In the heat of the 2016 campaign, “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Donald Trump whom he spoke to for military advice.
“Well, I watch the shows,” Trump responded. “I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows, and you have the generals.”
Trump’s campaign insisted that he was misunderstood — that he spoke to lots of military advisers in addition to watching them on television.
Um, maybe. But what has become very clear in the intervening months — even as Trump stunned the world by winning the presidential election — is that he a) watches a massive amount of cable TV and b) regularly reacts to it and borrows ideas from it.
Take this example from Sunday morning. At 6:25 a.m., Fox News showed a graphic claiming that 72 percent of all refugees admitted into the United States since Trump’s travel ban was put on ice by the courts hail from the seven countries that were on the no-admittance list of the executive order. Thirty minutes later, Trump tweeted: “72% of refugees admitted into U.S. (2/3 -2/11) during COURT BREAKDOWN are from 7 countries: SYRIA, IRAQ, SOMALIA, IRAN, SUDAN, LIBYA & YEMEN.” (Thanks to CNN’s Brian Stelter for documenting it!)
Or this one from Friday: Twelve minutes after he saw an allegedly supportive blog post featured on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” about the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruling, Trump tweeted it to his 24.7 million followers. (Sidebar: That blog post wasn’t as supportive as he thought.)
These are far from isolated incidents. In fact, it has become something of a cottage industry to try to link Trump’s early-morning tweets to something he has seen on television in the very recent past. An Associated Press article this past week detailed Trump’s difficult transition to the White House and included this remarkable paragraph.
“The president’s advisers have tried to curb his cable news consumption during the workday. But there are no limits when the president returns to the residence. During another recent telephone conversation, Trump briefly put down the phone so he could turn up the volume on a CNN report. When he returned to the call, he was complaining about ‘fake news.’ ”
The best possible interpretation of Trump’s obsession with cable TV is that he is constantly plugged in, always searching for pieces of information that help inform a situation or sell a plan to the public. President Barack Obama famously disdained cable news and actively sought to avoid it — a decision that led some of his critics to cast him as aloof and out of touch.
But even if you are a Trump ally, it is hard to see the amount of cable television he consumes as a good thing. Presidents need to be aware of the circumstances in the country and the world, but using cable news as your primary source for that information probably isn’t the best move. (Nota bene: I love cable news!) A president simply can’t be reactive to every gibe that is thrown his way on 24-hour news networks. If you spent your days responding to what people said about you on cable, you wouldn’t have much time to do anything else. Like, for instance, run the country.
That’s the point Trump’s advisers seem to be making to him — albeit unsuccessfully — over and over. And yet, every morning, like clockwork, Trump takes to his phone to provide running commentary on cable news. (Another gem from Sunday morning: “While on FAKE NEWS @CNN, Bernie Sanders was cut off for using the term fake news to describe the network. They said technical difficulties!” This interview actually occurred several days ago. And Sanders was joking about “fake news.”)
The reality of Trump is that he is a 70-year-old man who is set in his ways. (That’s not meant as a criticism. I am a 40-year-old man who is set in his ways.) Trump has spent a lifetime using cable TV as a sounding board. He seems to believe that he learns from it and benefits politically from reacting to it. No adviser is going to dissuade him from those habits simply because he is now president of the United States.
In Trump, we have the first president of and for the cable news era. He’s obsessed. He’s not changing. And he’s not sorry.