Television can be a welcome relief for a president.
Ronald Reagan liked to watch Family Ties in his spare moments. George HW Bush was said to enjoy Murder, She Wrote. Barack Obama loved The Wire.
But the show Donald Trump most enjoys isn’t fiction. At least, not strictly. Trump’s favorite program is Fox & Friends – Fox News’s flagship breakfast show.
Fox News, which gave Trump a platform for his conspiracy theories about Barack Obama long before he ran for president, has always been a platform for the right. When it launched in 1996 it filled a vacuum for conservative viewers that made it financially and politically lucrative for Rupert Murdoch – whose relationship with Trump dates back to the 1980s.
The president’s fondness for Fox & Friends is no secret. For a man with a near constant need for validation, it’s the perfect tonic to historically low ratings, brewing presidential scandals and a perceived lack of achievement.
But Trump relies on the show for more than his self-esteem. He gets his news from there, too – which has fascinated and worried media experts in equal measure. The president’s reliance on it for his Twitter missives has prompted the New York Times to declare Fox & Friends the “most powerful TV show in America”. CNN anchor John King described the show as “state tv”.
The show flatters and inspires Trump in equal regard – best demonstrated by his responding to things he has seen on air.
In the world of Fox & Friends, Trump is doing a good job. He is making deals and besting foes, and only the liberal media is creating the impression of anything otherwise.
When Trump struck a deal with Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to raise the debt ceiling – anathema to conservatives and the rightwing media – Fox & Friends declared it the “art of the deal” (the title of Trump’s 1987 memoir-meets-business-advice book ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz).
When Trump said “many sides” were responsible for the violence that took place at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville last month during which anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer died, Fox & Friends said the president had “nailed it”.
And on the potential connections between Trump and Russia: in Fox & Friends’ world, the American public are not interested in collusion.
The show manages to serve as a court sycophant, whispering in the ear of the king, criticizing his perceived enemies and fluffing his feathers.
But the relationship between Trump and his favorite show isn’t one-sided. Fox & Friends gets plenty out of it, too. Free publicity through the president’s regular tweets and endorsements, and free influence through being able to influence his agenda.
We know about the relationship between Trump and Fox & Friends because the president talks about the show often. “I like that group of three people,” the president told Fox News host Tucker Carlson in March. He took Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt on a tour of the White House in June. In July, Trump tweeted a quote from the New York Times calling Fox and Friends “the most powerful tv show in America”.
It has been a long running romance. Back in 2015 he was telling host Brian Kilmeade: “I love your show.” For four years, before running for president Trump had his own weekly shot on the show: “Mondays with Trump.”
“I can’t think of another president who has so relied on one single outlet,” says Matt Dallek, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of political management. “Not the single minded obsession we’ve seen with Trump when it comes to Fox News.”
Dallek says there are also times when Trump has taken talking points from Fox and “parrot” them. This influence is perhaps best expressed by the president’s Twitter feed.
Since the election there have been a number of occasions where Trump has tweeted out to his 37 million followers something he has just seen on Fox and Friends.
In November, he suggested strong punishment for people burning the American flag. Fox & Friends had just run a piece on someone burning the American flag. On 26 January, Trump criticized Chelsea Manning as an “ungrateful TRAITOR”, 16 minutes after Fox & Friends had referred to Manning as an “ungrateful traitor”.
On 9 August, the day after the president had promised fire and fury against North Korea, he retweeted Fox & Friends’ coverage of his remarks five times.
Trump also echoed a Fox & Friends suggestion that the University of California Berkeley should not receive federal funding after protests prevented the controversial conservative Milo Yiannopoulus from speaking. And Trump also mused that Obama had been too soft on Russia – 12 minutes after Fox & Friends held a discussion about how Obama had been too soft on Russia.
There are many more examples.
In addition to guiding Trump’s politics and giving him ideas of things to share, Fox & Friends performs an arguably more important role: feeding the president’s vast ego.
“His fascination with the Fox News channel, Fox & Friends in the morning and so forth, is just another in a countless line of examples where his attention is always focused on himself,” said Dan P McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University’s Weinberg college of arts and sciences.
“Whether he’s putting his name on buildings, or watching himself on the news, or basking in the reflected glory of an adoring crowd at a Trump rally, it’s always about promoting the self.”
Almost eight months into it, the Trump’s presidency, by any stretch, has been sub-par. His one major achievement remains his election of Neil Gorsuch to a vacant spot on the Supreme Court. His approval rating is a meagre 39.7%, while more than 55% of Americans disapprove of their president.
“It salves his hurt ego, it makes him feel better,” McAdams says of Fox & Friends.
“He’s a pretty bruised and beat up guy, in many ways I think he takes criticism not well: he remembers regrets and he rages against opposition, so to have a source like that that’s so affirming it’s really nice.
“It’s like mom smiling at you in the morning and saying you’re a good boy.”
