Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

Matt Drudge, who rose to stardom when he broke the Monica Lewinsky story around the last presidential impeachment, still runs the news aggregation site that bears his name during this one. And he’s still one of the most influential people in the media. 

The now-52-year-old Drudge and a skeleton staff effectively invented clickbait. They still present lines of juicy, but context-less text, aggregated from around the web, in a typewriter font: “STUDY: Farmers have most sex…” “Interior minister warns of repeat of migrant influx into EU…” “HILLARY 2020? ‘DON’T TEMPT ME’…”

It’s been an effective recipe. In recent years, according to one analytics firm, the Drudge Report has surpassed the New York Times in web traffic. On his site, Drudge boasts 10 billion views for the last year, which is generally in line with other reported estimates. And during the last presidential campaign, he used every bit of that influence to back Donald Trump, going all in on the candidate well before many other major conservative entities, including Fox News. 

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Trump’s main rival, Ted Cruz, lashed out at Drudge for his apparent bias, calling the Drudge Report “an attack site for the Donald Trump campaign.” Carl Bernstein called Drudge’s backing “an influence unequaled” in Trump’s ascendency to the GOP nomination. Bob Sutton, a self-described “foot soldier” in the Trump movement and chairman of the Broward County Republican Executive Committee, said the backing from a media powerhouse helped rally the Trump movement. “Drudge was an early supporter of our grassroots effort with Trump,” said Sutton, who is pushing the president’s re-election efforts in South Florida, where Drudge resides. “It was nice to know there was a friend.” 

Trump reciprocated Drudge’s affection after the election, calling him a “great gentleman” and hosting him at the White House. But cracks began emerging in Drudge’s devotion two years into Trump’s term, with the president’s inability to get full funding for the border wall. The issue was clearly central to Drudge’s support, as it was to that of other hardline conservatives, including Ann Coulter, who has heavily criticized Trump for failing to build the wall as promised. 

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Drudge had been serving up a diet of stories painting “illegals” as job-taking, disease-carrying criminals long before Trump deemed them rapists. (Just three weeks before Trump announced his candidacy, Drudge posted a story alleging a “surge” in deaths and gang activity “as illegals flood the border.”) And Drudge clearly wasn’t pleased when Trump didn’t follow through on some of his campaign promises. This summer he posted a banner headline that slammed Trump for building “no new wall at all!” 

Following that opening salvo, his hits on Trump began stacking up. Through July and August last year Drudge warned that big government had expanded on Trump’s watch, that his “trash talk” turned off suburban women, that farmers were struggling and that the president was ruining markets with his trade wars. 

And since the impeachment proceedings began, Drudge has gone further anti-Trump, pounding him day after day. 

I wanted to ask Drudge about his changing stance on Trump, but he hasn’t given a mainstream media outlet an interview in years. The voicemail I left him went unreturned, so last year, just as the headlines began to turn, I drove out to to Drudge’s house in a remote farming community called Redland in southwest Miami-Dade County. 

I did not have high hopes of finding him. Drudge’s house, which he bought along with the adjoining property for about $2.2 million in 2013, is hidden in woods, not far from the Everglades. Pulling up to the entrance after driving on some of Redland’s idyllic tree-domed roads, I expected nothing less than a high-walled bunker. A wooden gate greeted me instead. It was wide open. 

 

I live in a world that is free, colorful, vibrant, takes chances, bold, stands up to power. And that’s where I’ve made my success.

 

THOUGH DECIDEDLY RECLUSIVE, Drudge hadn’t completely fallen off the earth before my visit. He’d surfaced, or at least his voice had, twice in the past four years, both times within the confines of his acolytes in the conservative media. The first came in October 2015, when he joined a sort-of protégé, Alex Jones, on InfoWars. 

The Drudge Report has linked to hundreds of InfoWars’ stories over the years, driving millions of views to the conspiracy-driven site. He did the same for Breitbart News (the late Andrew Breitbart worked as an aide for Drudge, or as Breitbart himself put it, “Matt Drudge’s bitch”). 

When he appeared on InfoWars, Drudge lamented that “you can’t underestimate the sickness of the American people right now,” but praised Jones as “a romance figure” who was “standing up tough, facing headwinds.” 

“But you’re there and you’re not alone,” Drudge told Jones. “Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, Levin. … I’m friends with all of them.” 

He was referring to conservative radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, as well as Fox News commentators Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. Drudge spoke a great deal about his own freedom to say whatever he wanted, without reliance on any other person or corporation, including web behemoths like Facebook and Twitter. 

