During a small working lunch at the White House last month, the question of job security in President Trump’s tumultuous White House came up, and one of the attendees wondered whether press secretary Sean Spicer might be the first to go.
The president’s response was swift and unequivocal. “I’m not firing Sean Spicer,” he said, according to someone familiar with the encounter. “That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.”
Trump even likened Spicer’s daily news briefings to a daytime soap opera, noting proudly that his press secretary attracted nearly as many viewers.
For Trump — a reality TV star who parlayed his blustery-yet-knowing on-air persona into a winning political brand — television is often the guiding force of his day, both weapon and scalpel, megaphone and news feed. And the president’s obsession with the tube — as a governing tool, a metric for staff evaluation, and a two-way conduit with lawmakers and aides — has upended the traditional rhythms of the White House, influencing many spheres, including policy, his burgeoning relationship with Congress, and whether he taps out a late-night or early-morning tweet.
Those Trump tweet-storms, which contain some of his most controversial utterances, are usually prompted by something he has seen on television just moments before. The president, advisers said, also uses details gleaned from cable news as a starting point for policy discussions or a request for more information, and appears on TV himself when he wants to appeal directly to the public.
Some White House officials — who early on would appear on TV to emphasize points to their boss, who was likely to be watching just steps away in his residence — have started tuning into Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” because they know the president habitually clicks it on after waking near dawn.
[I tried to watch as much ‘Fox & Friends’ as the president. Here’s what I learned.]
But Trump’s habits have consequences far beyond being the quirky, unchanging ways of a 70-year-old man who keeps an eye on cable as he goes about his day, as his confidants describe his behavior. Foreign diplomats have urged their governments’ leaders to appear on television when they’re stateside as a means of making their case to Trump, and U.S. lawmakers regard a TV appearance as nearly on par with an Oval Office meeting in terms of showcasing their standing or viewpoints to the president.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said Trump’s intense monitoring cuts both ways. “At times, it’ll lead to mistakes,” he said. “Other times, it lets him move with astounding speed.”
“It’s all part of him being this work in progress who is constantly listening and evolving,” Gingrich added.
Explaining his decision to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base, Trump even cited, publicly and privately, the gruesome images of dead and dying Syrian children poisoned with the nerve agent sarin, images that dominated television for several days.
“President Trump is someone who comes to the White House with a sophisticated understanding of how to communicate, the power of television, the power of imagery, the power of message, and how message, messenger and delivery all work together,” said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president.
The president’s fascination with television is born of personal experience. Trump, long a fixture in the New York tabloids, did not become a household presence until 2004, when he began hosting NBC’s hit reality TV show “The Apprentice.” He relished the attention, boasting about and fretting over his ratings, much as he now handles political polls.
He is also a natural showman. During the campaign, he riveted viewers with his raucous rallies, where he often spoke for more than hour without any notes or teleprompters. And in TV interviews, he sometimes offers tips on matters including lighting and chair placement, with an intuitive sense of what makes for good TV.
“He is very attuned to the fact that cable networks have 24 hours a day that they need to fill — and if you’re interesting, you are gold,” Gingrich said.
Trump’s quotidian viewing is unremarkable, based on his profile. Fox News’s average prime-time viewer last year, for instance, was 68 years old and mostly white, and the average American watches more than four hours per day, according to Nielsen data.
On his campaign plane, Trump watched television on full volume — usually Fox News, sometimes CNN — almost constantly, said someone who flew with him, shushing his aides whenever he himself came on the screen and listening with rapt attention. When Hillary Clinton appeared, he’d similarly quiet his team, often before pointing a finger at the TV and scolding: “She’s lying! She’s lying!”
To relax, however, he would occasionally watch the Golf Channel, while on his plane or in the clubhouses of some of his private courses.
Now that he’s in the White House, friends and aides describe a president who still consumes a steady diet of cable news. During an intimate lunch recently with a key outside ally in a small West Wing dining room, for instance, Trump repeatedly paused the conversation to make the group watch a particularly combative Spicer briefing.
Trump turns on the television almost as soon as he wakes, then checks in periodically throughout the day in the small dining room off the Oval Office, and continues late into the evening when he’s back in his private residence. “Once he goes upstairs, there’s no managing him,” said one adviser.
Sometimes, at night, he hate-watches cable shows critical of him, while chatting on the phone with friends, said someone familiar with the president’s routine — a quirk a senior official jokingly called “multi-teching.”
In the morning, the president typically flips between “Fox & Friends,” Maria Bartiromo’s show on Fox Business and CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” West Wing aides assert that the president stopped watching MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” after the show’s hosts grew increasingly critical of his presidency, but some confidants think he still tunes in, especially for the top of the program.
His feelings toward CNN and its president, Jeff Zucker, who greenlighted “The Apprentice” when he was running NBC Entertainment, are similarly fraught. Trump is furious with Zucker for what he thinks is the network’s unfair coverage but admires Zucker’s business bona fides and ratings growth, said a friend.
Most of the televisions in the West Wing display four channels at all times — CNN, Fox, Fox Business and MSNBC.
The president also likes One America News, a conservative-leaning channel whose correspondent often gets questions in Spicer’s daily news briefing, and before the campaign told an aide that he occasionally enjoyed watching Al Jazeera.
