Then-President Donald Trump urged the owner of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, to use the influence of his network to help sink the Senate candidacy of coal baron Don Blankenship in 2018, according to newly released court documents.
Blankenship was surging in the polls in the final days of a bruising West Virginia GOP primary race, prompting concern among Trump and other Republicans that his potential victory could lead to a failed attempt to unseat incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, in the general election.
So, Trump appealed to Murdoch to ramp up the network’s criticism of Blankenship, lawyers for Dominion Voting Systems said in court documents as part of a defamation lawsuit against Fox News.
Murdoch then pressured Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and Fox News President Jay Wallace to attack Blankenship through the network’s celebrity hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
“Anything during day helpful but Sean and Laura dumping on him hard might save the day,” Murdoch wrote in an email days before the primary, according to the documents.
The court documents don’t contain details about Trump’s request for help from Murdoch. It’s unclear how Trump, who dislikes email, contacted Murdoch, or what precisely was said between them. The filings indicate, however, that Dominion lawyers possess details surrounding the communication, during which Trump “appealed for help defeating Don Blankenship.”
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
Fox News is the subject of a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems over the network’s false assertions that voting machines were responsible for Trump’s 2020 electoral loss. Dominion asserts that Fox executives and on-air hosts knew they were pushing election misinformation but continued to spread conspiracy theories to prevent losing their audience to right wing competitors such as Newsmax and One America News Network.
The communications released in court filings show Murdoch and Fox executives also tried to sway other races. At one point, Murdoch pressured Scott on the “importance of giving exposure to Republicans in close Senate races,” the documents say.
In response to the disclosure, Fox officials issued a statement claiming that Dominion “mischaracterizes the facts by cherry-picking soundbites, omitting key context, and mischaracterizing the record.”
Blankenship came in third in the May 2018 primary with about 20 percent of the vote. State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won with 35 percent of the vote and Evan Jenkins was second with 30 percent. Morrisey lost to Manchin in the general election.
In an interview with E&E News, Blankenship blamed his loss on Fox News.
“When Fox slaughtered me with all that stuff, no Republican can survive that in West Virginia,” he said. “It’s been horrible to learn how corrupt it all is, it’s discouraging to learn that the Chinese, the Russians, the hackers, no one can have the impact that Fox has in a Republican primary.”
Blankenship said Ingraham tweeted against him but that Hannity did not. Many of Fox’s daytime hosts, including Neil Cavuto, criticized him repeatedly, he said.
Blankenship sued Fox for defamation after the race, because on-air hosts repeatedly referred to him in the weeks before the primary as a “convicted felon.” Blankenship was found guilty of conspiracy to violate mine safety standards, a misdemeanor, and spent a year in jail in relation to a 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers. Blankenship unsuccessfully sued multiple news outlets and journalists for incorrectly referring to him as a felon, including a POLITICO reporter.
Murdoch’s email ordering more negative coverage of Blankenship was first revealed in Blankenship’s defamation lawsuit against Fox. Blankenship cites Murdoch’s email in an ad that he wants to air on Fox News as part of a potential primary campaign for Manchin’s Senate seat next year. The network has not responded to his requests to run the ad.
After his 2018 loss, Blankenship initially blamed Trump and accused him of spreading “fake news against me.” The day before the election, Trump tweeted that Republicans should not vote for Blankenship because he would lose to Manchin.
Blankenship told E&E News that Trump called him after the primary to apologize for the tweet.
“I didn’t know when he called me to apologize for being publicly against me, that he had played a role in the Fox thing at that time,” Blankenship said.
“He just said he was sorry for his tweets saying to vote for the other guys, but he didn’t mention that he had called Fox and had them do what they did.”