Chris Ruddy, the C.E.O. of Newsmax, has found a business opportunity in feeding Trump supporters the fantasy that the president could still win the election.
In 2004, Hillary Clinton was in the Senate and Christopher Ruddy had some making up to do. He was, back then, best known as “the Inspector Clouseau” of the Vince Foster case — a New York Post reporter who had popularized the baseless theory that Mrs. Clinton’s friend, who committed suicide in 1993, had been murdered.
But it now seemed possible that Mrs. Clinton might run for president, and Mr. Ruddy laid it on pretty thick. Mrs. Clinton was doing “a remarkably and surprising good job for NY as Senator,” he wrote to a mutual friend, former Mayor Ed Koch of New York. “I might not like Hillary’s liberalism, but I don’t dislike her on a personal level — as I do Rudy. Rudy Giuliani is a bad person.”
I asked an amused former Clinton aide to dredge this correspondence out of an old box because Mr. Ruddy, a Long Island-born 55-year-old, has emerged as the most audacious media entrepreneur of the Trump election fantasy. The chief executive of Newsmax and part of President Trump’s South Florida social circle, Mr. Ruddy has capitalized on the anger of Mr. Trump’s supporters at Fox News for delivering the unwelcome news, first in Arizona and then nationally, that Mr. Trump had lost his re-election campaign. On Newsmax, however, the fight is still on, the imaginary election-altering Kraken is yet to be released, Mr. Trump is striving valiantly for four more years and the ratings are incredible.
Newsmax’s prime-time ratings, which averaged 58,000 before Election Day, soared to 1.1 million afterward for its top shows, with one host, Greg Kelly, cheerleading on Twitter and on the air for “the QUEST TO COUNT all the LEGAL VOTES.” The ratings even drew a congratulatory call from Mr. Trump himself, my colleagues Michael Grynbaum and John Koblin reported last week.
But Mr. Ruddy, as those Clinton messages show, is not the sort of true-believing ideologue his viewers may imagine in the foxhole alongside them. He is, rather, perhaps the purest embodiment of another classic television type, the revenue-minded cynic for whom the substance of programming is just a path to money and power.
All successful TV programmers have some mercenary in them, of course, but even by those standards, Mr. Ruddy is extreme. He has turned Newsmax into a pure vehicle for Trumpism, attacking Fox News from the right for including occasional dissenting voices. And when Trumpism turned this month from an electoral strategy into a hallucinatory attempt to overturn the election, Mr. Ruddy saw opportunity: Newsmax, available on cable in most American households and streaming online, became the home of alternate reality.
“In this day and age, people want something that tends to affirm their views and opinions,” Mr. Ruddy told me in an interview.
He wasn’t hard to reach. Like many people who get generally, even inexplicably, friendly media coverage, the genial Mr. Ruddy is always willing to talk to the press. He is, in fact, a rare and valuable commodity: someone with real access to Mr. Trump who will tell the truth on the record. His insights — 62 quotes in The New York Times in the last four years, 61 in The Washington Post and 51 appearances on CNN — deliver what journalists crave: up-close insights about the president. He has even invited reporters to tag along to Mar-a-Lago as his guest at the president’s private club, which has been a minor irritant for President Trump’s staff, two former Trump aides told me. Not that he’s made any secret of his strategy. The fake crisis of the U.S. electoral system is “great for news,” he told The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner last week.
Mr. Ruddy is hardly alone in the sudden scramble to convert Mr. Trump’s political profile into cash.
“There are a lot of well-capitalized people circling,” said Michael Clemente, a former executive at ABC News and Fox News and former chief executive of Newsmax, who has been part of conversations as a potential leader of a new venture. He describes the proposition as a question of math, and the dominance of liberal-leaning cable channels: “Fifty percent of the country has 90 percent of the news media speaking to them.”
