Former President Donald Trump praised the late conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday as a “great man” in his first TV interview since leaving office, and he said Mr. Limbaugh shared his view that he defeated Democrat Joseph R. Biden in the presidential election.
“He was a legend. There aren’t too many legends around,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Limbaugh during a call-in to Fox News from his home in Florida. “To those people that listened to him every day, it was like a religious experience for a lot of people. He’s irreplaceable.”
Mr. Limbaugh died Wednesday at age 70 after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. Mr. Trump awarded his friend and influential political ally with the Medal of Freedom a year ago during his State of the Union address after Mr. Limbaugh’s diagnosis became public.
“His fight was very, very courageous,” said Mr. Trump, who spoke with Mr. Limbaugh a few days before his death. “He was fighting till the very end.”
In a statement through his office later, Mr. Trump said Mr. Limbaugh “has passed away to a better place, free from physical pain and hostility.”
Perhaps more than any other media figure, Mr. Limbaugh helped pave the way for Mr. Trump’s election in 2016. When Mr. Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, he talked tough about halting illegal immigration from Mexico. He said some were “rapists” and were bringing crime and drugs to the U.S.
The speech earned the praise of Mr. Limbaugh, whose tens of millions of regular listeners were a natural audience for the Republican’s “America First” agenda. Mr. Limbaugh later said approvingly that Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants “set the world on fire.”
“That’s when people [said], ‘Whoa. What in the name, is this guy serious?’” Mr. Limbaugh recalled later. “And some people started [saying], ‘We hope he’s serious. We hope he’s serious.’ This is the way people have been hoping Washington would look at illegal immigration for decades.”
Mr. Trump, who hadn’t met Mr. Limbaugh at the time, said, “He liked my rather controversial speech. He thought we were going to win.
“He just had an incredible instinct for politics,” Mr. Trump said. “A lot of people wouldn’t kn√çow, but he was very, very street-smart. He really got it.”
The former president said Mr. Limbaugh was loyal to the end and agreed with Mr. Trump’s claim that the election in November was stolen from him.
“Rush Limbaugh thought we won. And so do I, by the way,” Mr. Trump said. “I think we won substantially. … You would have had riots going all over the place if that happened to a Democrat. We don’t have the same support at certain levels of the Republican system. Rush felt we won, and he was quite angry about it.”
Mr. Limbaugh told his listeners after the election that Mr. Biden “didn’t win this thing fair and square.”
Speaking four days after the Senate acquitted him of inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Trump told his Fox hosts, “You don’t know how angry this country is.”
It was the first TV interview for Mr. Trump, who is banned from some social media platforms, since he left office on Jan. 20. He chose Fox, despite clashing with the network bitterly over what he considers unfair treatment of him in its election night coverage.
As someone who had his own long-running hit TV reality show, Mr. Trump marveled at his friend’s skill and work ethic in running the top conservative radio show in the nation five days a week.
“He had an audience that was massive,” Mr. Trump said. “He would get up in the show and would just talk. He wouldn’t take phone calls where people would call in every two minutes, and that’s sort of easy to do. He would just talk for two hours to three hours, just talk. And that’s not an easy thing to do. I once asked him, ‘Do you study for the show?’ And he said, ‘Actually, I study very hard.’ That a little bit surprised me. But he was a fantastic man, a fantastic talent, and people, whether they loved him or not, they respected him.”
David Axelrod, who was an adviser to President Obama, said of Mr. Limbaugh’s influence, “Whether you loved him or hated him — and there are very few people in between — Rush Limbaugh was indisputably a force of historic proportions. Over the past three decades, he did as much to polarize our politics as anyone and laid the groundwork for Trump and Trumpism.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence said of the political movement that propelled Mr. Trump to the White House, “The foundation for that movement was poured by Rush Limbaugh, and I think President Trump always knew that.”
Mr. Trump said he developed a “very good friendship” with Mr. Limbaugh and sometimes played a round of golf with him.
“He was just a great gentleman,” the former president said. “He loved this country. And he loved his fans. He loved talking about the country and the future.”
Immediately after Mr. Limbaugh announced his stage 4 cancer diagnosis in the winter of 2020, Mr. Trump arranged to award him the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, at the State of the Union address, traditionally held in the House chamber at the Capitol. Both men undoubtedly knew the move would infuriate Democrats, who sat on their hands in stony silence as Republicans gave Mr. Limbaugh a standing ovation.
Mr. Trump called Mr. Limbaugh “the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet” and praised his “decades of tireless devotion to our country.”
He said Mr. Limbaugh deserved the medal “in recognition of all that you have done for our nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire, and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity.” An emotional Mr. Limbaugh, standing in the visitors gallery, was adorned with the medal by first lady Melania Trump.
Mr. Biden, then running for the Democratic nomination, said on CNN that Mr. Limbaugh “spent his entire time on the air dividing people, belittling people.” He said Mr. Trump’s gesture was “driven more by trying to maintain [his] right-wing political credentials than it is anything else.”
Mr. Trump recalled on Wednesday, “Rush was very sick at the time. It was a very difficult thing for him to come to Washington … and he did it. He was just a very brave guy. He told me it was the greatest honor of his life.”
In his statement on Mr. Limbaugh’s passing, the former president said, “Rush was a patriot, a defender of Liberty, and someone who believed in all of the greatness our Country stands for. His honor, courage, strength, and loyalty will never be replaced.”