Media critic

When the day is done, President Trump retreats to his quarters in the White House and does a couple of things. One is to watch cable television. Another is chatting on the phone with friends and allies. Author Michael Wolff details one 26-minute call from Trump to a “casual acquaintance” in February 2017, in which Trump riffed about all the media people who annoy him, among other topics.

We may get secondhand accounts of these calls, but that’s usually about it.

And here, “Fox & Friends” comes in handy. On Thursday morning, Trump spent nearly a half-hour chatting with the three hosts — Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade and Ainsley Earhardt — about stuff that he was thinking about. Broadcast live over national television, the chat may well have revealed the closest public approximation of the late-night cellphone version of Trump.

Over most of the call, the trio offered occasional resistance to the hogwash coming from the president. There were ridiculous stretches of logic and assertions about Russia, domestic politics and the U.S. justice system. Credit goes to the “Fox & Friends” crew for pressing Trump about his long relationship with personal attorney Michael Cohen, who is under federal investigation in the Southern District of New York. Cohen once said this to CNN: “I protect Mr. Trump. If there’s an issue that relates to Mr. Trump, that is of concern to him it’s of course of concern to me and I will use my legal skills to protect Mr. Trump to the best of my ability.”

In response to a fine question from Doocy, Trump told “Fox & Friends” that Cohen’s work for him represented just a “tiny, tiny little fraction” of “my overall legal work.”* In verily the same breath, the president said that Cohen helped out on the “crazy Stormy Daniels deal.” Maybe Trump’s lawyers would have preferred that the president kept quiet on such a matter.

So that was news.

As we’ve noted in this space several times, Trump’s sense of comfort with “Fox & Friends” is rooted in years of loose talk. Starting in the spring of 2011 — and on occasion before then — Trump called into the show every Monday morning, for bull sessions that fulfilled precisely three objectives: Filling the show’s three-hour content hole; promoting whatever product Trump was selling, whether some beauty pageant, his real estate bona fides or his prospects as a politician; and buoying the very good ratings of “Fox & Friends.”

It’s just that kind of ramp that produces this stunning exchange from Thursday morning’s marathon:

Trump: [Fired FBI Director James Comey] does these memos and then fake news CNN, totally fake, you know they gave Hillary [Clinton] questions to the debate. Can you imagine, by the way, if you gave me the questions to a debate, they would have you out of business and they’d have me, you better get out of this campaign — they don’t even bring it up. I mean, CNN — fake news CNN — actually gave the questions to the debate —

Kilmeade: Yeah, but don’t worry about them.

[Crosstalk]

Ainsley Earhardt: I want to ask you —

Trump: No, no, but think of it, how bad is that? So anyway, so Comey leaked and by the way, also: What he did with CNN in order to placate them, you saw that whole scenario. This is a big mistake, this book. He is guilty of crimes and if we had a Justice Department that was doing their job instead of spending [inaudible] trying to find —

Doocy: It’s your Justice Department: Mr. President, Mr. President, you’re the Republican in charge. You’ve got a Republican running it.

Trump: You’re right. You’re right. You’re right. But here’s what, I answer this all the time. Because of the fact that they have this witch hunt going on with people in the Justice Department that shouldn’t be there, they have a witch hunt against the president of the United States going on, I’ve taken the position, and I don’t have to take this position and maybe I’ll change, that I will not be involved with the Justice Department. I will wait till this is over. It’s a total, it’s all lies and it’s a horrible thing that’s going on, a horrible thing. And yet I’ve accomplished, with all this going on, more than any president in the first year in our history. Even the enemies and the haters admit that. We have accomplished more than any president in the first year, by far. … So I’m very disappointed in my Justice Department. But because of the fact that it’s going on — and I think you’ll understand this — I have decided that I won’t be involved. I may change my mind at some point because what’s going on is a disgrace.

More news from the president there, too. With the folks on the “Fox & Friends” couch, Trump opened up about perhaps taking a more interventionist role in his Justice Department down the road. Sounds like a warning.

Not bad, “Fox & Friends”: Prod Trump here and there, but mostly sit back and let him make news — which he will do, in large part because he doesn’t appear to recognize the lines between proper constitutional behavior and malfeasance. Check out some transcripts of New York Times interviews, and you’ll see that Maggie Haberman deploys this tactic as a clutch to engage the president’s motormouth. And back in December, Michael S. Schmidt, a colleague of Haberman’s, took pretty much the same approach in an impromptu Florida interview — and took heaps of social-media abuse for not having sufficiently pressed the president. The president, as it turns out, presses himself, in loony, off-the-cuff verbal meanderings that resist even the most diligent punctuation.

We are not drawing equivalency, of course, between “Fox & Friends” and the New York Times. The former are buddies with the president, though on Thursday they showed flashes of journalistic potential; the latter has broken story after story about the inner workings of the White House. We are merely saying that in a time of broken norms, the norm of sitting opposite the president with a stack of “hard-nosed questions” is also broken.

Students of television journalism will want to examine the closing moments of Thursday’s “Fox & Friends” masterpiece. Having already rambled for nearly 30 minutes, Trump was still roaring — “memos back and forth and the FBI”; “by the way, you take a poll of the FBI: I love the FBI and the FBI loves me”; “he took $700,000 from a group headed by Terry McAuliffe, who was under investigation”; “and our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from but at some point, I won’t” — on topic after topic, still free-associating, still making news. “Fox & Friends,” however, apparently couldn’t stand any more. “We could talk to you all day, but it looks like you have a million things to do,” Kilmeade said with diplomatic aplomb. He might have said, You should have a million things to do but clearly do not.

*Correction: This post originally indicated that Cohen’s legal work for Trump was a small part of the Cohen’s workload, not Trump’s “my overall legal work.”