The noisiest effort is led by Hicks Equity Partners, the family business of a Republican National Committee co-chairman and friend of Donald Trump Jr., Thomas Hicks Jr. The Hicks group has sought to lead buyouts of both Newsmax and its smaller and stranger rival, the One America News Network. The group is also pursuing a third strategy, according to a confidential investment proposal I obtained, which would focus on culture rather than news: building “a family-friendly programming destination of broad appeal based on traditional values” by buying and merging a small “equestrian sports and lifestyle” channel and a larger one, which a person briefed on the talks identified as the small, independent Ride-TV and Great American Country, which is owned by the cable behemoth Discovery. (A spokesman for Hicks Equity Partners didn’t respond to an inquiry about a potential deal.)
Other possibilities for the president to cash in on his stature include creating a new Trump TV network from scratch, either as a television broadcast channel, a package of online video or even a way to direct cash into the Trump family political operation.
Mr. Ruddy has a head start. His main commercial advantage is the network’s distribution, which the company says puts it in 70 million of the roughly 90 million American homes that have cable, thanks to deals with the largest distributors, Comcast and AT&T. It’s a laborious, and expensive, process to get onto the cable package — even if you are, as Newsmax currently is, way up the dial. The programming is also available through a livestream on its app and on a range of newer “over-the-top” TV platforms like Roku. (OAN claims to be available in about half as many cable homes.) The process of establishing a cable network is also deeply political, as things often are in monopolistic industries: Newsmax was dropped from AT&T’s DirectTV in 2016, and restored the next year after Senator Charles E. Grassley called the move “unfair” during hearings about AT&T’s attempt to acquire Time Warner. You could imagine executives at Comcast and AT&T taking their time to make a deal with Trump TV.
But Mr. Ruddy also has a problem. His TV business, a speculative bet that could be worth billions if it can cut deeply into Fox’s audience, currently loses money. The company invested $70 million from 2014 to 2017, according to a confidential overview produced for potential investors in 2018 that one of them shared with me. And Mr. Ruddy told me Newsmax is still investing.
Those costs are partly because new channels often pay cable companies to get on TV. Mr. Ruddy declined to describe his specific arrangements with the cable providers, but said, “It’s not unusual for companies to do that when they start out.” And it’s partly because big advertisers have fled right-wing talk shows, leaving even the widely viewed prime-time shows on Fox News with less lucrative “direct response” ads for pillows and medical devices.
Newsmax has inverted the usual media business dynamic. The company is losing money on television, and making it on the internet, though Mr. Ruddy told me he expects that “revenues on cable and OTT television will be more robust and consistent than the online business for the next 10 years.”
Newsmax has built a solid, and unusual, business by catering to the 50-and-older demographic it described in the document shared with investors as “Boomers and Beyond.” The website’s voice, its big and lucrative email lists, and its products, from books to magazines to vitamin supplements, have the tone of conservative direct mail. And it’s working: The company projected its 2018 revenues at more than $59 million, divided among advertising, subscriptions and e-commerce. (One sponsor on the app last week was selling health advice, asking “Is the ‘Pandemic’ a Lie?”)
Newsmax has been raising money to finance its TV ambitions. Private equity from “a couple of investors,” Mr. Ruddy said, has paid to upgrade studios and hire figures like Mr. Kelly and the former White House press secretary Sean Spicer as the hosts of shows that replaced hours of World War II documentaries, and carry conservative radio talkers including Howie Carr from Boston. The investors, he said, are domestic, despite a Politico report (picked up on Breitbart) indicating he was in talks to raise money from Qatar. Mr. Ruddy said he sent proposals to many sovereign wealth funds, among others, but has not taken foreign investment. He blames his former rival, Stephen Bannon, for pushing the Qatar story, but such grudges are fleeting in the often-shifting alliances of the new right: Mr. Bannon’s podcast, “War Room,” is now also broadcast on Newsmax late at night on weekdays.
