A chart of Trump’s 2017 tweets, plotted by time of day, reveals an unmistakably dense band between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., when “Fox & Friends” is on the air.
Illustration by Bendik Kaltenborn
President Trump woke up on November 3rd, turned on the television, and started tweeting shortly before 7 a.m. “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems,” he typed. “People are angry.” By “everybody” and “people,” he seemed to mean, as he often does, the three anchors of the top-rated cable morning show, “Fox & Friends,” who happened to be discussing that very topic live on air, deploying their trademark brand of folksy, disingenuous outrage.
Soon afterward, one of the co-hosts said, “And now the President is tweeting about this.”
“I think he’s tweeting right now!” another said. The thin fourth wall between Trump and his TV had been broken once again.
In the Fox News studio, the fresh tweets were displayed in bold type on a thirty-foot-wide screen, Trump’s larger-than-life Twitter avatar peering, Rushmore-like, into the middle distance. (Presumably, the real Trump, in the Presidential bedroom, peered back, an elderly youth gazing into a shallow pool.) A co-host read the tweets aloud, and then, completing the feedback loop, said, “This has been the question that people have had about Hillary Clinton and her campaign.” By “people,” she seemed to mean, as the anchors of “Fox & Friends” often do, Donald Trump.
“Fox & Friends” ended at nine. Moments later, Trump arrived on the South Lawn of the White House, answered a few questions from reporters, and left for a ten-day trip to Asia. A few days into the trip, en route from China to Vietnam, he walked to the rear of Air Force One, where the press corps was sitting, to deliver some off-the-cuff remarks. “I know they like to say—people that don’t know me—they like to say I watch television,” he said. “People with fake sources—you know, fake reporters, fake sources. But I don’t get to watch much television, primarily because of documents. I’m reading documents a lot.”
This was weird, even by Trump’s standards. For one thing, “reading documents a lot” is high on the list of activities it’s nearly impossible to imagine Trump doing, along with foraging, Pilates, and introspection. For another, no one on the plane had said anything about television. It later became clear that the impetus for Trump’s outburst was an e-mail he’d just received from the Times—a list of fifty-one fact-checking questions for an article about him. Of these, he felt compelled to respond, indirectly, to just one, about his “prodigious television watching habits.” When the piece came out, it reported that Trump begins his day by watching TV in bed, where he “tweets while propped on his pillow.” (Trump, on Twitter: “Wrong!”)
Trump has been candid about his TV dependency for years. In a 1997 interview with Howard Stern, he described escaping from his own wedding reception—his second, when he married Marla Maples—as quickly as possible to look at coverage of the wedding. “I ran back and turned on the television,” he said. (A diagnostic test called the Television Addiction Scale asks subjects to agree or disagree with several statements, including “When I am unable to watch television, I miss it so much that you could call it ‘withdrawal.’ ”) During his trip to Asia, he tweeted, “I was forced to watch @CNN, which I have not done in months, and again realized how bad, and FAKE, it is. Loser!” Of course, apart from rare circumstances (jury duty, North Korea, “Get Out”), no one, much less the President of the United States, is ever “forced” to watch TV. One imagines Trump writhing in pain, using his tie as a blindfold, while his staff scrambles to find him more documents to read.
On a recent morning, a chyron on “Fox & Friends” read “study: 90% recent trump coverage is negative.” The study—by the Media Research Center, a right-wing nonprofit whose declared “sole mission is to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left: the national news media”—came up several times during the broadcast, as did an F.B.I. agent’s anti-Trump text messages, a pair of offensive socks that Colin Kaepernick had worn once in 2016, and the fact that it was very cold outside. Morning TV relies on constant repetition, the assumption being that most viewers, unlike the President, will be too busy to watch for long. (A chart of Trump’s 2017 tweets, created by a University of Chicago graduate student and plotted by time of day, reveals an unmistakably dense band between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., when “Fox & Friends” is on the air.)
“Wow, more than 90% of Fake News Media coverage of me is negative,” Trump tweeted. He ended the tweet by naming his source, as well as his favorite exception: “@foxandfriends.”
Every morning begins with an artificial L.E.D. sunrise, all teal and goldenrod, like an orange-juice carton come to life. The camera starts on the bottom floor of Fox News’ lavish main studio, then glides upward—past a translucent staircase, past thirty-foot windows overlooking a still dark Sixth Avenue, past innumerable video screens—until it locates the three co-hosts, perched on their signature white “curvy couch.”
“C’mon in!” Steve Doocy said recently, beckoning viewers with one arm. Doocy, who has hosted “Fox & Friends” since its inception, in 1998, is the show’s jovial, distant dad, greeting all comers with a bemused rictus. His name sounds like a gentle pejorative that would describe him perfectly. In addition to being unflappable, he is tall and blond. These appear to be his only job qualifications.
“It’s a Monday morning,” Ainsley Earhardt said, adjusting her fuchsia jumpsuit and sucking the lipstick from her teeth. “Let’s pretend today is Friday.” Earhardt, from South Carolina, is a conservative Christian who is liberal in her use of “y’all”s and “God bless you”s; on a recent show, Geraldo Rivera referred to her as a “Palmetto queen,” and she smiled demurely at the compliment.
