Tucker Carlson had dinner with his ultimate boss, Rupert Murdoch, two weeks ago in Los Angeles, and everything seemed just fine.
But according to people familiar with their conversation and Murdoch's thinking, the 92-year-old billionaire founder of Fox News had grown weary of some of Carlson's increasingly far-right commentary on his nightly prime-time show - as well as some of the swaggering host's behind-the-scenes attitude.
Two days after Fox News abruptly fired its top-rated host, ambiguity still swirled around the question of how exactly Carlson, a major influencer in GOP politics, had fallen from grace so quickly within a network that soared to success by catering to conservative audiences.
But interviews with people inside Fox or close to the situation made it clear that the decision rested with the powerful family that controls the company, who finally determined that Carlson was more trouble than he was worth.
When Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott called Carlson Monday morning to tell him he would be "parting ways" with the network, the host repeatedly asked why, according to people familiar with the conversation. Scott would only tell him that the decision came "from above" - meaning Rupert Murdoch and his Fox Corp CEO son Lachlan.
Scott and Lachlan Murdoch had made the decision to fire Carlson Friday evening, three days after the settlement, and Lachlan spoke to his father about it on Saturday, according to two people familiar with the discussion. The decision also came after months of tension and complaints within Fox about Carlson's lack of respect for Fox's upper ranks.
The move was a shock for Carlson. The frequently incendiary host had often touted to colleagues the extent to which he felt protected by the Murdochs, who he said offered him editorial freedom that no other media outlet would.
Indeed, Carlson had skirted the kind of controversy that could have been a career-killer for any other TV personality, as the subject of repeated advertising boycotts and caustic criticism for his disparaging comments about immigrants, smirking attempts to downplay the dangers of white supremacy and mockery of efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, his chief writer resigned after he was revealed to have been posting racist and sexist rants on a covert online forum.
By the end, Carlson's main advertiser was MyPillow, the company owned by far-right conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell. But Fox publicly stood by him - until Monday.
The announcement came just days after Fox settled with Dominion Voting Systems, the company that had sued over false claims of election-fraud conspiracy theories, for a whopping $787.5 million. This triggered a flurry of competing theories about the reasons for Carlson's dismissal, but people familiar with the company's thinking say the timing of the move was simple: The Murdochs did not want to make a big decision on such a pivotal figure until after the case was resolved.
People familiar with the matter told The Washington Post that Carlson's private communications - released alongside those of numerous other Fox employees during the discovery process of the lawsuit - were key to his departure. Some of those communications were redacted at the request of Fox attorneys but have been viewed by top executives. And while Carlson leveled plenty of critiques of Fox top brass in documents that were made public, some of the most sensitive and damaging material remains hidden, these people said.
Neither Fox nor Carlson are speaking publicly about what happened. A Fox News spokeswoman said she could not go beyond a simple "agreed to part ways" statement released Monday.
In a vacuum of information, people close to the company have been left to speculate about what happened - especially considering that other on-air stars did far more than Carlson to push the conspiracy theories that landed Fox in legal jeopardy - and what might happen next. The future of Fox host Maria Bartiromo, who factored significantly in Dominion's legal claims, has been the subject of much internal speculation among network employees.
"I was surprised that Tucker was the one to go," said Joseph Azam, a former senior vice president at Murdoch-controlled News Corp., who resigned in 2019 over Fox's anti-Muslim rhetoric. He noted that Rupert Murdoch "doesn't really bet against himself and he doesn't like losing money, and Tucker was generating plenty of that, so I assume it was a deeply personal decision."
Carlson's contract, according to a person familiar with it, was renewed in 2021 and is worth roughly $20 million a year. He has retained Los Angeles attorney Bryan Freedman, who is also representing Don Lemon in his separation from CNN and who previously represented Megyn Kelly in her separation from NBC, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Fox News generates roughly 70 percent of its parent company's pretax profit, according to analysis by Bloomberg, and Carlson was its biggest prime time star, which leaves a hole in the lineup and a question about the network's financial future.
One popular theory inside Fox is that Carlson's firing is a sign that the Murdochs are preparing to sell the company. Yet any such sale would require the sign-off of the trust that controls both Fox and its sister company News Corp., which owns the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and the Times of London. Control of the trust is split between Rupert Murdoch and his four adult children, and no approach to trust representatives has been made.
Meanwhile, a person close to the family speaking on condition of anonymity to preserve relationships said that if the Murdochs wanted to sell the company, they would likely have kept one of its biggest revenue draws - Tucker Carlson.
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The Washington Post's Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.