Newsmax now needs to raise more money, or sell fast, if it’s going to keep upgrading its talent and production quality to press its advantage with Fox News — which has begun nervously trying to block guests from appearing on the network.
When I pressed Mr. Ruddy on why he was stringing along his audience with a story he can’t, really, himself believe — that Mr. Trump won the election — he didn’t really defend it. Instead, he countered that he wasn’t the only one. “For two years, the liberal media pushed this Russian hoax theory, and there didn’t seem to be any substantiation at the end of the day and it was a pretty compelling, gripping story — controversial personalities, things happened, sparks were flying,” he said.
Newsmax continues to tell a gripping story. On Friday night, Mr. Kelly referred to Joe Biden’s “alleged victory,” hosted a long interview with Rudy Giuliani and later turned to an analyst who gave Mr. Trump a “35 to 40 percent chance that he wins this.” The 8 p.m. host, Grant Stinchfield, announced that “the momentum seems to be shifting back to the president’s favor,” and interviewed a lawyer for Mr. Trump, Jenna Ellis, and a Pennsylvania state senator trying to take back the state’s election certification.
Mr. Ruddy’s cynicism brings me back to the most trenchant attack from conservative media on the mainstream media: that journalists think conservatives are stupid. Tucker Carlson regularly tells his audience that the college-educated snobs in New York who preside over the major outlets view conservatives as unsophisticated rubes, misled by misinformation, not as people who actually believe in the ideas pushed by Mr. Trump, like immigration should be sharply curtailed. Those attacks on the media are often false, but the coastal media sometimes does fail to understand people who aren’t like them, left and right, and sometimes they patronize their audiences.
But nobody I’ve ever covered treats an audience with the blithe disdain of Mr. Ruddy. He has them watching a great story — a thriller, a whodunit — about a stolen election. He thinks they’re stupid enough to fall for it, dumb enough to keep watching even after the fantasy inevitably dissolves, buying the supplements and the books and, crucially, tuning in to channel 1115 in large enough numbers that, eventually, the cable companies will pay him.
Perhaps he actually thinks his viewers are that dumb. Or maybe he just needs them to stick around long enough for him to find someone just as cynical, but with more cash on hand, to buy him out.
Michael Cohen has profited from it, but we’re all Trumpologists now.
Christie argued that pesky journalists and amateur Trump watchers were always getting the President wrong, making it out as if there were some “Machiavellian” grand plan by Trump that could explain many otherwise seemingly unexplainable moves. “There is no strategy,” he exclaimed.
.. Several mentioned White House aides or outside advisers, such as Christie, who seem to have the ability to read Trump’s quirks and offer reliable guidance about what a President who delights in the appearance of unpredictability will actually do. One White House reporter, for example, said that Stephen Miller, the combative young aide who writes many of Trump’s speeches and has helped shape his hard-line immigration policy, was “an authentic reflection of his boss,” citing him as a helpful resource “if you’re looking to decode what Trump is really thinking.” Others mentioned informal advisers including Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, and Christopher Ruddy, the C.E.O. of Newsmax and another regular Trump phone buddy; journalists such as the Times’ Maggie Haberman and the Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti
.. “The truth is, virtually everyone who claims to know what Trump is going to do has been wrong at some point,” one sharp analyst told me. “The best indicator, in my mind, is to go back and read his core campaign pledges and speeches. Those have been far more instructive than anyone in Congress, in the Republican Party, or on his own team.”
.. “All the same traits repeat themselves now,” the correspondent wrote to me. “The grandiosity, the impatience and impulsiveness, the repeated lies.
.. At the time, other observers, less schooled in Trump, wrongly thought that the heavy responsibilities of a job for which he was ill-prepared might change him. Not the Trumpologists. “He’s the same old Trump,
.. What did it mean that the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the leader of Germany’s pro-Russia oppositionists at a time of such tensions with the West, was right there in the front row? That Putin only shook hands with three people—Schroeder, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and a splendidly attired Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill
.. Indeed, the Putin inauguration scene made the former Moscow correspondent in me realize just how much Washington these days feels like Russia.
