Trump’s Return to Fox News Gets a Cool Reception … on Fox News

Reunions can be awkward.

Former President Donald J. Trump finally returned this week to his old stomping ground, Fox News, after several months away. The chilly reception from some of his one-time media allies underscored his uneasy place at the moment in Republican politics.

Yes, Sean Hannity, the Fox News anchor who conducted the interview, listened patiently as Mr. Trump reeled off his usual talking points about the “fake news media” and “horrible” Democrats. The former president said Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a potential rival for the Republican presidential nomination, would be toiling “at a pizza parlor” without his endorsement. And he concluded with the grim assessment that “our country is dead.”

But while Fox News and Mr. Trump existed for years in a kind of symbiosis — with on-air personalities effusively praising Mr. Trump, and benefiting from big ratings for his frequent appearances — the network is no longer the all-encompassing Trump safe space it used to be.

Rupert Murdoch has used media properties like Fox News to promote Mr. DeSantis as a potential savior of the Republican Party. Until this week, Mr. Trump had not appeared on a Fox News broadcast since declaring his candidacy in November. And minutes after Mr. Trump’s interview aired, network personalities were taking the former president to task.

Laura Ingraham, whose prime-time program directly follows “Hannity,” was once so close to Mr. Trump that she attended his election night party in November 2020. On her Monday show, she allowed the New York Post columnist Miranda Devine to criticize Mr. Trump for “complaining endlessly about the past” and “constantly dwelling on grievance.”

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When her other guest, the Trump loyalist Stephen Miller, loudly interjected that the former president “has put forward a new policy plan every week,” Ms. Ingraham sounded skeptical of his argument. “Why isn’t he talking about them?” she asked Mr. Miller.

The next morning, Jason Chaffetz, a former Republican congressman turned Fox News contributor, denounced Mr. Trump’s performance as “absolutely horrific.”

“I voted for Donald Trump twice, I have defended him countless times; I thought he was horrific,” Mr. Chaffetz said. “I think that was the worst interview I’ve seen the president do.” He went on to criticize the former president for “whining,” “complaining” and playing “the victim card.” Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade, two of the co-hosts of the morning show “Fox & Friends,” also knocked Mr. Trump’s performance.

Nielsen ratings — one of Mr. Trump’s preferred metrics — provided their own kind of tough review. In past years, a Trump interview would almost always deliver Fox News’s biggest audience of the day. On Monday, Mr. Trump drew 3.04 million viewers, higher than the average episode of “Hannity,” but well below that day’s viewership for “The Five” and “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

With a defamation suit against Fox News filed by Dominion Voting Systems hurtling toward a trial, it was notable that Mr. Hannity’s interview with Mr. Trump was pretaped. Mr. Trump’s baseless claims about a “rigged” 2020 election are central to the Dominion case; a live appearance by Mr. Trump in which he repeats those claims could be hazardous for the network. It could also put a Fox News anchor in the awkward position of having to contradict Mr. Trump on-air, the kind of exchange that could easily go viral and turn off some of the network’s viewers.

Mr. DeSantis, meanwhile, continues to rely on Fox News and other Murdoch properties for his major media appearances, even as his absence from other conservative-friendly outlets like Breitbart News has come under new scrutiny.

Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News star who now hosts a successful podcast, revealed to listeners this week that Mr. DeSantis has been ducking her invitations.

“I love Piers Morgan, he’s a pal of mine, but why would you go sit with the British guy and not come on this show?” Ms. Kelly said on her program, referring to Mr. DeSantis’s recent interview with the London-based Mr. Morgan.

“I will venture to say he’s afraid,” Ms. Kelly added. “I’m just going to put it out there: he’s afraid because he knows the kind of interview that I would give him. He’s not going to get a pass.”

The Florida governor avoids most one-on-one interactions with the mainstream media. Other than a recent appearance on Eric Bolling’s Newsmax program, Mr. DeSantis has leaned extensively on venues controlled by Mr. Murdoch, even those based overseas. He gave an interview to The Times of London. Mr. Morgan is based at TalkTV, a British network owned by Mr. Murdoch, although his DeSantis interview aired on the streaming channel Fox Nation and was excerpted by The New York Post.

It has not been lost on Mr. Trump’s allies that Mr. DeSantis’s poll numbers have softened at a moment when he is enjoying mostly sympathetic coverage from Fox News.

And there are subtle signs that Mr. DeSantis may not always be able to bank on the network’s good graces. On Tuesday, Jesse Watters, a co-host of “The Five,” offered some advice to the Florida governor in the wake of Mr. Trump’s attacks.

“DeSantis is taking a bruising,” Mr. Watters said. “If I were Ron, I would start talking. Because every day that goes by, Trump draws blood.” He added: “How many more weeks and months is this going to sustain itself? Ron’s got to come out and say something, or else he’s just going to limp into this primary.”

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