He is still in touch with Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chairman who was ousted amid charges of sexual harassment and who unofficially advised Trump near the end of the presidential campaign. But, Trump has told friends, he thinks Fox News is “nicer” to him in the post-Ailes era. Fox News host Sean Hannity, meanwhile, is especially close to Trump’s two older sons, as well as to the president.
“For all the talk about how the media is so tough on Trump, which they are, the most interesting thing about Trump and the media is that in the end, Trump totally manipulated the media,” said Stephen Moore, an economist for the Heritage Foundation who served as a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. “The media is why he won — because he completely dominated the media. That’s the irony of the whole thing.”
West Wing staffers have begun including local news clippings in his morning briefing, said one, noting that an issue such as rolling back environmental regulations may earn the president poor press nationally but a more positive headline — “Trump saves coal jobs,” for example — in a local paper.
But Trump — who has boasted to several advisers and friends about having “the world’s best TiVo” — remains most focused on what he sees on his flat screens, going so far as to compliment print reporters on their television appearances.
He can also be critical. When Spicer did his first briefing-room appearance in an ill-fitting gray pinstripe suit, the president made his displeasure known, and Spicer returned the next week more crisply attired. Trump often asks his West Wing staff whether they happened to catch their colleagues’ TV hits, praising dramatically confrontational or cool and smooth appearances.
“He prefers facts and figures; he likes when people are defending but also explaining. He likes toughness but also appreciates polish, poise and positivity,” Conway said. “He appreciates when you don’t look like people are bothering you or getting the best of you. He loves when you call out media bias, or what the anchors have said or not said.”
Trump was especially incensed, said a senior adviser, by what he saw as cable news’ blanket coverage of his campaign and what was portrayed as his administration’s overly cozy ties to Russia.
Another time, Trump took particular issue with the aesthetics of a male commentator who appeared sometimes as a guest on “Morning Joe,” and began pestering the hosts, imploring them to dump the analyst who so offended his visual sensibilities, said someone with knowledge of the episode.
But Trump’s interest in TV has proved a welcome — and at times surprising — point of entry to the White House for lawmakers and even pundits.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) once appealed to Trump directly on “Morning Joe,” addressing the camera to implore the president to call him so the two could chat about prescription drugs. A day or so later, Cummings said, the president himself responded.
“I was a little surprised that he called — I thought his secretary would call, but he actually called,” Cummings said. “But it’s the way he operates. And he does watch television and he’s very critical of television, and I thought we had a good conversation.”
Gingrich added that sometimes after an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” he’ll have just left the studio and not even reached his car when his cellphone will ring: the president calling to tell him, “That was good.”
Indeed, it is now a running joke in television green rooms that if a trade association or special-interest group wants to reach the president, the smartest use of their money is to buy morning television ad time or book a representative on air.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a friend of the president’s, said he has been impressed with how Trump will call attention to individual lawmakers in meetings, recalling who said what about him or his policies on TV.
“I’ve watched him in rooms where he goes through person by person. He clearly keeps track,” McCarthy said. “He’s not just watching big shows, either. He has called us up after watching our news conferences here at the Capitol.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a nattily dressed 39-year-old former Air Force pilot who now serves in the Air National Guard, was taken aback when Trump singled him out during an Oval Office meeting with several House Republicans during health-care discussions, telling the group to pay attention to how sharply attired and articulate Kinzinger is on TV.
“We all come into the Oval, and right when he sees me, he goes, ‘You’re really good on TV,’ ” Kinzinger said, confirming the anecdote with a chuckle. “Then, during our meeting, he eventually gets to me, and that’s when he tells the whole group. It was fun to hear.”
Not everyone appreciates Trump’s television obsession. Some of his tweets, often prompted by TV segments, have left his aides scrambling to reverse-engineer information to support his dubious assertions. Others worry about a president who can seem to be swayed by the last thing he sees on TV, a medium geared more for entertainment than actual policymaking.
Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican consultant and vocal Trump critic, said a number of Republicans in Congress and in establishment party circles find the president’s habits bizarre to the point of alarming, although they rarely say so publicly because they do not want to draw his wrath.
“There are many conversations where it ends: ‘But of course, God knows, he could watch Fox News tomorrow and change his whole position,’ ” Wilson said. “They don’t get him, because he’s a creature of television and they’re creatures of politics. They care about the details, he cares about what’s on TV.”
The president, Wilson added, “is a TV character to them, and they have to navigate around it.”
Either way, Trump’s viewing habits have seeped into the ether of both the White House and the nation’s capital. During the Republicans’ failed health-care push last month, Trump invited a small group of conservative activists to meet with him in the Oval Office.
When the meeting was over, said someone with knowledge of the gathering, the president made a plea to the participants: “I know you have already said it’s a bad deal, but Kellyanne is going to walk you out to the microphones and I’d love it if you could say it’s great,” Trump said.
The group never did embrace the health-care proposal. But speaking briefly to reporters that evening, the attendees were polite and took pains not to criticize Trump himself.
And later, as they began doing television appearances to gin up opposition to the bill, they were always careful to mention that they appreciated the open dialogue with the president and his inviting them into the West Wing to chat.
After all, they knew he’d be watching.
Dan Balz contributed to this report.