.. Of course, there’s always an element of Kremlinology in how we cover the White House.
.. But, at least in Administrations of old, there was a process to pay attention to, meetings where actual decisions were made, policy rollouts planned in advance as a result of those decisions. “Process protects you” was a favorite line of Obama’s process-obsessed second-term chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and most of his predecessors, from Republican and Democratic Administrations alike, agreed.
.. Many of this President’s major decisions—from appointing Cabinet secretaries to pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal—are completely opaque and, in many cases, shockingly process-free.
He likes controversy, but he isn’t all that fond of conflict... He relishes stirring up controversy, and, in fact, believes stirring the pot advances his reputation as an outside agitator and improves his position by keeping adversaries off balance. But he usually keeps controversy at arm’s length, using his Twitter feed or offhand comments to attack and posture... Thus, he angrily withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, but then he walked into the very den of economic globalists at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week to say that he is prepared to negotiate a new version of it... He ordered the U.S. out of the Paris accord on climate change, but told British interviewer Piers Morgan over the weekend that, thanks in part to the personal intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron, who, “as you know, I like,” he might rejoin the accord... When he is standing apart from negotiations over a new immigration system, he denigrates his Democratic counterparts, saying they have no interest in securing the border and are “only interested” in obstruction. But in a room with congressional leaders he sounded ready to do a deal with them, and even provide political cover for those who agreed.. He also complains openly about other aides, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the White House chief of staff, John Kelly. But he then promptly backs away and praises them, as if he had never whacked the hornet’s nest in the first place. When he wants someone to leave, he is more likely to drop hints he wants them to depart on their own, or have someone else send them overboard, than to fire them himself.
.. “Donald Trump enjoys controversy and to a degree thrives on it,” says Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media and a presidential friend. “Controversy helps ratings, taking a page from his very successful showbiz career.”
.. The problem is that the president’s allies and enemies alike, at home and abroad, have a hard time figuring out where bluster ends and reality begins... Jason Miller, who was communications director for the Trump presidential campaign and remains in touch with the White House, suggests viewing the president’s approach as a “one-two negotiating tactic…Tweets are a one-way written message delivery vehicle to lay down markers, while in-person meetings are an opportunity to show progress and cooperation that get us one step closer to the desired outcome.”
President Trump reportedly ordered the dismissal of special counsel Robert Mueller last June, but backed down after White House counsel Don McGahn said he would quit rather than carry out the order, according to The New York Times and others. In Davos, the president dismissed the report as “fake news.” John Yang reports and Judy Woodruff talks to Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School.
Ms. Ingraham honed her craft in college at The Dartmouth Review, the undergraduate right-wing journal that earned national recognition (and some revulsion) for stunts that, in hindsight, presaged the antics of Breitbart reporters.
.. “All the way back to Dartmouth, I was part of the insurgency,” she said.
In an era before mainstream acceptance of homosexuality, Ms. Ingraham assigned a reporter to attend a meeting of the campus gay students’ alliance and published a transcript of the proceedings, naming names. Years later, she apologized, citing in part the experience of her gay brother and his partner, who had AIDS.
.. “Laura represents her own unique brand,” said Christopher Ruddy, who runs Newsmax, a Fox News competitor. “She comes out of the milieu of talk radio, where the economics of that business have driven a lot of hosts who were moderately conservative to be a little edgier.”
.. She had been encouraged to back Mr. Brat by a producer, Julia Hahn, who went on to write for Breitbart and now works in the White House.
.. Asked if she is bringing a Breitbart viewership to Fox News, Ms. Ingraham responded: “I wouldn’t call it a Breitbart audience. I would call it America.”
“I like Tom Wolfe’s description of the country,” she continued. “There’s America. The coasts are like the parentheses. In between is the country.”
