Gabe Sherman writes that Donald Trump “was able to do something that no other Republican has done before: take on Fox News” because he has dirt on Roger Ailes from a former employee.
As early as 1987, Trump talked publicly about his desire to run for president. He toyed with mounting a campaign in 2000 on the Reform Party ticket, and again in 2012 as a Republican (this was at the height of his Obama birtherism). Two years later, Trump briefly explored running for governor of New York as a springboard to the White House. “I have much bigger plans in mind — stay tuned,” he tweeted in March 2014.
Trump taped another season of The Apprentice that year, but he kept a political organization intact. His team at the time consisted of three advisers: Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, and Sam Nunberg. Stone is a veteran operative, known for his gleeful use of dirty tricks and for ending Eliot Spitzer’s political career by leaking his patronage of prostitutes to the FBI. Cohen is Trump’s longtime in-house attorney. And Nunberg is a lawyer wired into right-wing politics who has long looked up to “Mr. Trump,” as he calls him. “I first met him at WrestleMania when I was like 5 years old,” Nunberg told me.
Throughout 2014, the three fed Trump strategy memos and political intelligence. “I listened to thousands of hours of talk radio, and he was getting reports from me,” Nunberg recalled. What those reports said was that the GOP base was frothing over a handful of issues including immigration, Obamacare, and Common Core. While Jeb Bush talked about crossing the border as an “act of love,” Trump was thinking about how high to build his wall. “We either have borders or we don’t,” Trump told the faithful who flocked to the annual CPAC conference in 2014.
Meanwhile, Trump used his wealth as a strategic tool to gather his own intelligence. When Citizens United president David Bossie or GOP chairman Reince Priebus called Trump for contributions, Trump used the conversations as opportunities to talk about 2016. “Reince called Trump thinking they were talking about donations, but Trump was asking him hard questions,” recalled Nunberg. From his conversations with Priebus, Trump learned that the 2016 field was likely to be crowded. “We knew it was going to be like a parliamentary election,” Nunberg said.
Which is how Trump’s scorched-earth strategy coalesced. To break out of the pack, he made what appears to be a deliberate decision to be provocative, even outrageous. “If I were totally presidential, I’d be one of the many people who are already out of the race,” Trump told me. And so, Trump openly stoked racial tensions and appealed to the latent misogyny of a base that thinks of Hillary as the world’s most horrible ballbuster.
It was also thanks to some information he had gathered that Trump was able to do something that no other Republican has done before: take on Fox News. An odd bit of coincidence had given him a card to play against Fox founder Roger Ailes. In 2014, I published a biography of Ailes, which upset the famously paranoid executive. Several months before it landed in stores, Ailes fired his longtime PR adviser Brian Lewis, accusing him of being a source. During Lewis’s severance negotiations, Lewis hired Judd Burstein, a powerhouse litigator, and claimed he had “bombs” that would destroy Ailes and Fox News. That’s when Trump got involved.
“When Roger was having problems, he didn’t call 97 people, he called me,” Trump said. Burstein, it turned out, had worked for Trump briefly in the ’90s, and Ailes asked Trump to mediate. Trump ran the negotiations out of his office at Trump Tower. “Roger had lawyers, very expensive lawyers, and they couldn’t do anything. I solved the problem.” Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak. If Ailes ever truly went to war against Trump, Trump would have the arsenal to launch a retaliatory strike.
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