Every election cycle has its own breakout media star. In 1992, it was CNN. A few years later, it would be an e-mail blast called the Drudge Report. By 2000, the country had more or less been neatly delineated between MSNBC and Fox News households. The 2008 election introduced Politico and the Huffington Post to the adults' table. BuzzFeed joined in 2012.
The breakout media star of 2016 is, inarguably, Donald Trump, who has masterfully—and horrifyingly—demonstrated an aptitude for manipulating the news cycle, gaining billions of dollars worth of free airtime, and dominating coverage on every screen. Now, several people around him are looking for a way to leverage his supporters into a new media platform and cable channel.
Trump is indeed considering creating his own media business, built on the audience that has supported him thus far in his bid to become the next president of the United States. According to several people briefed on the discussions, the presumptive Republican nominee is examining the opportunity presented by the "audience" currently supporting him. He has also discussed the possibility of launching a "mini-media conglomerate" outside of his existing TV-production business, Trump Productions LLC. He has, according to one of these people, enlisted the consultation of his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who owns the The New York Observer. Trump's rationale, according to this person, is that, "win or lose, we are onto something here. We've triggered a base of the population that hasn't had a voice in a long time." For his part, Kushner was heard at a New York dinner party saying that "the people here don't understand what I'm seeing. You go to these arenas and people go crazy for him." (Both Kushner and Ivanka Trump did not respond to a request for comment.)
Trump, this person close to the matter suggests, has become irked by his ability to create revenue for other media organizations without being able to take a cut himself. Such a situation "brings him to the conclusion that he has the business acumen and the ratings for his own network." Trump has "gotten the bug," according to this person. "So now he wants to figure out if he can monetize it."
Hope Hicks, Trump's spokeswoman, adamantly denied that such conversations have occurred. ("There is absolutely no truth to this whatsoever," she told me. "This hasn't been even uttered. Not even thought about.") Then, after conferring with Trump, she issued a subsequent statement clarifying her point: "While it's true Mr. Trump garners exceptionally high ratings, there are absolutely no plans or discussions taking place regarding a venture of this nature." Meanwhile, someone close to Kushner has suggested that Trump would be unlikely to go so far as to seek out a partner at this stage of the race, given that it might risk alienating many of the established media players that he has outflanked—and that he is relying on to get him elected. (Such a move would also inevitably raise issues regarding the F.C.C.'s "equal-time" rule.) Nevertheless, shortly after my correspondence with Hicks, he tweeted out: "The press is so totally biased that we have no choice but to take our tough but fair and smart message directly to the people!"
Indeed, the specter of a Trump-focused platform, no matter how unappetizing, is not entirely illogical. Republican candidates have historically used the protracted national election cycle to indirectly land gigs on Fox News or Sirius XM. Election cycles have become veritable job interviews for the likes of Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and others. But Trump has successfully circumnavigated traditional media outlets more than any candidate in history. He has picked fights with Fox News and won. His campaign has barred reporters from the Huffington Post, Gawker, Buzzfeed, and the New Hampshire Union Leader from events. Earlier this month, a Politico reporter was denied access to an event in California. After The Washington Post reported on Trump's suggestion that President Obama was somehow complicit in the Orlando terrorist attack, his campaign revoked the news organization's press credentials.
A generation ago—perhaps even a few months ago—these tactics would have irreparably doomed a campaign. But Trump has proved that he no longer needs the platform that news outlets have traditionally provided for candidates. As my colleague Nick Bilton has noted, Trump has mastered the attention war on social media and discovered a preternatural ability to tap into his base directly. Love him or despise him, Trump indisputably has the finger on the pulse of his audience. And this connection could certainly facilitate such a hypothetical mini-media conglomerate. "Even old Fox News didn't have the right read on what the base is," one person briefed on the conversation told me. "And we do."
This is not the first time that Trump has toyed with the notion of merging his political and media identities. When he was considering a run for president, in 2011, he had a conversation with Steve Burke, the chief executive of NBCUniversal, who was interested in green-lighting a new season of The Apprentice. Trump could pursue one option or the other, it seemed, but not both. During their conversation, Trump told Burke that he would reconsider his candidacy, but he wanted to hear it from him directly.
"If you don't want me to do this, then I need you to ask me," Trump told the executive, according to one person familiar with the conversation. Burke eventually went to Trump's office and conceded that he did not want his star to attempt a bid for the White House.
But another person with knowledge of the situation noted that the two men had a subsequent conversation in which they broached a compromise, albeit one that seems more like a Trumpian fever dream than a network-TV reality. It outlined, presumably fantastically, that Trump should run for president; and on the off chance that he won, he would continue to star in The Apprentice from within the White House. (Burke did not respond to a request for comment. Hope Hicks did not respond to my request for comment on this particular matter and instead noted that Trump is focused on making America great again.)
During the past nine months, Trump has proven that he could run a presidential campaign in an unorthodox manner befitting his own personality—one that ignored outside money, relied on social-media trolling, and remained largely organized by a close circle of political neophytes, among other things. And, all things considered, it has worked fairly splendidly.
But the cable business isn't so easy. In order to start anything remotely resembling a conglomerate, even a miniature one, Trump would need a partner to pay for it, and he would likely have to purchase a cable channel from an existing player. People around him have looked to the Oprah Winfrey Network—partly owned by Winfrey's Harpo Productions and Discovery Communications—as a possible model, but OWN, too, was beset with its own issues in its early days. As Winfrey herself once famously noted, "Had I known that it was this difficult, I might have done something else."
The Trump camp's interest in cable may, on some level, be the most telling indicator of the businessman's financial aptitude. These days, after all, the most successful media companies are figuring out their strategies in a post-cable, over-the-top landscape. In fact, one rival entertainment executive pointed out to me that launching a cable channel is "nuts" because of the limited spectrum available, the declining advertising rates, and the immense start-up costs and resources required. "It's a fool's errand," this person said. "But then again, we are talking about Donald Trump."