One of the 2016 election’s more interesting subplots is Donald Trump’s running feud with Fox News, which has been characterized by the inability—or unwillingness—of the channel’s chief executive, Roger Ailes, to control Trump’s relentless attacks on Fox’s anchors and hosts. According to a lengthy feature by Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine, Fox and Ailes have a very good reason to treat Trump as gently as possible: The Republican frontrunner is likely privy to Fox News’ darkest secrets, thanks to his involvement in the channel’s negotiations with former Fox executive Brian Lewis, who was unceremoniously fired in 2013 after Ailes began to suspect Lewis was leaking information to the media.
An odd bit of coincidence had given him a card to play against Fox founder Roger Ailes. In 2014, I published a biography of Ailes, which upset the famously paranoid executive. Several months before it landed in stores, Ailes fired his longtime PR adviser Brian Lewis, accusing him of being a source. During Lewis’s severance negotiations, Lewis hired Judd Burstein, a powerhouse litigator, and claimed he had “bombs” that would destroy Ailes and Fox News. That’s when Trump got involved.
“When Roger was having problems, he didn’t call 97 people, he called me,” Trump said. Burstein, it turned out, had worked for Trump briefly in the ’90s, and Ailes asked Trump to mediate. Trump ran the negotiations out of his office at Trump Tower. “Roger had lawyers, very expensive lawyers, and they couldn’t do anything. I solved the problem.” Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak. If Ailes ever truly went to war against Trump, Trump would have the arsenal to launch a retaliatory strike.
There’s evidence to suggest that, whatever these secrets are, Fox News considers them very damaging. After Lewis hired Judd Burstein to represent him during severance negotiations, Burstein gave Gawker the following statement, which promptly reactivated discussions between Fox and Lewis:
I have just been retained and am still plotting our course of action. But two things are very clear to me. First, Brian Lewis no longer has any confidentiality obligation to Newscorp or Roger Ailes because of the false and malicious statements made by Fox to date. Second, Roger Ailes and Newscorp have a lot more to fear from Brian Lewis telling the truth about them than Brian Lewis has to fear from Roger Ailes and his toadies telling lies about Brian Lewis.
(“Toadies,” Sherman reported in his biography of Roger Ailes, is a reference to another Fox News executive, Bill Shine, who reportedly coordinated Fox News’ initial story about Lewis being fired over “financial irregularities.”)
Lewis, who declined to comment, referred our questions about Sherman’s article to Judd Burstein. He and a spokesperson for Fox News did not immediately respond to requests for comment.