The Year Neil Cavuto, Fox News’ Affable Trump Critic, Got Angry

With Shepard Smith gone from Fox News, media watchers in 2019 have turned their eyes to a new voice of Trump skepticism at the network: Neil Cavuto.

Over the past year, Cavuto, a mild-mannered Fox News vet from its inception, has seemingly begun to embrace an unlikely new role as daytime antidote to his network’s near-nonstop Trump boosterism.

In 2019, the president personally took it upon himself to snipe at Fox’s remaining hard-news figures who express even the faintest whiff of antagonism towards him. The exit of Shep Smith being his trophy buck. But in response, Cavuto has directly addressed the president during his weekday late afternoon show, acknowledging that the president religiously watches and tweets about Fox, and pushing back on Trump’s attempts to enforce his agenda over all 24 hours of the network’s programming.

“I don’t work for you,” Cavuto declared during an August episode. “My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just cover you.”

The 61-year-old Your World host seems to have found himself as one of the last old-school, Bush-era business-minded Republicans at a network that has dramatically changed around him—a stranger in a strange land that he himself built.

The departures of some colleagues—like Smith—and capitulation of others—like some of his daytime news colleagues—has left him among just a handful of personalities at the network willing to make mild criticisms of the president, or at the very least raise legitimate questions about his conduct in office.

Cavuto wasn’t always a Trump skeptic. As a celebrity real estate developer, the New York business tycoon was an occasional guest on both Cavuto’s Fox News show and his primetime program on Fox Business Network, where he serves as a senior vice president.

In one 2009 on-air chat, the Fox News host lavished praise on the then Apprentice star while they discussed the recession. Two years later, Cavuto told New York magazine of Trump: “I admire a guy who never forgets a slight. He’s built a career on it, and he’s laid waste to anyone who dare forget it, or him.” And, in 2016, when Trump tweeted a dopey, tone-deaf picture of a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo, Cavuto said it was an “olive branch” to the Mexican people.

At the same time, as The Daily Beast reported, Trump began to privately “despise” Cavuto for not taking his presidential ambitions seriously during one 2015 on-air interview. And over the course of the Trump era, the genial Fox News host has, indeed, seemed to take the president’s style less and less seriously—increasingly becoming one of his most outspoken critics on the network.

On economic issues, Cavuto—a Wall Street conservative—has continued to hammer Trump over the increasing national debt (a top concern of Republicans throughout the Obama era, but nowadays shared by neither party).

In August, an exasperated Cavuto fact-checked Trump’s claim that tariffs won’t end up punishing U.S. consumers with higher prices. “I don’t know where to begin here,” the Fox host said before reinforcing to viewers that the tariffs “will most directly be felt by consumers directly, because that happens on almost entirely consumer items rather than industrial-related items.” Similarly, earlier this year, he mocked Trump’s incessant claim that Mexico will pay for a wall along the southern U.S. border.

The president’s decorum is also a frequent point of complaint. His derision and mockery of the late Sen. John McCain has repeatedly set off Cavuto, who has called such Trump comments “not presidential.” And during one particularly fiery segment last year, Cavuto railed against Trump, telling him through the TV screen: “You’ve been too busy draining the swamp to ever stop and smell the stink you’re creating. That’s your doing. That’s your stink.”

As a tentpole of Fox News’ and Fox Business’ lineups, Cavuto’s emergence as one of the president’s main antagonists is somewhat unexpected.

A former financial news reporter, Cavuto has spent the majority of his career as one of the least bombastic hosts on the network, focusing his daily show on colorful news topics and Wall Street-centric fiscal policy concerns. Cavuto was one of the first stars Fox News founder Roger Ailes asked to join the network, and one of the first to sign on. (He was also one of the anchors who publicly defended the founder and longtime CEO when he was accused of serial sexual harassment.)

One by one, many of Cavuto’s center-right colleagues have left the network, been forced out, or changed their tune dramatically on the president. Fox Business Network host Maria Bartiromo, formerly a star Wall Street advocate on CNBC, has become one of the president’s most vocal champions, while Dana Perino—a former George W. Bush flack—has gone from occasionally lambasting Trump to taking up the “anti-anti-Trump” style of focusing her criticism squarely on Democrats, at one point offering baffling praise for Trump’s handling of the impeachment-week media cycle.

Despite the aforementioned private grumblings, Trump has yet to publicly single out Cavuto. Instead, the president’s complaints about the few hours of tough coverage he receives from Fox have largely been lobbed at Shep Smith, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, and several weekend news anchors. But Cavuto’s increasingly frequent jabs at the president seem to irritate some of his longtime colleagues.

Earlier this year, Lou Dobbs—arguably Trump’s biggest sycophant on Fox—grew openly agitated with Cavuto openly calling out Dobbs’ hypocrisy on the national debt and Trump’s economic agenda.

During an October interview with Greg Jarrett, another former news personality-turned-Trump lackey, an irked Cavuto pointedly asked the Fox News contributor: “Do you fault the president for anything?”

The Fox host, meanwhile, hasn’t altered his core political beliefs. Cavuto remains a center-right Reaganesque conservative, and like nearly every other Fox News show, Your World features plenty of criticism of socialist and left-wing economic policy ideas.

His relatively mild disposition hasn’t made him a viral sensation or center-left resistance hero in the mold of Shep Smith or libertarian commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano. Cavuto hasn’t garnered public support or cheerleading from others in the industry, and he’s lamented how his viewers have routinely filled his show inbox with hate-mail.

And Cavuto is selective about what Trump scandals receive outrage treatment: He was unimpressed by a major New York Times investigation into how the Trump children used schemes to dodge taxes; and he pushed back against an argument that Trump’s statements about race constitute an impeachable offense.

His grievances against the president are out of the old establishment Republican mold. While Cavuto says he supports Trump’s tax cuts, he’s concerned about the Republican Party running up the national deficit, imposing tariffs, and caving to populist whims.

At times he’s seemed to struggle with the implications of his new role.

Cavuto told NPR last year that he was at peace with his differences with Trump, but expressed reluctance to stir the pot. And during a segment responding to Trump’s recent criticisms of Fox News, designed to provoke even more loyalty at the network, the Fox News host seemed to struggle with the new, Trump-era media environment he has found himself in.

“The president is making clear to fact-check him is to be all but dead to him and his legion of supporters who let me know in no uncertain terms I am either with him totally or I am a ‘Never-Trumper’ bully,” Cavuto said. “There are no grays. No middle grounds. You are either all-in or you’re just out. Loyal on everything or not to be trusted on anything.”

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