, concluding that the Trumps “were just pretty clever and outdodged” the IRS.
Beyond arguing that Trump had done nothing wrong, Cavuto warned his audience that the story could telegraph that special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe could end up targeting the president’s “business dealings running a privately held company,” which he argued would mean that the investigation had “veer[ed] wildly off course.”
At no point did Cavuto, who oversees the network’s coverage of business news, delve into either the details of the tax schemes revealed in the Times article or the sheer breadth of the newspaper’s reporting.
For the rest of the day, the network all but ignored the story. It didn’t come up on the afternoon panel show The Five. Special Report, Fox’s flagship evening news broadcast, devoted all of 30 seconds to it. Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham did not mention the story at all on their programs. If your only source of news is Fox’s prime-time lineup, you do not know that the report exists. The story garnered news briefs on Shannon Bream’s 11 p.m. program and on Fox & Friends First before dawn the next morning.
By the time Fox & Friends rolled around Wednesday morning, the president’s favorite morning show hosts had settled on a response. They were quick to dismiss the Times article as a nothingburger that cruelly targeted the president’s father.
“Do you want to know personal risk? This is personal risk. Fifty years of his businesses is now in the front page of The New York Times,” Brian Kilmeade said during the program’s first hour, holding up a copy of the paper. For Kilmeade, the article demonstrated not that Trump had engaged in decades of shady behavior, but that “there's no financial benefit for Donald Trump running for president.” Steve Doocy replied by mocking the Times for “essentially” calling the Trumps “a crime family,” while Ainsley Earhardt chimed in to criticize the paper for “bashing his dad who's been dead for a very long time.”
Two hours later, the Fox & Friends hosts briefly returned to the story in order to stoke their audience’s grievances about the media. Kilmeade said the story is in line with what he termed efforts by journalists to “run the president down” on his ties to Russia and his racist comments, concluding, “They're doing everything they can to try to pry Donald Trump loose from his voters.” “But you know what?” Doocy responded. “They’ve tried that from day one. And here we are, close to coming up close to two years, ... he’s still there.”
Fox’s effort to hide the rampant criminality exposed by the Times demonstrates that the right-wing media bubble remains intact, with millions of voters learning about politics through loyal pro-Trump propagandists who are devoted to delegitimizing or ignoring any information that undermines his presidency.