Interview: Stuart Varney Talks Fox Business Show Turning 10, the ‘Prosperity’ Economy, and Whether Trump Lies

Stuart Varney Fox Business

Photo via Fox Business

Stuart Varney celebrated 10 years of his Fox Business show Varney & Co. on Monday, a milestone for the British host (now an American citizen) who started his cable news career with the debut of CNN in 1980.

Launched as a rival to CNBC in 2007, Fox Business sought to demystify news on business and the economy for viewers who might not be experts on what Varney calls the “jargon.” The network went through a series of lineup changes, but it has found ratings success in the current one: Maria Bartiromo hosts the network’s three-hour morning show, Mornings With Maria. She’s followed by three hours of Varney & Co. Anchors Neil Cavuto, Charles Payne, Liz Claman and others hold down the rest of the day and Lou Dobbs, Trish Regan and Kennedy host the evening hours.

The political bent of some hosts on the network is its most apparent divergence from the hard markets talk and reality television shows of CNBC, earning Fox Business heat from critics and exclusive interviews with President Donald Trump in equal measure. Like some network opinion talent, Varney doesn’t try to hide his support for Trump. His show on Fox Business — a jolly blend of pro-Trump boosterism, political-economic forecasting and business coverage — has been successful for Fox to some extent for that very reason, and looks to stay that way while Trump’s in office. “I like prosperity,” Varney tells me of the current economy.

I spoke to Varney over the phone about his Fox Business show, CNN, the Trump economy, whether the president lies and more on Monday. Read the interview, edited for length and clarity, below.

This is the 10 year anniversary of Varney & Co. What in your decade of hosting it has changed? And where does the show stand today?

Well, what we’ve tried to do is to change the way news about money and business and the economy is communicated. We came on the air 10 years ago, right around the time of the crash. And it occurred to me then that, you know, a lot of people just couldn’t understand what was happening. All that jargon about collateralized mortgage obligations. All that kinda thing — the jargon prevented a clear understanding on the part of the public about what was really going on. And so I thought, look, why don’t we have a new approach to money and communicating about money? Why don’t we concentrate more on issues like taxes, like spending, like employment, unemployment, economic growth. And what about these brilliant and huge American technology companies, which really have dominated the world of technology and dominated the market for so long. I wanted to put out a broadcast that reached over the jargon and straight to people in the most declarative fashion I could find. That’s what we’ve tried to do. And I think to some degree we’ve succeeded.

In 2016, I read an interview where you said you were closing the ratings gap between Fox Business and CNBC. Where does that stand now?

I believe we are winning that ratings battle. I’ll leave it to somebody else higher up the food chain to tell you by how much we’re winning. But I’m told that we have won the ratings battle with my direct competitors in each of the last three years. So we’re doing all right. No complaints. I want to keep it up.

You helped launch CNN, Ted Turner brought you on in 1980 and you stayed at the network until 2001. What do you think of CNN now?

Well, CNN took a turn in the mid-1990s when I was still there and became more political. Yet back in the day when I was first with CNN, and I was the first person to broadcast with CNN from New York in 1980. But we were just trying to get the news out there. We were just trying to stay on the air. But in the mid-1990s, I think we took a political turn. And I don’t think it did as much good. They progressively kept up with that political turn. And as you know, they’re vigorously anti-Trump and I don’t think it’s going down well with the audience. They seem to have lost a lot of ground, which is, it’s unfortunate. I feel it’s very unfortunate because I remember back in the day when we were the best and biggest, best game in town. And we lost that position. I think that’s unfortunate — because a lot of good people work there. A lot of good people.

I watched your show this morning. You were criticizing some in the media for harsh coverage of Trump’s impeachment. You said that your show has no time for sliming the president, or or any other president. Sliming aside, are there issues that you would criticize the president on?

Well, what stuck out for me was that the president was on his way to Davos. The big get together of the world’s elites. And he’s going as a very successful president. Now, that’s my opinion. But in so many respects, he’s very successful. And you just signed a couple of major trade deals. The economy is doing very well. Historic low unemployment. Aidan, you know the story, the economic story is a successful story. We have returned to prosperity. And what I was getting at was, what a contrast. The president flies over to Europe. The successful economic guy leading a powerful economy. But back at home, they’re trying to get rid of him. Take him out of office. Now you can make your judgment as to whether he deserves that or not. That’s somebody else’s judgment. But my judgment is that that is such a stark contrast that it’s almost untenable. I find it so surprising that at the moment he achieves this level of success in trade, the economy and all the rest of it, they’re trying to get him out of office 11 months before the election. I find that contrast striking. That’s my point

The counter-argument would be that that strong economy doesn’t insulate a president from being held accountable for what Congress deems impeachable conduct.

No, it doesn’t hold them un-accountable. I agree.

Since you segued nicely to the economy there, and Varney & Co. is a business program, I do want to talk a little bit about that.

Aidan, did I segue?

You did. You segued wonderfully into it.

I’ll take that. I’ll take that compliment, thank you.