Mr. Trump’s West Wing aides, like President Bill Clinton’s staff two decades before, say they sometimes cringe at the input from people they can’t control, with consequences they can’t predict. Knowing these advisers — who are mostly white, male and older — is a key to figuring out the words coming from Mr. Trump’s mouth and his Twitter feed.
.. Sean Hannity
Presidents always deploy surrogates to appear on television to spout their talking points, but Mr. Trump has expanded on that by developing relationships with sympathetic media figures like Mr. Hannity who also serve as advisers. Mr. Hannity, the Fox News host, defends Mr. Trump’s most controversial behavior in public, but privately, according to people close to Mr. Trump, he urges the president not to get distracted, and advises him to focus on keeping pledges like repealing the Affordable Care Act.
.. Chris Ruddy
The chief executive of Newsmax Media is a longtime Mar-a-Lago member and was a Trump cheerleader among conservative media well before the website Breitbart joined the parade. He employs writers and editors who tracked Mr. Trump’s career when they were at The New York Post.
.. Sheri A. Dillon
Ms. Dillon seemed out of place when she spoke at a too-large lectern in the lobby of Trump Tower on Jan. 11, describing the steps Mr. Trump planned to take to separate himself from his business. But Ms. Dillon, an ethics lawyer who worked out a highly criticized plan for Mr. Trump to retain ownership of his company but step back from running it, has repeatedly counseled the president about the business and made at least one White House visit.
.. Corey Lewandowski
Despite his “you’re fired” slogan, the president dislikes dismissing people. Mr. Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s hot-tempered first campaign manager, was fired in June but never really went away. A New England-bred operative whose working-class roots and clenched-teeth loyalty earned him Mr. Trump’s trust, he continued to be in frequent phone contact with Mr. Trump until the election and beyond. Friends of Mr. Lewandowski say that he can see the windows of the White House residence from his lobbying office on Pennsylvania Avenue, and that the view is even better during his visits to the West Wing
.. Thomas Barrack Jr.
Mr. Trump divides the people around him into broad categories: family, paid staff and wealthy men like Mr. Barrack whom he considers peers.
.. Under Mr. Barrack’s leadership, Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee raised a record $106.7 million, much of it from big corporations, banks and Republican megadonors like the Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Mr. Barrack also helped usher Paul Manafort, the international political operative now under scrutiny for his ties to Russia, into the Trump fold last year.
.. Phil Ruffin
Mr. Trump has 20-odd business partners, but none is closer to him than Mr. Ruffin, 82, a Texas billionaire who has lent his ear and private jet. The president was best man at the 2008 wedding of Mr. Ruffin to his third wife, a 26-year-old model and former Miss Ukraine. Mr. Ruffin has a knack for showing up when Mr. Trump needs him most and remains a die-hard defender.
.. Carl Icahn
Rounding out Mr. Trump’s roster of wealthy octogenarians is this 81-year-old corporate raider and real estate mogul, who occupies perhaps the most respected perch in the president’s circle of businessmen buddies. The affection is longstanding: The Queens-bred Mr. Icahn has known Mr. Trump and his family for decades. It’s also numerical: Mr. Icahn is worth an estimated $16 billion, a major plus in the eyes of a president who keeps score. Mr. Icahn serves as a free-roving economic counselor and the head of Mr. Trump’s effort to reduce government regulations on business.
Mrs. Trump is uninterested in the limelight, but she has remained a powerful adviser by telephone from New York. Among her roles: giving Mr. Trump feedback on media coverage, counseling him on staff choices and urging him, repeatedly, to tone down his Twitter feed. Lately, he has listened closely, and has a more disciplined Twitter finger.
Mr. Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and palace gatekeeper, has shown a capacity to hobble his rivals, but few have been finished off. The most durable has been Mr. Christie, whose transition planning, several West Wing aides now concede, should not have been discarded.