But unlike the character in Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel and the 1979 movie adaptation, the 45th president of the United States also likes to kibitz in public and, more often than not, act on what he’s watching.
“Other presidents have probably watched TV coverage more than they admitted, but this is unprecedented,” said political science professor Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “This is how Trump has been trained. He has been trained to live and die by what is said about him on TV and what the press writes about him for most of his lifetime. This is simply the norm for him—what he has done since he became a public figure. Nothing’s changed.”
In the latest example of the president’s TV news-fixation—early Thursday morning, more than an hour before the sun came up—Trump was apparently monitoring Fox & Friends First in the White House residence when co-host Abby Huntsman did an item about Chelsea Manning, the dishonorably discharged soldier who passed secret military documents to WikiLeaks and was handed a 35-year sentence for violating the Espionage Act.
With the chyron “UNGRATEFUL TRAITOR” filling the bottom of the screen, Huntsman reported that Manning was “sounding less than grateful for former-President Obama cutting nearly 25 years off of her sentence for leaking classified information. In a new article for The Guardian, the disgraced former Army private is slamming Obama as a weak leader with few permanent accomplishments!… Commuting Manning’s sentence was one of the final acts Obama performed as president.”
A scant 14 minutes later (as CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter first reported), Trump sent out a tweet that appropriated Fox News’s words nearly verbatim: “Ungrateful TRAITOR Chelsea Manning, who should never have been released from prison, is now calling President Obama a weak leader. Terrible!”
This was one among many instances of Trump exercising a fanatical preoccupation with whatever is emanating into his ears and eyeballs from the cable and broadcast news shows.
Is he vying for the title of Couch Potato in Chief? As Stelter recently suggested, half in jest but wholly in earnest, it might be “time to re-up my idea for a new cable news show: ‘Good Evening, Mr, Trump,’ a show produced with one specific viewer in mind.”
The New York Times reported this week that television news viewing is indeed the anchor of the president’s daily schedule.
“He rises before 6 a.m., watches television tuned to a cable channel first in the residence, and later in a small dining room in the West Wing,” Times’s Maggie Haberman wrote. “But his meetings now begin at 9 a.m., earlier than they used to, which significantly curtails his television time. Still, Mr. Trump, who does not read books, is able to end his evenings with plenty of television.”
Needless to say, every president going back to George Washington has taken a professional and personal interest in how they’re portrayed by the Fourth Estate.
But Trump’s television obsession can only be likened to that of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who—in the early days of network news, as America’s ill-fated involvement in Vietnam War was escalating—famously installed a multi-screen contraption at the White House, which allowed him to watch all three evening newscasts at once.
“LBJ couldn’t be more different from Donald Trump in so many substantive ways,” said former CBS anchor Dan Rather, who covered him, “but Johnson did watch television as much as he could and reacted to it. Of course, he didn’t have a Twitter feed.”
A Texan like Johnson, Rather reported on the war for CBS and toiled as a White House correspondent, most famously in the Nixon years.
He recalled that he was visiting his wife Jean’s parents in Smithville, Texas, in the winter of 1966 when he received a phone call from LBJ, who opened the conversation with one of his favorite icebreakers for misbehaving reporters: “Rather, are you trying to fuck me?” Johnson used similarly salty language with CBS President Frank Stanton after the network broadcast Morley Safer’s damning 1965 report showing U.S. soldiers torching a Vietnamese village.
“He was getting hell not only from the press, but the press was included,” Rather told The Daily Beast. “I was in the press pool when LBJ said—and this is a direct quote—‘I’m like a bitch-dog in heat. When I stand still, they stick it to me, and when I run they bite my ass.’ We don’t have presidents that talk that way anymore.”
Of course, there was far less television news available to torment presidents when Johnson was in the White House. During the 1960s, CBS and NBC were the dominant players and ABC barely registered.
“We’re in the second decade of the 21st century,” Rather said. “If you’re mesmerized by television, as President Trump seems to be, every second that you continue to send out tweets about it is a second when you’re not paying attention to North Korea saying they have intercontinental missiles or China moving in on the South China Sea. Watching television that much takes time, and you’re not dealing with the things that count.”
Larry Sabato, who said LBJ would undoubtedly be obsessing over cable news if he were alive today (“He wouldn’t have been able to get his eyes off there”), sees another notable similarity between Presidents Trump and Johnson.
“Insecurity—that’s what links Johnson and Trump,” Sabato told The Daily Beast. “It’s an insecurity that craves constant approval and over-the-top flattery, and that’s what Trump is seeking.”
In recent days, Trump has been especially interactive with the tube. On Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and addressed Trump directly. “Mr. President, I know you’re watching, so I’m looking forward to meeting with you…” Cummings declared into the camera. “Call me. I want to talk to you.”
It wasn’t long before Trump did call, and the two had a four-minute chat. (Joe Scarborough, who co-hosts the influential program with Mika Brzezinski, often gives advice and critiques to the Trump White House on the air; Trump apparently tunes in fairly often, and Scarborough—who didn’t respond to a request for comment—has been dubbed the “Trump whisperer” by Poynter media critic Jim Warren.)
But the president is clearly partial to Fox News, hardly surprising given that the outlet’s coverage of the new administration, led by ardent Trump cheerleader Sean Hannity, has been largely sympathetic.
On Tuesday night, apparently after viewing an O’Reilly Factor segment on the lethal epidemic of gun violence in Chicago, the president tweeted: “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24 percent from 2016), I will send in the Feds!”
While Fox is the channel to which the president seems most loyal, he also has reacted to something he’s seen on CNN, a cable outlet he regularly insults, claims not to watch, and professes to despise.
On Dec. 16 at 6:09 a.m., as anchors and guests were discussing Russian cyberattacks on the CNN program New Day, Trump tweeted: “Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?”—a reference to fired CNN contributor Donna Brazile, the interim chairperson of the Democratic National Committee.
“Good morning, Mr. President-elect,” New Day cohost Chris Cuomo announced brightly, addressing their peevish viewer. “We hope that you’re getting some good information out of our coverage.”
Jim Murphy, CNN’s vice president of morning programming, said that despite Stelter’s notion of a cable show programmed for an audience of one, the fact that the president might be watching has negligible impact on editorial decisions.
“We always do what we think is the best news program we can do, and if people react to it we’re used to that,” Murphy told The Daily Beast. “I’ve been in this business 39 years, and I’ve had some very harsh phone calls from very powerful people about stories… I’m perfectly happy for the president of the United States to watch our program as much as he’d like. He’s welcome to call in to our control room and even get on the air. He hasn’t talked to us for a very long time.”