The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Trump relies on his cable news cabinet as much as the real one

In this image from video, President Trump is interviewed on the “Fox & friends” television program by Ainsley Earhardt at the White House on Aug. 22, 2018. (Fox News/AP)

After watching Sean Hannity on Fox News, President Trump tweeted at Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate former rival Hillary Clinton. After listening to Tucker Carlson, he directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to launch a study on bogus reports of murdered white farmers in South Africa.

And after Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs highlighted a questionable claim about Google search results, Trump took to Twitter early Tuesday to complain — prompting his top economic adviser to promise an investigation.

“We’re taking a look at it,” Larry Kudlow told reporters when asked whether the administration thinks Google searches should be regulated.

Cable television news hosts and commentators are among the first voices that Trump hears in the morning and the last he listens to at night. Now he is increasingly relying on those voices in making decisions — often running afoul of his actual advisers in the process.

Many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and senior advisers have a cable news shadow. Dobbs might be considered Trump’s television treasury secretary, Hannity his chief of staff and Carlson his secretary of state. Fox’s Jeanine Pirro serves as a de facto attorney general, railing against Sessions and the special counsel’s Russia probe, while regular Fox analyst Pete Hegseth was under consideration to be the actual secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Carlson said in an interview with The Washington Post that he doesn’t think about whether the president is watching his Fox show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” and that he was “really surprised” by Trump’s response to last week’s episode on white South African farmers.

“The president tweeted it, and I had nothing to do with it,” Carlson said. “I’m glad he did, because I think the story deserves more attention than it has gotten in this country.”

That Trump reacts so frequently to what he sees on television, rather than what he is reading or being told by aides, underscores the outsize role that commentators and cable programming decisions play in Trump’s administration.

Among his other cable-fueled directives in recent weeks, Trump tweeted disapproval of Federal Reserve interest rate increases that echoed criticism leveled by Dobbs, a vocal Trump supporter. He has repeatedly attacked Sessions and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, citing cable figures such as Fox News Channel’s Gregg Jarrett.

This month, Trump ordered the revocation of John Brennan’s security clearance after the former CIA director said on MSNBC that remarks Trump made at his friendly Helsinki summit with Vladi­mir Putin were “nothing short of treasonous.” The president threatened to do the same to former intelligence officials and CNN analyst Philip Mudd, a former CIA official whose television commentary Trump called “unglued.”

Other presidents have received plenty of advice and ideas from outside the Cabinet Room. Nearly 200 years ago, President Andrew Jackson vexed critics by relying on a “kitchen cabinet” of informal advisers assembled after his purge of officials from the parlor, or official, Cabinet.

From 2016: Donald Trump is holding a government casting call

Trump’s 21st-century approach, by contrast, uses Twitter and the bully pulpit to amplify cable commentary that would otherwise reach only a small fraction of Americans.

Aides, in turn, try to influence the cable hosts who influence the president.

When Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin led a delegation to China in May, he announced on “Fox News Sunday” that the United States was “putting the trade war on hold.” But soon after, others in the delegation, including China hawk Peter Navarro, found an alternative audience with Dobbs to criticize Mnuchin’s message.

Then Dobbs’s criticisms were picked up on “Fox & Friends” the following day by host Brian Kilmeade. Before long, and on the basis of those media messages, the president made an abrupt change in policy, said an adviser who was not authorized to speak to the news media.

Stuart P. Stevens, a Republican political consultant and writer who was Mitt Romney’s senior strategist in the 2012 presidential election campaign, decried Trump’s reliance on the “insane feedback loop of Fox.”

“Here’s a guy who has access to the most sophisticated intelligence ever available, that cost billions to produce, that people have died for,” Stevens said. “And he’s relying for his information on something you can buy for like $2.98 a month with your cable subscription.”

One major risk for Trump is bad information — as illustrated in the recent flaps over South Africa and Google.

Trump’s economic adviser: ‘We’re taking a look’ at whether Google searches should be regulated

Trump fired off predawn tweets Tuesday complaining that “96%” of Google search results for “Trump news” were “RIGGED” against conservative media outlets.

The night before, Dobbs had cited a conservative blog report claiming that 96 percent of Google search results for Trump were from “left-leaning news outlets,” defined to include mainstream organizations such as the Associated Press, CNN and The Washington Post. He also interviewed pro-Trump commentators Diamond and Silk, who claim their online videos are suppressed by technology companies.

Google rejected the allegations in a statement Tuesday: “We don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.”

On South Africa, The Post’s Fact Checker found that the president’s first claim about land seizures is mostly false, while Trump’s second claim — that South African farmers are being killed on a “large scale” — is a fiction spread largely by white supremacist fringe groups.

The State Department, which Pompeo now heads, and the CIA, where he was director until earlier this year, both have access to accurate data about the murder rate for white farmers in South Africa that would have been easily obtainable by Trump, had he asked for it.

Carlson’s original broadcast did not address the alleged killings of white farmers but included erroneous references to a proposed expropriation policy in South Africa that has not been implemented.

Carlson said in The Post interview that the political left has a reflexive opposition to whatever Trump does that “basically puts Trump in the driver’s seat.”

“He’s living in your head and his hands are on the steering wheel,” Carlson said.

When asked whether cable news hosts are really in the driver’s seat because of their influence on the president, Carlson said that “in general, if you start seeing your job as an effort to influence policy, then you should go get a policy job.”

Analysis: Washington Post Fact Checker finds no evidence for Trump’s claim of white farmer killings in South Africa

Marc Lotter, a former special assistant in the White House who now serves as a surrogate on cable, said Trump’s references to TV programming help him connect with Americans who may be concerned about the same topics.

“I don’t think it should be underestimated that the president receives information from a variety of sources. Not only does he consume media, but he is also getting all of the intelligence briefings and background briefings that one would expect,” Lotter said.

Trump receives less printed reading material than recent presidents, but he does hold regular in-person briefings and discussion sessions with aides. His first official meeting of the day is often an 11 a.m. intelligence briefing, leaving most of his mornings open for “executive time” that includes a heavy diet of cable news.

“Presidents throughout generations have all used new communication tools,” said Lotter, citing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of the radio and Ronald Reagan’s use of television.

Fox News is by far Trump’s favorite source of voices for his shadow cabinet, while personalities at other networks serve primarily as foils. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, for example, have fallen out of favor with Trump, while CNN’s Chris Cuomo regularly spars with Trump officials.

Many cable hosts have found their way into the administration. Kudlow was named director of the National Economic Council after a long career at CNBC, and the list of emigres from Fox includes White House communications director Bill Shine and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox host, was recently named vice chair of America First Action, a super PAC supporting the reelection of pro-Trump politicians.

Trump’s reliance on cable television, and his comfort level with its personalities and priorities, should not surprise anyone, said Stevens, the Republican political consultant.

“He consumes information the same way he did when he was not president,” Stevens said. “He relates to the world the way the world relates to him, and it is what it appears to be: a guy sitting around watching television.”