Where do President Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch stand right now?
The relationship between the president and the 21st Century Fox executive chairman has alternated between tumultuous and friendly over the last few decades. But three unflattering stories that appeared in Murdoch-owned papers during the course of a week have raised new questions about whether the media mogul is distancing himself from an increasingly unpopular political figure — and why.
One theory: "There is the beginnings of a fall-out" between Trump and Murdoch, spurred by Sinclair Broadcast Group's May 8 deal to snap up Tribune Media for $3.9 billion, a Washington, D.C.-based individual active in Republican circles and familiar with the president's and key adviser's thinking told The Hollywood Reporter.
Trump, this individual argued, has essentially greenlit the deal, which Murdoch disproves of for competitive reasons. The merger, if approved, would put a large swath of the local television market under Sinclair's control.
"He was surprised that Trump is letting it go through," the individual said of Murdoch, who this person said is no longer speaking to Trump as frequently as he once was. "I hear he's pretty upset with the president."
The theory goes that Trump feels responsible to Sinclair for giving him favorable coverage that helped secure him the election, though this Republican insider said that Sinclair's impact has been overblown. "The Trumps have been sold a bill of goods by Sinclair that somehow they were super important to his election," the person said.
On July 11, the New York Post editorial board concluded that "Donald Trump Jr. is an idiot." On July 15, the News Corp. U.K. publication The Sun reported on an embarrassing conversation between Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. The biggest blow came July 17 in the form of a brutal Wall Street Journal editorial that argued that Trump "and his family seem oblivious to the brutal realities of Washington politics."
"These are significant gestures against the Trump presidency," said David McKnight, a University of New South Wales professor who wrote the 2012 book Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power. "The other significant thing is that the timing of the criticism is synchronized across both the U.S. and the U.K., and that suggests a change of mind is underway by Murdoch's inner circle."
Two longtime Murdoch watchers threw some water on the idea that these three pieces can be read as part of an effort by the Murdoch family to express displeasure with President Trump.
"Souring is possible, but not yet proven," said Rodney Tiffen, the author of Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment. He pointed out that Murdoch, in the past, has been willing to criticize associates of politicians he supports. Two of the three critical pieces dealt mostly with Trump's oldest son, Donald Jr.
Australian business journalist Neil Chenoweth said "it's too early to tell" whether there's tension between Trump and Murdoch, and said that recent changes in the power structure at Murdoch's company make things even more opaque.
"If it's a message to Trump, the question is who is it from?" he asked. "Is it from Rupert, or from James and Lachlan, who actually run the joint these days (though James run 21st Fox, not News Corp.)? How much input does Rupert actually have these days?"
Chenoweth, the author of three books on Murdoch, ventured a guess: "If the three articles are part of a new News Corp. position, that's the kind of strategy that smacks of James Murdoch. He has done stuff like that in the past, for example when he was working to destabilize Roger Ailes when he was in London. But James has no actual role at News, and not much interest. That puts Lachlan in the frame. Maybe."
A News Corp. spokesperson declined comment.