Q&A With Chris Ruddy: Trump SpokesPal, Newsmax Chief
Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend of Donald Trump and CEO of the conservative media outlet Newsmax, has emerged as a somewhat unfiltered and prolific spokesperson for the president, providing nearly real-time insights into the intriguing leader’s thoughts and emotions, particularly at moments of high drama.
Last Saturday, for example, after unleashing a tweet storm alleging Barack Obama had wiretapped his office, President Trump then apparently talked to Ruddy. "I spoke with the president twice yesterday about the wiretap story. I haven’t seen him this pissed off in a long time," Ruddy wrote in a Newsmax column, defending the president's right to make such allegations. "When I mentioned Obama denials about the wiretaps, he shot back: 'This will be investigated. It will all come out. I will be proven right.'"
Ruddy's description of Trump became something of its own headline amid myriad questions about the president’s state of mind after making the unprecedented claims. The Newsmax CEO has been a frequent face on cable news in these early days of the Trump administration, and is often quoted in an array of stories about the commander in chief.
Unlike other confidants, Ruddy is not shy in commenting on his conversations with the president—and the president knows this. And while Trump has several friends outside the White House who offer commentary on cable news and other outlets, Ruddy has a unique perch: he owns a high-circulation media company and is based in Palm Beach, Fla., where the president has spent many weekends during his short time in office. That means Ruddy, who is a member of Trump's club at Mar-a-Lago, sees the president frequently, and often after weeks in which one controversy or another has dominated the news cycle. Last month, he tweeted after a drink with the president one evening.
After @POTUS finished dinner w. PM Abe, asked me to join him for drink, him diet Coke, me Macallan's. Talked for half hour.— Christopher Ruddy (@ChrisRuddyNMX) February 11, 2017
The next morning, Ruddy appeared on CNN and criticized White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. The timing of his criticisms suggested he was speaking for Trump, and the interview set off a wave of questions about whether the president had lost confidence in Priebus. Ruddy later clarified that he had been speaking only for himself, and not conveying the words of the president. He told RealClearPolitics last week that Trump was not too happy about what he had said about Priebus.
Ruddy's vast Newsmax audience, subscriber list, and networking savvy have long been of interest to Republican politicians. But he also has an interesting relationship with the Clintons. He published a book in the 1990s that waded into some conspiracy theories about the suicide of Vince Foster. But he also donated $1 million to the Clinton Foundation, which earned him the ire of conservatives and backlash from Breitbart.
Ruddy spoke with RCP briefly last week about his relationship with the president, why Trump won't back down from his stance on Russia, and how he thinks Bill Clinton and Trump could work together in the near future.
CHB: How did you become acquainted?
CR: I've known him for years. We first met in 1999. I was giving a speech at an event for the Palm Beach Pundits. I see him at charity events and other events taking place, and dinners at Mar-a-Lago. Around 2005 or 2006 he invited me to become a member, and I joined his club around that time. He comes down to Mar-a-Lago every single weekend in season. And I would see him in his New York office. I've flown with him on his plane, and I've gotten to know him pretty well through the years. He is someone who has always asked advice and feedback on political stuff.
CHB: He talked to you about running for office. What did he say?
CR: He thought he could do a better job than Romney. He was not happy with Mitt Romney [for losing the 2012 presidential race]. And he decided he was going to run. He didn't have a full expectation he was going to win.
I remember visiting him in his office the day the cancelation came with Univision -- they were cancelling Miss Universe. I came with Leonard Lauren [brother of designer Ralph Lauren], and when I saw him I said, 'Are you OK?' And he asked why. I said, 'I see the look on your face.' And he said, 'Didn’t you hear the news? I just lost $15 million on Miss Universe.’
But he seemed very determined that he was not going to kowtow and cave in and he was going to continue his run, even though he was losing a lot of money. But I think a lot of people were impressed by that -- that he continued to run. And it was a very pivotal moment for him.
I was not active in his campaign because I had a primary to cover. He cited a number of our polls through the campaign. We had polling [of our subscribers] showing 70 percent backed him. Newsmax is one of the key leading websites. Donald understands that. He is the most media savvy guy ever to sit down in that Oval Office. He understood the importance of Newsmax as a brand, to reach 7-10 million Americans, conservative leaners across the country.
CHB: Do you think he misses his business? Has he ever said as much?
