Newsmax Gets Trumped
Led by Ronald Kessler, the website has been an enthusiastic promoter of Donald Trump's presidential ambitions, a connection that appears to be fueled by more than a little behind-the-scenes schmoozing.
By Terry Krepel
Donald Trump may have a lot of money, but it can't buy him what he needs to make him a credible Republican presidential candidate.
Fortunately for him, Newsmax has been more than willing to provide that. It has been an early and enthusiastic promoter of Trump’s presidential ambitions, and a Newsmax reporter helped pave the way for Trump to speak at a major conservative get-together.
Newsmax has been giving a platform to Trump since at least 2006, when its chief Washington correspondent, Ronald Kessler, wrote a column noting that Trump “has plenty of thoughts about what he would do if he were president.” Kessler has been in the tank for Trump for well over a decade: his 1999 book on the Palm Beach social scene, "The Season," fetes Trump as the guy who turned his Mar-a-Lago estate into a private club that, unlike other hoity-toity clubs in Palm Beach, admitted blacks and Jews. Kessler wrote of flying to Palm Beach on Trump's private commercial-size jet:
Smiling as if he had just made a few extra billion, Trump stood in the galley of his 727 and offered us pretzels. In person, Trump is younger, thinner, and blonder than in his photos. He likes to wear his hair long at the neck. His typical facial expression is to set his mouth in a moue, somewhere between a pucker and a pout. It says, "I'm a handsome guy. I'm going to WIN."
Of the 16 pages of color photos in Kessler's book, six-plus pages of them are devoted to Trump-related activities, from pictures of the opulent Mar-a-Lago to shots of Kessler and his wife hanging out with Trump and the gang.
Ronald Kessler and his wife, Pamela, with Donald Trump, from Kessler's 1999 book "The Season."
Newsmax’s current round of pushing the idea of Trump as president began last November, when it paid for a poll asking how various people would fare against Obama in “a head-to-head race for the presidency.” According to one article on the poll focusing on business figures, Trump “would get nearly half the vote, 47 percent.” Additionally, Trump “polled strongly among Republicans and conservatives, and got 50 percent of the vote among independents.” The article also stated, however, that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates polled better than Trump.
In a December column on the Newsmax-operated financial news website Moneynews, Bill Spetrino touted Trump’s prospects: “I can tell you that dealing with the Chinese and Russians wouldn’t be one-sided if Trump was in charge. He won’t hire power-hungry academics without real-world knowledge but instead will hire experienced businessmen and women with practical knowledge.”
Newsmax’s Kessler followed up on January 3 with a column stating that Trump “is telling friends he has decided he will definitely run for president as a Republican.” A few weeks later, Kessler wrote about how he and his wife “spent the Martin Luther King holiday weekend with him at Mar-a-Lago, [Trump’s] home and club on Palm Beach,” where it became “clear” that “when it comes to a successful run at the presidency, don’t underestimate him”:
Don’t expect to see him shaking hands in Iowa; he has a notorious aversion to shaking hands. But with every news outlet begging to have him on, he doesn’t need to press the flesh. When it comes to cresting a controversy -- such as with Rosie O’Donnell -- he has a perfect sense of timing, knowing when to add more fuel to the fire and when to pull back before the public tires of the subject.
For good measure, Kessler dropped references to Trump’s “stunning wife Melania” and noted how Trump’s 4-year-old son, Barron, “speaks Serbian, French, and some German, as well as English.”
In February, Newsmax promoted Trump’s speaking appearance at the conservative confab CPAC, followed by an upbeat article on his “rousing speech” there and a fawning column by Kessler in which he took credit for his role in getting Trump the speaking slot:
Trump was not listed on the CPAC agenda. The back story is that after I had written stories saying Trump will announce a presidential run in June, Dave Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, whose foundation runs CPAC, asked over lunch if I would extend an invitation to Trump to speak at CPAC. In a faxed note touching on other matters, I did so on Jan. 24.
(Kessler and Keene are pretty tight; Keene awarded Kessler the ACU’s “Robert Novak Journalist of the Year Award” at last year’s CPAC.)
In March, Newsmax launched an opt-in poll titled “Donald Trump -- Would You Vote For Him?” that it has heavily promoted for weeks in web ads. Newsmax apparently shared early results from the non-scientific poll with Trump; an April 4 Newsmax post highlighted that Trump said in a "Fox & Friends" appearance: “A Newsmax poll said I’m winning.” The article added, “Trump was referring to early results of a Newsmax poll asking for respondents’ preference among 10 potential GOP presidential candidates for 2012, and their choice in a Trump-Barack Obama race. The Newsmax poll will close shortly and the results will be released in the coming days.”
The first Newsmax article on the results didn’t appear until April 11, which claimed that “Americans overwhelmingly favor Donald Trump as their preferred candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.”
Newsmax played a leading role in promoting Trump's assertions about Obama's birth certificate. On March 28, Newsmax touted how Trump "released his birth certificate exclusively to Newsmax." Just one little problem: It wasn't really a birth certificate. As The Smoking Gun pointed out, the document he provided to Newsmax is not an official, state-authorized birth certificate -- it's a ceremonial one issued by the hospital he was (allegedly) born in, Jamaica Hospital in New York City, adding, "Official birth certificates are issued (and maintained) by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Office of Vital Records." In other words, it's no better -- and since it's not issued by a state record-keeping agency, arguably worse -- than the birth certificate Barack Obama has released, which was issued by the Hawaii Department of Health.
Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy gave Trump a pass on his birther crusade in an April 20 column:
While I believe Obama was born in Hawaii, and that the evidence supports that claim, it is perfectly acceptable for Trump to demand that Obama release his full birth certificate. This document, as well as many others from Obama’s personal and public career, should have been released, as others have who run for president.
By contrast, Ruddy claimed it was "unfair" for news organizations to root around into Trump's past, declaring, "In my book, Trump’s a giant. He’s a 'big picture' visionary."
When Obama ultimately did release his long-form birth certificate, Newsmax got the obligatory "exclusive interview" with Trump, in which he called Obama a "very strange president," joined by an article highlighting Rush Limbaugh's praise for Trump.
(Newsmax did manage to come up with the most bizarre take on the birth certificate, an interview with an astrologer who concluded from the information on it that Obama "should have gone into public relations rather than politics.")
After Media Matters highlighted Newsmax's enthusiastic coverage of Trump, Ruddy admitted the obvious to U.S. News & World Report, saying that he calls Trump a "friend" and that "He's been really responsive to our news team here." Ruddy claimed that there is no formal or business relationship with Trump but added, "Trump realizes the great potential of Newsmax and has been using it very adroitly. We're well aware he's using it, happy he's using it."
Ruddy also turned its Trump alliance into self-promotion: "I think that we're having an impact that no other media organization can have right now. Really smart political candidates realize that on the path to 2012, we are key."
Key if you're a friend of Ruddy, anyway. Candidates who are apparently without that close relationship have more trouble getting that consistently fawning coverage.
Take, for example, Mike Huckabee. An April 28 Newsmax article by Jim Meyers touted a Rasmussen poll finding that "Donald Trump leads all other potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates" and Huckabee came in third This was accompanied later in the day by another article by Meyers highlighting "assertions by political experts that Huckabee won’t run" and featuring an interview with pollster Scott Rasmussen, who conducted the above-referenced poll, saying, "My expectation is that there is going to emerge somebody who we’re not even talking about who will be a serious contender, and that person could very well benefit from Mike Huckabee dropping out."
The article's headline: "Rasmussen: Huckabee Dropping Out Will Help Dark Horse Emerge." While Meyers began his article by stating that "Mike Huckabee’s camp has sought to refute a new report that the former Arkansas governor won’t seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination," that didn't make into the headline.
We don't know what happened behind the scenes between Newsmax and Huckabee, but we can't imagine that Huckabee was happy with Newsmax's presentation of the supposed state of his presidential ambitions. We do know, however, that the next day, Meyers penned an article carrying the headline "Huckabee Strongly Denies Reports He's Decided Not to Run," based on "an exclusive email to Newsmax and pollster Scott Rasmussen" from Huckabee and citing Meyers' earlier story.
Newsmax's promotion of Trump has been so enthusiastic that it occasionally tripped over itself trying to do it properly. In a self-congratulatory column, with the timestamp of 9:51 a.m. on April 13, Kessler asserted that Trump "plans to say" on the May 15 season finale of his show "Celebrity Apprentice" that "he will be holding a press conference in the next few days. At that press conference in the Trump Tower in New York, Trump will be announcing his candidacy for the presidency."
That column disappeared a few hours later. Then, a column with a 7:45 p.m. timestamp appeared, slightly altering Kessler's claim to read that "Trump will be announcing whether he will run for the presidency." This version changed the date of the "Celebrity Apprentice" finale to May 22 and altered the headline to pronounce the claim an "exclusive."
Even though that column remains live on the Newsmax website as of this writing, a newly edited Kessler column appeared, with the timestamp of 9:24 a.m. on April 14. This version deleted "Exclusive" from the headline and more extensively edited Kessler's claim about the Trump Tower press conference: "Although Trump refuses to confirm what he will announce, sources close to the real estate titan tell me that at that press conference Trump will be announcing his candidacy for the presidency."
You'd think that as close as Kessler is to Trump, it wouldn't have taken three tries for him to get this story down. But while the details of his big claim evolved, Kessler's self-congratulatory Trump-fluffing remained intact: "Since writing the first story in January to report that Trump will definitely run, I have been amazed at how much the idea of a Trump presidency is catching on across the political spectrum."
Kessler did acknowledge that Trump had “problems,” such as “womanizing between marriages” (no mention of his womanizing during marriages) but insisted that “what will also become clear -- as depicted recently on ‘The Oprah Show’ -- is that he has been a model father to his five kids,” adding: “Every morning, Trump reads the papers with his 4-year-old Barron, commenting on developments. His devotion to his kids and loyalty to friends speak volumes about his character.” Kessler concluded: “From talking with him, I can tell that he has thought through the details of running.”
Trump seems to want all the publicity he can get -- and Kessler and Newsmax are all too happy to give it to him.
(Portions of this article were first published at Media Matters.)