A trove of Treasury Department emails released to the non-profit organization Democracy Forward and provided exclusively to The Hollywood Reporter this week paint a picture of a close, friendly bond between the Trump administration agency and two news organizations, Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network.
The 270 pages of email correspondence were obtained as part of a Freedom of Information Act request and detail conversations that took place in 2017 and 2018. While many of the emailed messages were standard fare for the television news business, dealing with the onerous logistics of coordinating newsmaker interviews, some revealed an unusual closeness between the agency and the networks.
On April. 25, 2017, Fox Business Network host David Asman appeared to advise then-Treasury Department spokesman Tony Sayegh (a former Fox News contributor) on how the administration should pursue a key policy goal: achieving a major tax cut. After sharing a quote from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Asman wrote in the email, “Take the BIG TAX CUTS NOW … a long-term deal with small cuts is useless. NOTHING IS PERMANENT IN WASHINGTON. Big tax cuts now give the economy the push it needs.”
After Sayegh thanked Asman for “these thoughts,” the Fox Business host congratulated him on his recent Trump administration appointment. “How exciting!” he wrote. “This is a great chapter of your life, Tony. Congrats!” (“Thanks David!” Sayegh responded. “Miss all of you up there.”)
Four days later, Asman wrote to Sayegh to tell him that a significant block of a Fox Business show would focus on the administration’s tax policies. “You’ll like it,” Asman told him. “Awesome David,” Sayegh wrote back. “You’re the man.”
Around the same time, Fox News Radio White House correspondent Jon Decker sent Sayegh a friendly email to propose a meeting and invite him to a party at the Carnegie Library as his guest. “I’ve seen you more often in one week — than I saw you all last year!” he wrote. “I was hoping to meet up with you as soon as you are available. I have a favor to ask of you.” (Sayegh could not make the party. “What is it all about,” he wrote back.)
Adam Shapiro, who worked at the time as a Fox Business Network correspondent (he left to join Yahoo Finance as an anchor), also wrote glowingly to Sayegh after meeting him in person and said he would play down an earlier estimate by Mnuchin of when a tax reform bill would be passed. “Tony, thanks for making time for me yesterday,” he wrote in April 2017. “I candidly shared with my producer the need to be fair and not batter Secretary Mnuchin with the old soundbite about the August TAX reform goal. It’s old news. Never hesitate to contact me if my team gets anything wrong or is unfair.”
In November 2017, a senior Fox News booker emailed Sayegh and requested a tour of the Treasury department for his colleague (and guests) — “not a big tour needed, but hopefully be able to see the good stuff :).”
A few months earlier, in March 2017, Sayegh and Treasury aide Jason Chung intervened to seek changes to a Fox Business network article that was written based on an interview Sayegh gave to host Maria Bartiromo. Chung asked the author of the article to make several changes — including to the headline — and asked, “Can you send out an amended tweet from the @FoxBusiness account?” The reporter agreed, writing, “Jason, I just did exactly what you asked me to do.”
Seth Unger, still the deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at Treasury, also asked a Fox News producer to change a network promo and online news story to refer to the secretary as “Steven” Mnuchin, not “Steve” Mnuchin. “I’m sure it will be an ongoing struggle,” Unger wrote. The Steven/Steve issue was not quickly resolved — in January 2018, a Treasury aide bugged the network again in a email with a subject line “Chyron.”
“The Trump administration is a revolving door for Fox News personalities and our documents expose the network as the administration’s communications arm,” Democracy Forward said in a statement to THR. “Trump administration officials revising Fox News tweets and Fox News rewriting stories to suit the administration’s whims isn’t journalism, it’s propaganda.”
The Freedom of Information Act request also covered similarly friendly correspondence between the Treasury Department and conservative news organizations like Breitbart News and The Daily Caller.
On Aug. 29, 2017, Breitbart economics editor John Carney wrote to Sayegh and asked for help. “Tony, anything you can share on tax reform or tomorrow’s speech?” he asked. “I’d really like to have a few good details to use to counter stuff MSM [mainstream media] is already churning out to attack POTUS.” (“Will see what we can do,” Sayegh responded.)
In November 2018, a batch of Environmental Protection Agency emails obtained by the Sierra Club and provided to The Daily Beast revealed that a Fox News producer asked an agency spokesman in 2017 to approve a partial script for a segment featuring then-administrator Scott Pruitt. Fox News said in a statement at the time that “this is not standard practice whatsoever and the matter is being addressed internally with those involved,” and the network told the Associated Press that it disciplined the employees involved.
The Treasury Department emails do not contain script approval requests, but include exchanges of “talking points” and agreed-upon topics for interview discussion.
Ahead of a scheduled interview between Fox Business host Lou Dobbs and Sayegh, a network producer emailed two Treasury aides on Apr. 27, 2017, with a list of economic topics for discussion. “Lou was hoping you could email a few talking points on the following and don’t hesitate to let me know if there’s something else you might want to address,” the producer wrote. (A few months later, a producer for Trish Regan’s Fox Business show told Sayegh to “please send Talking Points as soon as feasible” before a scheduled interview.)
After Dobbs interviewed Mnuchin on June 2, 2017, Sayegh sent a Fox Business producer an email with the subject line “Boom.” He wrote, “The Secretary was very pleased to be in with Lou. And I was very happy too.”
The emails also reveal that a Treasury aide floated Sayegh as a potential White House communications director. In March 2018, senior adviser for public affairs Brian Morgenstern wrote a Fox News producer: “I understand you are covering the ongoing White House Communications Director story regarding potential candidates for that position. I am writing off the record regarding our Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Tony Sayegh. Prior to joining the administration, he was a Fox News Contributor. Attached are a few photos you might consider using in future reports. Please let me know if you have any questions.”