CR: I think he is very uninterested in his business. In the past he would be talking up his business, but since the election, I've seen almost a laser-like focus on his job as president. What gets him lit up the most in any conversation is bringing jobs into these midwestern states that have suffered because of technology and trade policies.
CHB: But what about the focus on Russia? What does he make of the alleged ties to his campaign and the investigations? And why does he double-down on his stance on Russia and toward Putin—what's behind that? Is it stubbornness at this point?
CR: [Trump] invited me to Moscow to attend the Miss Universe pageant. (Ruddy couldn't go). I've been to Mar-a-Lago and have met many, many guests. I can't ever recall meeting a Russian businessperson there.
He's taken a lot of positions that are anti-establishment. Donald likes the idea that he can maybe break through. Putin obviously likes him.
And Donald loves story lines. This is a big story line. He has the opportunity to create a new relationship with the biggest guy in town. What world leader is considered the most controversial and everyone has a view of him? That's Putin.
I've mentioned to Donald that Russia has the GDP of Mexico—do we really want to make that the focus? But I don't think Trump is naïve about the Russians ... I don't see him giving any chips away. Trump is a much better negotiator than Vladimir Putin. He is not going to be taken.
It's just that he believes it's a position he should take and try it. He does not understand why people don't see why you wouldn't want to at least try to create a relationship.
One thing we've talked about the most that he's raised is Putin and Russia … If there is one topic that comes up the most, it's that.
CHB: Has he talked with you about the learning curve of the presidency, or how different it is from running his company or the campaign? What does he make of the first several weeks?
CR: My experience with all his companies is that he's constantly asking for feedback. And if he hears anything negative, he's all over it to get it fixed ... There was a certain myth created [during the campaign] that he likes chaos and thrives off it. The campaign might have been chaotic because he's new to politics and had never had this. But he never really saw the campaign as a large organization. He saw it was about him and to meet the people and tell the story.
He entered show business in his early 50s and becomes a celebrity for 15 years. He decides he wants to officially run for president and doesn't really know the inside politics business, and masters it, beats 15 opponents. Then he wins and defeats the Clinton machine ... He's a very fast learner. He will figure out the presidency and governing very quickly. It's a little more trial and error rather than strategic planning.
CHB: How does he feel about you sharing your conversations with him to the press? Does he encourage it? Does he ever ask for confidentiality?
CR: Once in a blue moon he will say, ‘We gotta keep this confidential,’ and I always live by that. But very rarely will he say this to me now.
I make a decision as to what I think he would like or not like, if I share something he said.
I just put out what he told me about the leaks and the denials [regarding Trump's wiretapping allegations]. I never asked him for permission about that. But he did say earlier in the day he was hoping I could get the story out, and that he hopes Newsmax is covering it.
I know him well enough to know.
He wasn't happy with my comments about Priebus. He has full confidence in him and really likes him. I told him, when I made that comment, it was in my view. I was keeping an open mind about Reince, and I do think Reince has stepped up his game immensely. Reince really led the effort to have an inclusive joint session speech.
We [Trump and I] don't agree on everything. I can be critical at times with the administration. That's my role, and I understand his role.
CHB: What kind of advice does he ask you for?
CR: Since the election, he'll ask me about the job they’re doing and about potential appointments. He's asked me to make recommendations for appointments. (Ruddy said he has declined that invitation.)
CHB: Do you two discuss your relationship with the Clintons?
CR: Despite a very difficult campaign, I still consider Bill a friend and Donald Trump a friend. Some day in the future, President Clinton could be a big asset to President Trump in a lot of his outreach.
CHB: Has being away from his wife and sons taken a toll on the president?
CR: He feels most comfortable around Melania, Baron, and his other children. It's one of the reasons he loves Florida. There, he is in a much more relaxed mood.
CHB: What is the most accurate in the portrayal of Trump? Most inaccurate?
CR: People generally have the idea that he is a great communicator. And the press has acknowledged this guy has extraordinary communication skills.
I think what doesn't come through is his humility. I know some people might laugh at that comment, and he likes promoting his brand. But at times he can be extremely humble. He likes people and wants to help people.
He invited me to a book signing in 2011 in Boca Raton. The parking lot was full and there were hundreds of people in line ... Donald Trump was sitting there signing every single book and inscribing it exactly how they were asking him to inscribe it. He never complained, never said, ‘I don't have time.’