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His Fox News gig was the perfect transition from ‘Apprentice’ Trump to politician Trump

President Trump’s professional relationship with Fox News is much older than his career in politics. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

President Trump seemed to tip his hand in a tweet on Tuesday.

“So weird to watch Crazy Bernie on [Fox News],” Trump wrote, referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who participated in a town hall on the network on Monday evening. “Not surprisingly, [host Bret Baier] and the 'audience’ was so smiley and nice. Very strange, and now we have [Donna Brazile]?”

The complaint’s a bit all over the place, but Trump appears to be taking issue with Fox News breaking from its generally Trump-friendly programming to host Sanders, part of a trend, he suggested, that also included the network’s hiring Brazile, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, who was a target of Trump complaints during the 2016 election.

But the word that attracted the most attention was probably that “we.” We? “We” have Brazile? As in, you, President Trump, and Fox News, collectively?

One can read that word as reflecting a sort of generic what-do-we-have-here. Or you can read it, as many did, as reflecting that Trump sees himself as part of the Fox News family.

It’s clear that such a sentiment would be warranted. In addition to the president’s speaking regularly with the network’s Sean Hannity, Trump’s White House has included a number of former Fox News employees — and the network and its parent company have hired numerous former Trump staffers. (That pipeline is reportedly expanding, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reportedly planning to hire another Fox personality.) During the 2018 midterms, Fox News blended its programming with Trump rallies on more than one occasion.

The idea that Trump’s relationship with the network is currently robust, though, ignores its history. In fact, Trump’s professional relationship with Fox News is much older than his career in politics.

In early 2011, Fox News announced that it had reached an agreement with Trump to serve as a regular commentator on its early-morning program “Fox and Friends.” The contributor position was unpaid, according to CBS News.

Fox promoted the relationship with an ad touting Trump’s appearances, as reported at the time by Mediaite.

“My message is a better message than anyone else,” Trump says in the brief clip.

His first weekly segment on the program ran on April 4, 2011. He was asked about an impending budget deal and touted former House speaker Paul D. Ryan as “just absolutely terrific.” He talked about how China was “taking our jobs.” They talked about how Oprah Winfrey wanted to give Trump bangs.

And they talked about his possible 2012 presidential campaign which, at that moment, was very much in the works. Trump was asked whether his longtime aide Roger Stone was pushing his candidacy.

“Roger Stone has been very nice. He thinks I’m doing fantastic,” Trump said. “A Newsmax poll just came out that said I’m winning by a long shot in terms of the Republican primary. Roger has been very nice, but he’s not involved in my campaign in any way.”

Stone was indicted earlier this year on charges that he, among other things, obstructed the investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian interference efforts.

At the time that Trump started appearing on Fox News in 2011, he was also actively promoting birtherism, claiming that former president Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Shortly before Trump’s first “Fox and Friends” appearance, he appeared on a Fox News show then-hosted by Bill O’Reilly where he claimed Obama didn’t have a birth certificate.

What’s particularly important about the timing is that it marked a transition for Trump from host of “The Apprentice” to an explicitly political television actor.

“The Apprentice” began its run in 2004. That first season was the only one where the show topped the weekly ratings; each of the next few seasons generally saw viewership slip downward. But, for a moment, it was a behemoth, repositioning Trump in the public eye as a master businessman with the Midas touch. Much has been said about the importance of the show in making Trump palatable as a president, which it’s safe to assume is true.

By 2007, “The Apprentice” had slowed down a bit. The show and its spinoff/successor “Celebrity Apprentice” were running annually instead of twice a year. Trump started his Twitter account in 2009, generally sticking to promotions for his upcoming television appearances. Over the course of 2010, his tweets were mostly about Trump hotels and his TV show. He tweeted once about Obama, linked to a Medal of Honor ceremony.

Then Trump decided he might want to run for president himself. In 2011, he tweeted about Obama more than 200 times. And he made that deal with Fox News to get airtime every week offering his thoughts about the news of the day — and about politics.

If you want to reach Republican voters, Fox News is the place to do it — as it was then. A March 2012 Suffolk University poll found that 56 percent of Republicans identified Fox News as their most trusted source of television news or commentary. That percentage has remained fairly consistent.

Trump went from being on TV to bolster his image as a businessman to being on TV to bolster his image as a conservative with thoughts about politics. Never mind that Trump was registered as a Democrat for George W. Bush’s entire presidency: “Fox and Friends” clearly played some role in making Trump palatable as a Republican.

Fox probably influenced him, as well. Trump’s immersion in conservative rhetoric predates his start as a Fox News contributor only slightly. His 2016 success was certainly rooted in his willingness to make the arguments that voters could hear on Fox News (including from Trump), arguments that more established candidates probably saw as flawed or problematic.

Fox eventually terminated its relationship with Trump, but only once he announced his candidacy in June 2015. In other words, there has been no period in the past eight years in which Trump was not either a Fox News contributor, a presidential candidate or president.

A situation that might lend itself to some blurry relationship boundaries.