Being a pundit is becoming a tried-and-true pathway into the Trump administration, as a reality-show president seeks to surround himself with people who’ve been auditioning for their jobs on television — whether they realize it or not.
It’s a phenomenon that extends beyond top government posts. After seeing Joseph diGenova stridently defend him on Fox News, Trump announced that he would add the lawyer to his personal legal team handling the Russia probe, even though he didn’t know diGenova.
But a person who spoke to Trump recently has said there was another reason: Trump didn’t like what he saw as much when he met the couple in person.
Trump, who rose to national prominence in part because of his starring role on “The Apprentice,” has made TV central to his presidency. His mornings typically start with what aides call “executive time” — several hours in the White House during which he consumes cable news, often tweeting his reactions to stories broadcast on Fox News.
What he sees can shape his policy views. Last week, Trump took to Twitter to threaten to veto a $1.3 trillion spending bill after it was panned by conservative commentators.
For a neophyte politician who arrived in Washington without a deep bench of policy advisers, it’s hardly surprising that Trump is increasingly turning to talking heads to fill key positions, some observers say. He relied on the advice of members of Congress and old Washington hands for some of his initial picks, and some have turned out to be less than loyal, in Trump’s view. And now he’s feeling more liberated.
“Outside his immediate relatives — his children and his son-in-law — I don’t know that there’s anyone he trusts more than Fox News,” said Edward Burmila, a political science professor at Bradley University who has written about the influence of Fox News on the Trump presidency.
Trump aides and allies say a television presence is hardly the sole criteria that guides Trump’s choices, but some say it’s part of a plan to better inform the country.
“This is how most of America communicates,” Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign aide, said of television. “This is not the White House of the 1920s, the 1950s or even the 2000s. He’s adding people to his team who can effectively communicate his message. In this day and age, you can have the right policies, but if you can’t communicate them, it’s all for naught.”
In the cases of Kudlow and Bolton, Trump’s connection is much deeper than television, a senior White House official said, requesting anonymity to discuss personnel decisions more candidly.
Bolton, an ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, has been a regular visitor to the Oval Office to discuss foreign policy with Trump since he took office. And Trump and Kudlow have known each other for years, running in some of the same circles in New York, the official said.
“He’s comfortable with these guys,” the official said. “He’s picking people from the universe he’s comfortable with.”
Sam Nunberg, a former aide who helped guide Trump through the run-up to his presidential campaign, said he would regularly include pieces written by Bolton and Kudlow in Trump’s briefing materials during that stretch.
Nunberg said it would be unfair to dismiss Bolton and Kudlow, who served as an economics adviser in the Reagan administration, as mere television personalities. But he said the fact that both have had prominent roles on television in the past year probably helped them stay in the running for jobs after Trump turned to others when he came into office.
“Once they were passed over in the first round of hiring, he continued to watch them,” Nunberg said. “That certainly helped them get the positions they should have gotten in the first place, in my humble opinion.”
Nunberg described Trump as “a sponge” when it comes to watching political shows on television.
“He’s not someone who reads 600-page books. He sees what people are saying on TV,” Nunberg said.
Burmila said there’s certainly precedent for hiring television reporters onto the White House communications team, which he said makes “perfect sense.”
But most television talk-show hosts are not policy experts, Burmila said. “They’re really 90 percent entertainers.”
There were several TV pundits and personalities in the early cast of the Trump administration — their fates have been mixed.
Heather Nauert, a New York-based anchor and correspondent for Fox, became the State Department spokeswoman. She was recently promoted to acting undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.
Meanwhile, Anthony Scaramucci, a financier who had served a tour of duty as host of “Wall Street Week” on Fox Business, became the shortest-serving White House communications director in modern history, lasting less than two weeks in the job.
Other veterans of the Fox green room who took administration jobs include K.T. McFarland, a former deputy national security adviser who was later picked to serve as ambassador to Singapore. She withdrew her nomination after she became embroiled in the controversy over the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials.
Monica Crowley, another Fox contributor, was named to a senior communications post at the National Security Council. But she stepped aside amid multiple allegations of plagiarism.
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, said there’s another downside to Trump’s proclivity to pick television commentators for administration posts.
“He’s been casting about for cheerleaders,” Naftali said. “He watches pundits, and he likes the pundits who agree with him. What’s worrisome is he’s putting together a team of yes men who are not going to give him the advice and guidance to make hard choices.”
Naftali also said there’s not precedent — or in his view, a need — for putting so many White House officials out to sell the president’s vision on TV.
“Not every member of the White House needs to be on television all the time,” he said, citing the national security adviser as an example. “That traditionally has not been a very public role. Most of their work is done behind the scenes.”