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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

How Roger Ailes and another adviser changed Donald Trump from a caricature into a movement

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In October 2015, a handful of reporters and consultants were transforming Donald Trump into the presidential nominee he would eventually be.

Soon after The New York Times published a story in June 2016 detailing the “Art of the Deal” phenomenon, Roger Ailes, the media executive who created that once-shocking brand of political conservatism, and Meredith McIver, a novice who would become his top political adviser, began trying to mold Mr. Trump into the nominee they long had envisioned for him. Ailes, who died Wednesday, was a bully who once lobbied actor Robin Williams to “be more like Simon Cowell” on the reality TV show “American Idol.” McIver had been a staff secretary in the Senate before taking a different path to the inside of the Trump campaign.

Ailes, both in person and on screen, seemed intent on getting Mr. Trump to behave like one of his punching bags. That he ran from the words “anchor babe” in one of his “Art of the Deal” memoirs seemed like a challenge he had risen to quickly, and he kept it up long after Mr. Trump had abandoned the ghostwriter. When CNBC host Maria Bartiromo asked Mr. Trump on June 16, 2016, how he would treat women if he became president, he shot back that women were “lazy,” and pledged to fight for what he described as their “right to be a little bit promiscuous.”

McIver, who had a reputation as a calm and unflappable type who shrugged off the combative nature of Trump, was responsible for trimming the bluster and spelling out Mr. Trump’s political ambitions in her first meeting with him. But after his son Donald Jr. fluffed the opening lines of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on his father’s behalf, the incoming candidate seemed unable to hold his own. He joked about Democrats with a “crooked Hillary” line and belittled female Morning Joe anchors as “sleazy.”

And so, less than two weeks into the campaign, McIver was gone. He could no longer afford her former salary.

All this has occurred while the world watches Mr. Trump feed more and more of his reactions into nightly coverage as his performance on the campaign trail — and his riffs and improvisations as he is interviewed — get more volatile and melodramatic. These videos show him saying “shit” or “shithole” to a black reporter or woman, reciting bad historical sentences to a crowd, lying through his teeth or simply sounding like a crank.

There was a time when such crudeities and unforced errors were first seen and reported in videotaped form as sporadic moments of weakness that would be quickly excised from the story and history. Now, hours after the latest outrageous Trump moment, it is news.

After McIver resigned, Ailes hired Alan Colmes, the conservative radio host who lost his job last year when Fox News ultimately concluded it could afford to justify canceling his show while keeping others on. To many, it seemed like a sign of Ailes’s declining control.

Ailes had long loved to troll conservatives by taking on more liberal and intellectual ones. So it was little surprise that Breitbart News, an organization devoted to purveying Trumpism, selected him to moderate its discussion of the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

After the comment came to light, Sanders supporters gave the version of the interview with Ailes that he gave Breitbart a rough time. It was essentially the same Breitbart story that was falsely reported in October 2016 as evidence of an alleged tape of Mr. Trump making lewd remarks to women. The stories sent the Breitbart story, and the Ailes interview, to the news cycle in a single day.

It was embarrassing for Trump’s staff. McIver, who had complained about Breitbart to reporters, appeared on television to denounce the news site as fake, and was then suspended. Ailes did not return to Breitbart, but the site celebrated his death, saying that it was “sometimes hard for the boys to see his truth.”

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