Tucker Carlson’s Surprise Exit Stuns People in Donald Trump’s Orbit

The announcement on Monday that Fox News was parting ways with its top-rated prime-time host, Tucker Carlson, stunned people in Donald J. Trump’s orbit. The former president himself was surprised by the news, according to a person with direct knowledge, and his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who is a close friend of Mr. Carlson’s, described the network’s decision as “mind-blowing.”

“I think it changes things permanently,” Donald Trump Jr. said on “The Charlie Kirk Show,” adding that Mr. Carlson was “an actual thought leader in conservatism” and a “once-in-a-generation type talent.”

The casual news observer would be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Trump and his family no longer had a relationship with Mr. Carlson, given the recent disclosures of the Fox host’s scathing private text messages, which emerged as part of the conservative network’s legal battle against Dominion Voting Systems.

In early 2021, as Mr. Trump desperately tried to overturn the 2020 election, Mr. Carlson texted a confidant that he hated the president “passionately.” He also described Mr. Trump as a “demonic force.”

When the texts were released in March, Mr. Trump was wounded and called Mr. Carlson to talk about them, according to a person familiar with the outreach. But the two men patched it up quickly. Since then, they have talked regularly, exchanged text messages and appeared to have a closer relationship than at any time before, according to two people close to Mr. Trump who are familiar with their relationship and who did not want to be identified to discuss their private interactions.

In an interview with Greg Kelly of Newsmax that was recorded shortly after Mr. Carlson’s departure became public, Mr. Trump offered support for the former anchor. “I’m shocked. I’m surprised,” Mr. Trump said. “I think Tucker’s been terrific. He’s been, especially over the last year or so, he’s been terrific to me.”

Mr. Carlson did not respond to a request for comment.

Last year, some of Mr. Trump’s advisers had worried that Mr. Carlson seemed poised to support the potential presidential candidacy of Mr. Trump’s top rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Mr. Carlson had given Mr. DeSantis plenty of airtime and praised his policies. But over the past six weeks, as Mr. Trump and Mr. Carlson spoke more often, the Trump team felt increasingly confident that Mr. Carlson would not be weighing in for Mr. DeSantis, who has been heavily promoted by Rupert Murdoch’s media properties including Fox News.

The Trump team liked their odds even more when they learned that Mr. Carlson was disgusted with Mr. DeSantis’s decision, in late March, to call President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a “war criminal.”

Senator J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican who is a close ally of both Mr. Trump and Mr. Carlson, described the Fox News host’s ousting as a shock.

“Tucker is a giant, and the most powerful voice against idiotic wars and an economy that placed plutocrats over workers,” Mr. Vance said in a text message. “This is a huge loss for a conservative movement that hopes to be worthy of its own voters. I assume he’ll land on his feet and continue to have a powerful voice. If he doesn’t it will be terrible for the country.”

“The best decision I ever made was leaving Fox. Good for you, @TuckerCarlson. You’re free & uncensored!” Kari Lake, a Republican who lost the governor’s race in Arizona last year, wrote in a tweet. Ms. Lake left her job as an anchor at a local Fox channel in 2021.

Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado, struck an upbeat tone in a Monday tweet: “Wherever Tucker Carlson goes, America will follow!”

Joe Kent, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Washington State, tweeted, “Standing by for the launch of the Tucker news network, the people demand it!”

One close ally of Mr. Trump said he was happy that Mr. Carlson would not be able to give rocket fuel to any other candidate on Fox’s airwaves. Yet for some candidates in the Republican primary field, the loss of Mr. Carlson could mean a minefield they would have to navigate is now gone from a prominent platform.

For instance, Mr. DeSantis’s statement to Mr. Carlson weeks ago describing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” set off alarm bells and a wave of criticism among Republicans in Washington and some donors. It represented the beginning of what has been a period of concern about Mr. DeSantis’s expected candidacy from some who had seen him as the best option to stop Mr. Trump.

A Trump adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the sense in Mr. Trump’s world was that any pro-Trump host at Fox News had something of a target on their back after the Dominion lawsuit.

Mr. Trump’s longest-serving adviser, Roger J. Stone Jr., who is also an old friend of Mr. Carlson’s, said in an interview that Fox News had “essentially canceled the single most influential conservative commentator in the country, at the same time killing a cash cow for the network.”

He predicted that Mr. Carlson would take his “massive audience” wherever he ends up next.

Alyce McFadden contributed reporting.

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