Brian Kilmeade—squat, distractible, tightly wound—tore at a pen cap. “You feel like every day is Friday,” he grumbled at Earhardt, with a taut smile. In addition to repetition, the morning-show formula calls for heaps of fatuous banter. Kilmeade, a mini Sean Hannity in both appearance and affect, performs this duty truculently; he might endure a debate about whether the new Taylor Swift is better than the old Taylor Swift, but you can tell he’d rather be debating whether Robert Mueller should be waterboarded or put before a firing squad. Perhaps Kilmeade resents spontaneous small talk because it has led him into trouble. Once, while riffing about a Scandinavian scientific study, he shared his opinion that “the Swedes have pure genes,” unlike Americans, who “keep marrying other species and other ethnics.” He later apologized.
Network morning shows, such as “Today” and “Good Morning America,” are bland products that try to avoid confusing, provoking, or offending any part of the audience. For this reason, especially nowadays, they tend to speed past political stories, or avoid them altogether, and instead fill time with the sort of banal chitchat that strangers might make at the post office. When a host refers to a topic that “everyone is talking about this morning,” it’s usually a cute viral video, an upcoming holiday, or a snowstorm. (It’s no coincidence that one of “Today” ’s biggest stars is its weatherman.) On cable, where the audiences are smaller and more ideologically segmented, morning hosts are free to be more opinionated; on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” for example, Trump is compared to an autocrat, a thug, or worse. “Fox & Friends” mashes these two genres together, resulting in some whiplash-inducing segues. A few minutes of misty-eyed Christmas nostalgia leads immediately—“meanwhile, switching gears”—to a conspiracy theory about Benghazi. A weather report gives way to a warning about the dangers of chain migration, with little adjustment in tone.
As the banter died down, Doocy, who rarely encounters a sentence he can’t mangle, faced the camera and addressed the folks at home. “We’re delighted to have—that you would join us today, because we’ve got a great story to—tell you with—uh, tell you all about,” he said. “But, first, our top political story.”
It was the day before Alabama’s special Senate election, and the polls were close. However, Earhardt noted buoyantly, “Republican candidate Roy Moore has President Trump on his side.” Trump had just recorded a robocall for the Moore campaign. The control room cued it up: “We will win and we will make America great again.”
The morning of the election, a “Fox & Friends” weekend co-host, Peter Hegseth, interviewed locals at Spot of Tea, a restaurant in Mobile. He began, “We’re talking to the people on the ground, as opposed to caring what the pundits in New York City and Washington, D.C., are saying.” Turning to a person on the ground named Diane, he said, “So, ultimately, a vote for Roy Moore is a vote for President Trump?”
“Correct,” Diane said.
Hegseth ended the segment and then directed viewers back to his colleagues, the pundits in New York City.
Moore lost. The following morning, both “Fox & Friends” and its No. 1 fan were busy rewriting the immediate past. “The President had said that Roy Moore couldn’t win, and, as it turns out, he was right,” Doocy said.
“The President just tweeted about it,” Earhardt said. The camera panned to Trump’s words, on the giant tweet-screen: “I was right! Roy worked hard but the deck was stacked against him!”
Earhardt, speaking “as a female,” summed up her view: “I think this is a referendum on Harvey Weinstein, not on President Trump.” She delivered the line twice more, with slight variations, at the top of each hour. Earhardt is clearly the brainiest of the three co-hosts, if only because she can get through a broadcast without any notable malapropisms or endorsements of eugenics. Still, inevitably, she plays the role of the down-to-earth Southern gal, asking only the softest of softball questions. (Earhardt, to Ivanka Trump, in July of 2016: “Were you a tractor girl, or were you, like me, the pink Barbie Jeep?” Ivanka: “I was that combination.”)
Halfway through the show, with Sixth Avenue brightening behind them, the co-hosts introduced Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, two former Trump-campaign employees who are now freelance Trump lickspittles. “The President has done the right thing,” Lewandowski said. He was referring to the special election, but he could have been referring to just about anything. At one point, using some mind-bending rhetorical dark magic, he managed to imply that the real loser in Alabama was neither Trump nor Moore but Hillary Clinton. I have now watched the clip a few dozen times, and I still can’t quite figure out how he did it.
Doocy, wrapping up the interview, said, “I’m sure both of you would say the—your new book called ‘Let Trump Be Trump’ would be the perfect stoffing—uh, stocking stuffer for this holiday season.”
“Or you could put it in a box,” Earhardt said.
Professing shock at Fox News’ sophistry is hardly a hot take. But shilling for Trump, who has no discernible ethos beyond self-regard, is something new, requiring Baryshnikovian levels of ideological flexibility. Obama was easy—the “Fox & Friends” co-hosts simply denounced everything about him, from his terrorist fist-jabs to his choice of paper clips. The Bush Administration was mendacious, but at least it was predictable—the co-hosts had to work hard to build a connection between 9/11 and Iraq, but they didn’t have to worry that they’d wake up one morning to find that the Administration was now blaming the attack on Sudan. These days, hosting “Fox & Friends” is like cheerleading for a player who misses an open shot on goal, then doubles back to score on his own goalie, then storms off in a fit of petulance, complaining that the ref is a loser.
During one of several critiques of the non-Fox media and its purported anti-Trump bias, Earhardt said, “Just make it equal. Make it equal. Even if you have people on that give their opinions, try to make it fair and balanced.”
“It should be just ‘Here’s what happened today,’ ” Doocy said.
Earhardt let out an ebullient, cynical chuckle. “Those days are long gone, Steve,” she said.
“Those were the days of Walter Cronkite,” Doocy said, with a grin and a shrug. “Oh, well.” ♦
An earlier version of this article misstated Peter Hegseth’s role on “Fox & Friends.”