Donald Trump defends Bill O'Reilly amid sexual harassment claims

Amanda Holpuch in New York
Donald Trump: ‘I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.’ Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Donald Trump defended Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on Wednesday as dozens of advertisers backed away from O’Reilly’s top-rated evening news program because of a mounting sexual harassment scandal.

More than 20 advertisers cut their ties to O’Reilly’s show following a New York Times investigation published on Saturday that said about $13m in settlements had been paid to women who had accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior.

“I think he’s a person I know well – he is a good person,” Trump told the New York Times. “I think he shouldn’t have settled; personally I think he shouldn’t have settled. Because you should have taken it all the way. I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”

O’Reilly has interviewed Trump multiple times, including in October 2016, when the two discussed a 2005 video that showed the president saying that he would kiss women without their consent and that being a star means “you can do anything,” including “grab them by the pussy”.

The video did not stop Trump from winning the presidential election, but O’Reilly’s career has been threatened by the sexual harassment allegations.

In response to the allegations, O’Reilly said in a statement that his notoriety has made him “vulnerable to lawsuits” and that he has paid settlements to “put to rest any controversies to spare my children”. He did not address the allegations on his news program on Monday or Tuesday night.

David Folkenflik, author of Murdoch’s World and NPR’s media correspondent, told the Guardian that O’Reilly’s fate is in the hands of the acting Fox News CEO, Rupert Murdoch, and his sons, James and Lachlan, executives at the network’s parent company, 21st Century Fox.

“Simply bumping out their top performing star, who they are paying in the high teens of millions per year to continue isn’t a decision they take lightly,” said Folkenflik. “On the other hand, it dramatically undercuts the contention made by Murdoch’s sons – and made by Rupert Murdoch himself – that the culture has changed for employees generally, and particularly for women.”

The Murdochs are under pressure to address the O’Reilly allegations amid a torrent of scandals affecting current and former network leadership.

On Monday, Fox News political commentator Julie Roginsky filed a lawsuit accusing the former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes of sexual harassment. Despite the suit, Roginsky appeared live on the network twice on Tuesday to discuss the day’s news events. She did not mention the lawsuit.

Ailes, who helped found Fox News two decades ago, was driven out of the company in July 2016 after more than two dozen women, including the network’s top hosts, accused him of sexual harassment. He has denied all accusations of sexual harassment through his attorneys.

The day after Roginsky filed suit, a third black female Fox News employee joined a racial discrimination lawsuit filed last week against the company. The staffer had worked at the company for 18 years and reported directly to Judith Slater, the network’s comptroller, who was fired in response to the other two employees’ allegations.

On Tuesday, the National Organization of Women (Now) has called for Bill O’Reilly to be fired. “For too long women have endured dangerous sexism at the hands of powerful men and powerful institutions,” Now’s president, Terry O’Neill, said in a statement. “Fox News is too big and too influential to simply let this go.”

By Wednesday morning, more than 12 companies had pulled advertisements from the O’Reilly Factor, leaving the fate of the network’s top program in the air.

“I think this is going to be a real test as to whether Rupert Murdoch, who has something of a buccaneer soul, is going to be able to skate by and ride this out,” said Folkenflik.

GlaxoSmithKline, Allstate, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz are among the firms that have cancelled plans to advertise on O’Reilly’s show. “The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now,” said Donna Boland, manager of corporate communications for Mercedes Benz USA, in a statement.

Nearly 4 million viewers a night watch The O’Reilly Factor, which had $118.6m in ad dollars in the first nine months of 2016, according to Kantar Media.

O’Reilly usually tops nightly cable news ratings, though MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has pulled ahead in the last three weeks after she revealed Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return on-air in early March.

“We value our partners and are working with them to address their current concerns about ‘The O’Reilly Factor,’” Paul Rittenberg, the executive vice-president for advertising sales at Fox News, said in a statement. “At this time, the ad buys of those clients have been re-expressed into other FNC programs.”

O’Reilly said in a statement on Saturday that the “worst part” of his job is “being a target for those who would harm me and my employer, the Fox News Channel”.

“Those of us in the arena are constantly at risk, as are our families and children,” O’Reilly said in a statement. “My primary efforts will continue to be to put forth an honest TV program and to protect those close to me.”

He has not issued a statement since.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes