President Donald Trump, facing an ever-deepening scandal that threatens to swallow his presidency, appears to have lost a key ally in conservative media: The Drudge Report.
The narrative-setting news aggregation website, founded in 1995 by Matt Drudge, has spotlighted an overwhelming amount of negative news for the Trump White House in the last several weeks. It’s marked a major shift from how the outlet had previously covered the President.
“He’s reacting to changing circumstances,” a person close to the media mogul, who said Drudge had grown exasperated with Trump, told CNN Business.
This should worry Trump as he faces an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives for pushing Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democratic presidential contender, and Biden’s son Hunter.
In the coming weeks and months, right-wing media will be crucial to whether Trump is able to survive the growing scandal. If he loses support in that space, it would offer Republicans wiggle room to turn on him, which could endanger his presidency.
Drudge, who did not return requests for comment, is especially influential in conservative media, having the ability to shape or even create news cycles. Drudge’s website has for years helped set the agenda and worked as a gravitational force that has drawn other media outlets to his preferred narrative. The power he has wielded has led observers to characterize him as the de-facto assignment editor of the conservative media.
“He’s one of the dominoes that would have to fall for the right-wing media to allow Trump to be removed from office,” said John Ziegler, a conservative who was an occasional guest host on Drudge’s old radio show and writes columns on media for Mediaite.
Drudge rarely reports or writes stories himself. Instead, he and his site serve as an aggregator, linking to other news organizations — and often providing them with large volumes of traffic. Drudge’s views can be ascertained by looking at which stories he links to and how he frames those stories with his headlines.
Previously, Trump could count on Drudge to be in his corner. During the 2016 presidential election, and in the early days of the Trump administration, Drudge was a fervent supporter. On the Drudge Report, Trump could do no wrong. The sun was almost always shining.
There were signs that the honeymoon period was wearing thin in the summer of 2017, but despite some wobbliness in their relationship, Drudge ultimately seemed to be staying loyal to the President.
At least until now.
Not only is Drudge’s website aggressively covering the impeachment news, it is doing so by featuring commentary from some of the president’s fiercest critics or the harshest criticism of him.
For instance, on Friday the top link on the Drudge Report, colored in red, was a link to Fox News judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano calling Trump’s behavior “criminal and impeachable.”
Other links Drudge featured that day included Fox host Shepard Smith suggesting Trump may have violated the law on live television and “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd saying the current scandal is a “national nightmare.”
The change in tone toward Trump hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Jim Hoft, the founder of the right-wing Gateway Pundit blog, recently published a blog post asking, “What Happened to Matt Drudge?” Contending that the website had taken a “pro-impeachment slant,” Hoft wrote, “Dear Matt Drudge — Please come home.”
Jerome Corsi, a prominent right-wing conspiracy theorist, has repeatedly tweeted about the change in coverage, saying Drudge has “lost his mind,” “turned left,” and become a “leftist hack beating [the] impeachment drum.”
Even Rush Limbaugh, a friend of Drudge’s, has commented on the matter. In late August, Limbaugh told a caller in that he’s repeatedly been asked about the matter. “My email inbox every day, ‘What’s happening to Drudge, Rush?'” Limbaugh said. “And I tell people, ‘Have you ever heard of clicks?'”
After suggesting Drudge could be turning on Trump for web traffic, Limbaugh said, “I actually don’t know,” adding that as a “professional courtesy” he doesn’t “ask him.”
It’s not clear whether Drudge had a falling out with the White House that prompted his change in coverage. After Trump ascended to the Oval Office, Drudge was known to visit the White House, spending time with the President, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump.
A former White House official told CNN Business that Kushner had always maintained the White House’s relationship with Drudge. The former official said it was unclear if that relationship had hit a snag. The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
One explanation for Drudge’s aggressive coverage could be that he wants to play a role in a second presidential impeachment. Drudge rose to notoriety during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, famously breaking the news of Clinton’s relationship with then-intern Monica Lewinsky.
“Impeachment is where Matt Drudge entered,” the person close to Drudge told CNN Business. “This is a great story. And Drudge is breaking out the popcorn.”
Ziegler offered another theory.
“My basic view on Drudge is that people mistake him as an ideologue,” said Ziegler. “Matt Drudge loves chaos. And impeachment is chaos.”
Another suggestion, from a second person close to Drudge, was that it’s a story consistent with the overarching theme of the website.
“It’s the swamp,” said the person. “The dirty nature of politics. I think it’s not inconsistent.”
Whatever the reason for Drudge’s change, it’s unclear whether it will cause other conservative news publications to bend to his preferred narrative.
Much of right-wing media has sprung to defend Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. Conservative television personalities, radio hosts, and media outlets know they serve an audience exceedingly loyal to Trump, and that turning on him could alienate the people who effectively sign their paychecks.
“If you’re a conservative talk show host working for Salem, and you open up the Drudge Report and see negative commentary about Trump, is that going to change your commentary on Trump?” asked conservative commentator Charlie Sykes, referring to the right-wing media company Salem, which has pressured its radio hosts to cover Trump positively. “I doubt it.”
Trump himself has used his Twitter feed in a way that mirrors the style of Drudge, aggregating positive news and opinions about himself. The President routinely posts video clips of television segments flattering toward him. He also retweets his supporters and uses his Twitter account to boost media outlets whose coverage is favorable to him.
“I think Twitter has diminished Drudge’s power within the right-wing media sphere,” said Ziegler. “The retweet has replaced the link as the gold-standard.”