The maternal analogy makes sense. Like ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s Today show, Fox & Friends has a definite familial feel. The regular hosts, Steve Doocy, Ashley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade (they always sit, left to right, in that order), are smiley, with nice teeth and inoffensive outfits. There are bright colours and segments about dogs.
Doocy, who has the air of a stern aunt who doesn’t approve of the new neighbors, is the alpha of the group. He has been on the show since 1998, and was named in former co-host Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News founder and chairman Roger Ailes in June 2016.
Carlson’s lawsuit said Doocy “regularly treat[ed] her in a sexist and condescending way”. Ailes resigned in July 2016, and Carlson received a $20m settlement from the network two months later. Doocy is still going strong.
Kilmeade, less intelligent but more smiley, is a bouncy, eager presence on the sofa, while Earhardt, who cut her journalistic chops in the south before moving to New York, plays the role of the “won’t somebody please think of the children”
Fox & Friends is recorded in the heart of Manhattan, 10 minutes south-west of Trump Tower, and a couple of blocks from 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where Today is filmed. Dozens of people gather outside the NBC studio each morning, and the hosts regularly come out to mingle with the crowd.
That doesn’t happen on Fox & Friends. The show is recorded high above the street, and the hosts are rarely glimpsed outside. New York City isn’t really Fox News territory. The city is a liberal stronghold – just 9.87% of people in Manhattan voted for Trump in 2016 – and home to the kind of liberals that Fox News spends much of its time criticizing.
The one time the hosts do venture out is during the All-American Summer concert series, when a musician performs outside the Fox studio every Friday. It’s a common summer theme for breakfast shows – this year Today had Harry Styles, Miley Cyrus and Ed Sheeran perform, and ABC’s Good Morning America hosted Demi Lovato and Jason DeRulo.
Fox & Friends’ line-up has included Hanson and Kenny Loggins.
On 1 September – the last concert of the series – Gloria Gaynor was the headliner. About 60 people had gathered in an area next to the building, in midtown Manhattan, to witness the appearance. They sat on wooden picnic tables and shivered in the shadow of the skyscrapers that surrounded the stage.
Penny Wilson, from Asheville, North Carolina, was on a five-day vacation to New York City. She was sitting on a wooden bench waiting for Gaynor and the hosts to emerge. She watches Fox & Friends every morning – she likes Earhardt best – and has no problem with Trump doing the same.
“If you were him would you watch CNN? I mean it’d just make you all depressed,” Penny Wilson said. “I think Fox News gives him a fair shake. I think they do ask him tough questions. But I think they at least give him a fair shot.”
But while viewers like Wilson might not have an issue with the president’s reliance on one news source, media experts do.
“It’s a big problem,” says Northwestern university’s Dallek.
“First of all some of the news on Fox News is not really news at all. There’s no attempt at balance and a lot of what passes for news is actually right wing commentary. It’s essentially an extension of Trump’s Republican party and Trump’s ideas. So the people who watch it often I think they’re getting this distorted view of reality.”
It was certainly a distorted version of reality at the Gaynor gig. The 68-year-old emerged for about three minutes at a time, performing a song, then retreating to the studio. In the meantime her backing band – all nine of them – were relegated to standing on the stage as pop music blared from speakers. At about 8.30am the trombonist had enough of this and decided to have a dance to the song “Funky Town”.
As groups of families, and at least two men clad in military trousers watched, the trombonist sashayed his way across the stage, encouraging the scattered crowd to clap as he executed a series of high-kicks and crotch thrusts.
The clapping faded after that, and the dancer retreated to the back of the stage.
Around 9am – just as Fox & Friends was ending – the hosts came out into the concert area and signed off to camera as Gaynor performed her final song.
Earhardt, Kilmeade, and the intimidating-looking Pete Hegseth, filling in for Doocy, briefly mingled with the crowd and performed a cursory interview with Gaynor before a song she had been working on to raise money for Hurricane Harvey.
It was a version of her best-known tune “I will survive”, which she had re-writtenso it could be applied to the hurricane. (The line “Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side” was replaced with “Kept thinking Texas couldn’t live in floodwaters this high”).
“That’s the music of my era,” said a woman called Mary, who did not want to use her last name. She was bobbing her head gently to Gaynor’s rendition.
Mary tunes in to Fox & Friends every morning. “I’m a big facts junkie. I watch only Fox.” She thinks the rest of the media are unfair to Trump.
“They never say one positive thing about the president. It’s completely biased. It’s ridiculous. People want to see people treated fairly and they’re not treating him fairly.”
As for Trump’s shared admiration for the show, for Mary that was a positive. “I feel good. He validates it,” she said. “He feels like he’s getting a fair shot.”
Whether the treatment of Trump is fair or not, for the president, Fox & Friends is a constant safe port in the middle of the storm of his first term.
The show inspires his tweets. It boosts his ego. It’s just as he said: he “likes that group of three people”.