“You’re playing in Google’s hell pit,” said Drudge. “Make your own place. … I live in a world that is free, colorful, vibrant, takes chances, bold, stands up to power. And that’s where I’ve made my success.”

Drudge’s other relatively recent public appearance was in March 2017, when he briefly appeared on the radio show of Michael Savage, a white nationalist and conspiracy theorist. There Drudge spoke of Trump in near-heroic terms, calling him “one of the most fascinating Americans that has ever lived in the modern era.” He said he suspected that the new president was the victim of “sabotage” from Congress and worried Hillary Clinton might win the presidency in 2020. 

“We’re trying to save this young Trump administration,” he said. 

Savage boasted that he and Drudge were the “two people on earth” who had done the most to get Trump elected. “I don’t know about that,” Drudge demurred.

 

I told him I was curious about his current thoughts on Trump. ‘You and everybody else,’ he said.

 

WINDING THROUGH palm-spangled Florida woods on Drudge’s driveway, I caught a glimpse of a swimming pool and the edge of his home, carved into the landscape. 

After a brief conversation with an apparent groundskeeper on a golf cart who spoke little English, I knocked on his door with no answer. Then I left. Later in the day, I called his number again. And this time, Drudge answered, his nasal voice unmistakable.

I introduced myself and told him I was working on a story for the Columbia Journalism Review, and said I’d tried knocking on his door. 

“That was you?” he asked with apparent astonishment. 

He said he couldn’t make out who it was in surveillance videos, noted that he’d put up “Keep Out” signs on his property for just this kind of occasion, and had even called the police. (The Miami-Dade force produced no record of such a call, when I asked for one later.) 

“That’s not fair that you would come onto my property, knowing the climate we’re in,” he said. “It’s a volatile climate and you could have been hurt. … What happens if it was a fan? What happens if it was a stalker?” 

He didn’t sound angry; much of the call was oddly pleasant. But he became defensive when I asked him if he felt he was in danger from fans or stalkers.  

“You’re putting words in my mouth,” he said. 

“Not at all,” I countered. “It was a question.” 

He was still caught up on my door knock.

“Ambushing someone on a private property, you can get yourself hurt Bob,” he said. “I’ve followed your career. I watched you on [local Miami television], and I’m surprised you would conduct yourself in that way.” 

Was Matt Drudge trying to guilt-trip me? After going back and forth for several more minutes, he finally asked me what I wanted to talk about. I told him I was curious about his current thoughts on Trump. 

“You and everybody else,” he said. 

I noted that he went all in on Trump during the election. 

“That was three years ago,” he said. 

That response seemed rather telling, a clear distancing from the president. But Drudge wouldn’t go further. Instead, he went right back to the supposed violation of his inner sanctum. 

“The gate was open, I drove to your door, I knocked and I left,” I told him. “You were an aggressive reporter yourself at one point I believe.” 

“I remember knocking on Maureen Dowd’s door years ago,” he said almost wistfully. 

Shortly after our somewhat tortured conversation, the impeachment process began. And the Drudge Report was no longer defending Trump in the least. In fact, Drudge seems to be outwardly rooting for Trump’s downfall. The loaded headlines tell the story: “Republican criticism [of Trump] mounts …” “It took [a] long time for Republicans to abandon Nixon …” “Senate likelier to remove [Trump] …”

Leading the page recently was a photograph of a troubled-looking Trump over links to a poll showing that 52 percent of respondents supported his removal from office, one noting that the impeachment process “mirrors Nixon,” and another asking “would Trump agree to quit?” When Trump said in late October that the wall was being built in Colorado, Drudge skewered him for the gaffe, leading his page with a doctored map of the southwest United States. 

Of course Drudge’s persistent slamming of Trump hasn’t gone unnoticed. Many conservatives have voiced a mixture of anger, shock and dismay over the apparent shift. 

“[D]oes anyone know what @realDonaldTrump did to @DRUDGE to cause him to go from great news aggregation provider to anti-Trumper number one?” tweeted conservative radio talker Joe Pagliarulo, adding, “What gives?” 

Radio host and frequent Fox News contributor Dan Bongino recently launched his own news aggregation site in direct reaction to Drudge’s shift on Trump. With a sub-category titled “The Impeachment Witch Hunt,” the site promises to be 100 percent pro-Trump. 

“Drudge has abandoned you,” Bongino tweeted January 8. “We never will.” 

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Bob Norman has covered crime and corruption in southern Florida for 25 years. He's currently working as a freelance journalist.