There’s a there’s a lot of talk on your show about Trump’s economic populism, and sort of, standing up for the middle class and thumbing his nose at the elite. When you look at Trump’s 2017 tax law, a bulk of the gains went to the top 1 percent and corporations. Meanwhile, wages haven’t really gone up and income inequality is expected to worsen in coming years. What is the case that the Trump presidency is helping the middle class and not the rich?

Well, let me point out to you, which is factually correct: In the last three years, the trend has been that lower paid workers are making bigger gains, financially, than are the top-paid 1 percent. I had Larry Kudlow on this show the other day. And look, whether you accept his numbers or not, I don’t know. But here’s what he told me: The bottom 50 percent, their net worth in the last three years has gone up 47 percent, whereas the net worth of the top 1 percent has gone up 13 percent. In other words, the income inequality gap is actually closing. Now, another point to make is, yes it is true that the most dollars went to business and top income earners. That is true. However, because of that, that stimulated the economy and created this growth that we’re now raising all boats and raising the boasts of the lowest paid in particular.

You were critical, I believe, of President Obama for expanding the federal debt. Now, under the Trump administration, in 2019 the deficit topped $1 trillion. And in a recent interview with Mark Sanford, you said that you didn’t see a downside with those numbers. What has changed between those two views?

What’s interesting is that we’ve had a deficit for a long time. For 20 years. And it is growing, and it should not be growing. You really should not have a growing deficit at a time of prosperity and full employment. I mean, it really should not be like that. But the problem is not that we’re taxing too little. The problem is that we’re spending too much. We’ve always had the debt problem, the debt crisis that looms over us. The debt bomb that’s always going to explode at some point in the future. But, you know, it has not. If you’ve got a deficit of a trillion dollars — and you’re right, we do — you would expect that interest rates would rise rapidly as government borrowing crowds out the borrowing of the private sector. Well that’s not happened. We’ve got interest rates at an all time low.

Do you have any fears that there might be an economic downturn coming and that the surge in the federal deficit might hinder America’s ability to deal with it?

What worries me is not the deficit. What worries me is the unexpected, totally un-forecastable black swan. An event that comes out of nowhere that you cannot predict. It could be an earthquake. It could be a natural disaster. It could be a war. It could be a terrorist attack of major proportions. It could be any of those things, none of which you can forecast, that would hit very, very hard and really take down the market and take down the economy. You can’t forecast that, in the back of your mind, especially at the time when you’ve got an 11 year bull market, and a nice solid run for the economy. You’ve always got to think about that. What keeps me up at night? The black swan keeps me up at night.

A strong economy usually ensures an incumbent president’s victory in presidential elections. So, if the economy is strong, it’s very likely an incumbent president will get reelected. That leads me to the question, if the Trump economy is so good, why do you think his approval ratings are so low?

I think there are many people who object to the president’s style, language and approach. They find him — I don’t know, I’m not going to characterize how they find him. But I think there are a number of people who object to his personality and the way he conducts his presidency. I agree with you that the strong economy should make him a strong candidate for re-election. I think there will be those people who do not like him. I can put it in such simplistic terms. They don’t like his language or persona and will not vote for it. I think that’s his big problem.

Do you share any of those concerns?

I would be very concerned if he does not win re-election. The alternative, looks to me at the moment like socialism, either heavy socialism or socialism-lite. I’m a refugee from that and I really would not want to see that. I don’t see any recession on the horizon. I don’t see an economic downturn of any proportions on the horizon. I see prosperity continuing this year. And I expect the president to be re-elected.

Do you ever speak to the president?

I have on occasion, yes, but not on the phone, nothing like that. He doesn’t call me .

One exchange I wanted to bring up that you had this year. You were speaking with Joe Walsh, the Republican presidential candidate. You said you don’t believe President Trump has ever lied to the American people. The Washington Post fact checker just clocked in president’s false and misleading claims at 16,000. Do you stand by that assertion?

It was a very heated interview. I think perhaps it got a little out of hand. That’s my answer.

Do you stand by that assertion? That the president doesn’t lie?

As I said, it was a very heated interview.

I’m going to take that as a dodge if you’ll permit me, Stuart. I want to ask you about the future of Varney & Co. and where you see Fox Business going in the next 10 years.

Good one. That was a nice segue, Aidan.

I thought I would be generous.

Thank you very much. That’s very kind. I’m going to continue on the same track that I’m on now. I want to communicate directly in a declarative and personal fashion, and I want to use humor as much as possible. If you watch the show, I try to keep a pleasant, humorous, positive demeanor because that’s the best way of communicating what’s going on. And I think that keeps the viewers in. I intend to keep on doing that. I’m not going to change my style now. For how long I keep doing it, well that’s an open question. I really don’t know. I feel good now, I have no intention of walking away in the immediate future.

I know your your show isn’t primarily politics, but you have a political angle. Do you have special coverage or any special way you’re going to be covering the upcoming election?

We’ll cover it from the point of view of: How do we keep prosperity going? Because I like prosperity. And so does America. That will be our political perspective.

Is that a euphemism for a Trump re-election in 2020?

No. But when I consider the alternatives, that will be a factor.

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Aidan McLaughlin is the Editor of Mediaite. Send tips via email: Ask for Signal. Follow him on Twitter: @aidnmclaughlin