A defamation lawsuit against Fox News alleges a tight relationship between right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump’s campaign while the now-former president’s allies and attorneys frequently appeared on the network to promote his baseless narrative that the 2020 presidential election was rigged against him.
Court documents with uncovered emails and sworn depositions in the case have revealed Mr Murdoch providing Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, with what allegedly amounted to campaign advice, magnifying the network’s intially-reluctant alliance with the former president.
Mr Murdoch, the executive chairman of the Fox Corporation, admitted in a sworn deposition that he gave Mr Kushner a preview of a campaign advert from then-candidate Joe Biden’s campaign and appeared to offer him debate strategy to pass along to Mr Trump.
“Do you think it is appropriate for someone in your position to give a heads up to the opposing campaign about what the ad of the opposing campaign will show before it is public?” an attorney for voting machine company Dominion Voting Systems asked Mr Murdoch, according to court filings.
“I was trying to help Mr Kushner,” Mr Murdoch said. “He’s a friend of mine.”
A series of bombshell filings from Dominion in the company’s $1.6bn defamation lawsuit against Fox News have revealed that the network’s top personalities, producers and executives largely rejected bogus claims surrounding the 2020 election in their off-air conversations despite amplifying those statements in programming across the network.
The lawsuit pieces together testimony and messages from Fox News employees to argue that the network – fearing losing viewers to rival right-wing networks – routinely aired evidence-free claims about election “irregularities” to keep viewers enthralled with conspiracy theories against their own private admissions that, in their words, were “nonsense” and “bull****”.
Mr Murdoch admitted in testimony that Fox News personalities including Maria Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro “endorsed at times this false notion of a stolen election,” according to court documents.
“I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight,” according to Mr Murdoch’s deposition.
Mr Murdoch was asked whether he believes “that the 2020 presidential election was free and fair.”
“Yes,” he replied. “The election was not stolen.”
The lawsuit filings shed some light on the relationship between Mr Murdoch and Mr Kushner, a one-time media executive of his own, after he purchased weekly New York Observer newspaper for $10m in 2006. Mr Kusher, who is married to Ivanka Trump, stepped down from the publishing business in 2017 after he entered the White House to work for his father-in-law.
In 2016, the newspaper endorsed Mr Trump.
“Donald Trump is the father-in-law of the Observer’s publisher. That is not a reason to endorse him,” according to the Observer’s Republican primary endorsement in 2016. “Giving millions of disillusioned Americans a renewed sense of purpose and opportunity is.”
The newspaper did not make an endorsement in the general election.
But by then, Mr Kushner’s personal interventions to boost his father-in-law’s campaign on America’s most-watched cable network had already paid dividends. Mr Kushner wrote in his memoir that he stopped Mr Trump from attacking Mr Murdoch at the onset of his pivot into the presidential race in 2015.
“Trump called me,” Mr Kushner wrote. “He’d clearly had enough. ‘This guy’s no good. And I’m going to tweet it.’”
He added: “‘Please, you’re in a Republican primary,’ I said, hoping he wasn’t about to post a negative tweet aimed at the most powerful man in conservative media. ‘You don’t need to get on the wrong side of Rupert. Give me a couple of hours to fix it.’”
Mr Trump and Mr Murdoch were not close; his flagship newspaper The Wall Street Journal called him a “catastrophe” and his New York Post declared him “toast.” After his entry into the presidential race and a racist statement about Mexicans, Mr Murdoch wrote on Twitter: “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?”
One week later, after The New York Times described Mr Murdoch’s comments about him, a furious Trump threatened to tweet his attacks on the media giant.
“I called Rupert and told him I had to see him,” Mr Kushner wrote.
He added: “‘Rupert, I think he could win,’ I said, as we sat in his office. ‘You guys agree on a lot of the issues. You want smaller government. You want lower taxes. You want stronger borders.’
Mr Kushner said Mr Murdoch called him the next day to ask “What does Donald want?”
In his deposition in the Dominion case, Mr Murdoch initially denied that he had provided Mr Kushner with previews of Biden campaign adverts that were scheduled to air on the network. But when pressed by an attorney for Dominion who presented emails between them, Mr Murdoch appeared to change his answer.
In a message on 25 September 2020 included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, Mr Murdoch told Mr Kushner that an upcoming Trump ad was “an improvement.” He also noted that an upcoming spot from the Biden campaign would run “in the same football” game.
“Will send it,” he added.
“You were trying to help the Trump campaign by giving him a preview of the Biden campaign’s ads before it was public?” Dominion attorney Justin Nelson asked him.
“Right,” Mr Murdoch answered. “I guess so.”
A statement from a Fox spokesperson to The Daily Beast said that Mr Murdoch forwarded Mr Kushner “an already-publicly available Biden campaign ad which was available on YouTube and had even run on public airwaves.”
The statement added that Dominion relied on “distortions and misinformation” for its case, characterized by a spokesperson as an attempt to “smear” the network and “trample on free speech and freedom of the press.”
Mr Murdoch also discussed an upcoming debate between Mr Biden and Mr Trump ahead of Election Day in 2020.
“Sir, as the next debate approached, you told Mr. Kushner that it was really important that Trump must not look like a bully, right?” Mr Nelson asked.
“I’m sure,” Mr Murdoch replied. “Look, I just want to say this: That was advice from a friend to a friend. It wasn’t advice from Fox Corporation or in my capacity at Fox.”
The Fox Corp chairman disagreed that his communications amounted to campaign advice.
“No,” Murdoch said. “I only remember myself being horrified at Mr. Trump’s behavior in the first debate.”
Mr Murdoch also appeared to tip off Mr Kushner to “more stuff on Biden” that would be published, a likely reference to The New York Post’s controversial story on Mr Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
On Election Day, the network correctly predicted that Mr Biden won the state of Arizona, a decision that high-profile Fox stars privately lambasted, with hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity warning that the race call would destroy the network’s credibility with viewers.
That night, Mr Kushner called Mr Murdoch.
“This is terrible,” Mr Murdoch remembered him saying, according to court filings.
“And I could hear Trump’s voice in the background shouting,” Mr Murdoch said. “And I said, ‘Well, the numbers are the numbers.’”
Mr Murdoch “would not help with the Arizona call” and “refused to budge,” according to Dominion’s filing.
“I said, ‘Well, the numbers are the numbers,’” the filing quotes Mr Murdoch as saying.
Arizona was central to the Trump campaign’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, a campaign that emboldened far-right conspiracy theorists and the state’s elected officials to join spurious legal bids and so-called audits to undermine the outcome.
Despite Mr Murdoch’s apparent support for the network’s correct prediction that Mr Biden won the state, Fox leadership met days after Election Day over concerns of “mounting viewer backlash” over the Arizona call. Network leadership appeared to agree to provide a platform for “wild claims” that the election was stolen from Mr Trump because “positive impressions of Fox News” among its viewers “dropped precipitously after Election Day to the lowest levels” the network had seen, according to court documents.
At one point, Mr Murdoch suggested that longtime Fox News vice president Bill Sammon should be “[let] go right away” – despite the network’s accuracy on the Arizona call – to send “a big message with Trump people,” according to court documents.
Mr Sammon, the network’s senior vice president and managing editor in Washington, announced his retirement in January 2021.
Weeks earlier, in a 19 November 2020 email to an associate, Mr Murdoch wrote that Mr Trump’s “stupid and damaging” fraud claims made him “increasingly mad” and a “danger” as president.
“Apparently not sleeping and bouncing off walls! Don’t know about Melania, but kids no help,” Mr Murdoch wrote.
The revelations prompted a pair of progressive groups to file civil complaints with the Federal Elections Commission, arguing that the Fox chairman’s communications amounted to illegal contributions to the Trump campaign.
Filings from a pair of progressive groups with the Federal Election Commission argue that Fox Corporation made illegal contributions to the Trump campaign by providing otherwise non-public information outside of its ostensible function as a media company.
Maximum penalties for such violations could include five-year prison sentences and financial penalties up to 200 per cent of the value of the contribution, according to progressive campaign finance reform group End Citizens United PAC.
The group’s filing argues that Mr Murdoch’s communication with Mr Kushner “constitutes a corporate contribution, which – because Fox was not acting with a legitimate press function – is a violation of federal law.”
“This was not only unethical behavior by Rupert Murdoch and Fox, it is also a clear violation of the law designed to tip the scales of a presidential election,” End Citizens United president Tiffany Muller said in a statement.
“She price tag for such information cannot be quantified,” she added. “It very well could have tilted the results of the election.”
Media Matters, a left-leaning right-wing media watchdog group, argued in its filing with the FEC that Fox Corporation was “not acting as a press entity” when Mr Murdoch provided Mr Trump’s campaign with Biden adverts.
The group argues that Mr Murdoch’s actions fail the FEC’s two-factor test to determine whether Fox was acting within a legitimate press function.
“First, the Biden advertisements had not aired at the time that Murdoch provided information about it to the Committee and, therefore, the material was not available to the general public,” Media Matters argues.
“Second, Murdoch provided the Biden advertisements and information to the Committee through a private, and secret, direct communication,” the filing added. “This ‘distribution’ is diametrically opposed to Fox Corporation’s regular press activity broadcasting news programming through television and radio outlets and online publications.”
Mr Murdoch’s “secret conveyance” with Mr Kushner “is even less like press activity than a cablecasting company sending campaign flyers in its bills – and neither can be protected by the press exemption,” the group argues.
“Fox Corporation cannot try to exploit the press exemption to avoid the consequences of making an illegal corporate in-kind contribution,” the filing states.
A spokesperson for Fox has argued that Dominion has “cherry-picked” out-of-context statements to assemble its case.
“Dominion’s lawsuit has always been more about what will generate headlines than what can withstand legal and factual scrutiny, as illustrated by them now being forced to slash their fanciful damages demand by more than half a billion dollars after their own expert debunked its implausible claims,” according to statement from a Fox spokesperson to The Independent.
“Their summary judgment motion took an extreme, unsupported view of defamation law that would prevent journalists from basic reporting and their efforts to publicly smear Fox for covering and commenting on allegations by a sitting President of the United States should be recognized for what it is: a blatant violation of the First Amendment,” the statement added.