Trump’s TV Obsession Is a First
No president has consumed as much television as the current one, or reacted as quickly or directly to what they were seeing.
President Trump loves Fox & Friends. At 6:24 a.m. on Monday, Trump gushed on Twitter about the “amazing reporting” on the morning talk show. A week earlier he instructed the nation to “watch @foxandfriends now” for their exemplary Russia coverage. He tweeted about the program, hosted by Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade, seven times in March alone, and recently brought it up in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, telling him cheerfully, “I like that group of three people.”
Even after becoming president, Trump reportedly manages to fill his days with “plenty of television,” and from his tweets, it’s often possible to discern when—and what—he’s watching. In January, Axios broke down the president’s media diet:
Most mornings, Trump flicks on the TV and watches “Morning Joe,” often for long periods of time, sometimes interrupted with texts to the hosts or panelists. After the 6 a.m. hour of “Joe,” he’s often on to “Fox & Friends” by 7 a.m., with a little CNN before or after. He also catches the Sunday shows, especially “Meet the Press.” “The shows,” as he calls them, often provoke his tweets. The day of our interview with him, all of his tweet topics were discussed during the first two hours of “Morning Joe.”
Based on their breakdown and this visual guide made by The Washington Post, Trump watches an average of five hours of television every day. That’s almost the same amount the average American aged 50-64 watches daily, according to Nielsen. Trump’s habits don’t quite match up with those of his cohort—Americans in Trump’s age bracket (65+) watch roughly seven hours of TV a day. But many of them are retired, and Trump is the president of the United States. No former president seems to have spent this much time glued to his television set.
For most of America’s recent commanders-in-chief, watching a little TV was a brief break from politics and criticism, a welcome respite from the pressures of the job, or a chance to feel normal. But none consumed as much television as Trump, or reacted as quickly or directly to what they were seeing. Things haven’t gone smoothly for Trump during his first 70 days in office, so perhaps it’s an escape for him, too—a way for him to return to the role he used to play in American politics: that of watcher and critic.
But “it’s a real problem to have a president that has that kind of obsession,” said Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at University of Virginia Miller Center. “The most valuable commodity in Washington is the president’s time, bar nothing. A president who elects to invest a lot of his time in tracking his own media coverage is, to some extent, debasing his own currency.”
During their presidencies, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were “besieged by media criticism,” Riley said. Instead of watching the talking heads, they preferred to use television as an escape. “The media tends to be mainly incumbent unfriendly, and that’s the role of media in a democratic society, to be oppositionist,” Riley said. “They understood that part of being presidential was having thick skin and ignoring what was going on.”
Not so for Trump. The president has brought his campaign-trail feud with the media to the White House, continuing to watch the political pundits on television, responding with praise for some and insults for others. Aides have reportedly attempted to minimize Trump’s TV-watching, but, so far, it hasn’t worked. “He was elected because he was a reality TV star,” Riley told me. “It is a bit less surprising, then, that he would have a hard time tearing himself away.” MSNBC and Fox News are cashing in on Trump’s viewing habits, reportedly hiking up ad rates in February “as companies and outside groups try to influence Trump and his top lieutenants” through ads on his favorite networks.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple stories were published comparing Trump and former President Ronald Reagan: Both worked in the entertainment business, and both were initially seen as political outsiders with a long shot at the presidency. As president, Reagan, too, would show up to work in the Oval Office around 9 a.m., relatively late for White House standards, and on a normal day, he’d clock out promptly at 5 p.m. But after returning to the residence, the Gipper filled his free time in very different ways.
News was different then: There were only a handful of networks, and news programs only lasted about 30 minutes, but Reagan would fit in about an hour of television on a normal day. Reagan biographer Craig Shirley told me the president would occasionally have guests over for movie-watching parties, too. (Shirley said Reagan once held a small viewing party to watch An Officer and a Gentleman and was traumatized by the amount of “gratuitous sex.”)
Mainly, Reagan was a reader. “He literally invented Tom Clancy,” Shirley told me, adding that The Hunt for Red October, Clancy’s breakout novel, became successful “really just because Reagan happened to be reading it.” The president also kept a daily diary and sent handwritten letters to colleagues and constituents nearly every day. “I think Reagan was far more intellectually curious than Trump. He was far more of an intellectual conservative,” Shirley said. “[He] not only read things, he retained them. He could recite poems from memory.”
The 41st president wasn’t a big TV-watcher either. George H. W. Bush would rise at around 6 a.m. and start reading the papers. Unlike Reagan, he’d hold his daily meetings pretty early, around 7:30 a.m.
“He was a diligent worker with no fixed ‘r and r’, no fixed exercise schedule, even though he was active,” said Ed Rogers, a former deputy assistant to Bush. It was the early days of CNN, and Bush liked the evening broadcast. Americans were transfixed by television coverage of the Gulf War, and it was always on in White House offices. Bush liked to watch, but he didn’t have patience to watch for long periods of time. There were “very few of those discretionary, sit at home and take your shoes off kind of evenings,” Rogers said. “Bush was energetic and didn’t long for more idle time.”
Since the development of cable news, the television sets positioned in hallways and offices throughout the White House have all been tuned to a 24-hour news channel, like Fox or CNN. “There’s a sort of background hum of television all the time,” Riley said. But America’s next three presidents mostly tuned in for one thing: sports.
Clinton’s TV-watching was “idiosyncratic and episodic,” Riley told me. He loved college basketball and football. In an interview with the Miller Center, Bernard Nussbaum, who served as Clinton’s White House Counsel, recounted the night the president was supposed to ask D.C. Circuit Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court:
He said, ‘Yes, yes, okay, we’ll appoint her.’ I said ‘Good. Why don’t you give her a call?’ He said, ‘I can’t do that.’ This was in the afternoon, I think, if I have it right. ‘I’ve got some friends coming over, I’ve got to watch the [basketball] game on television.’ I said, ‘What time does [it] start?’ He said, ‘No, I’ve got these friends. I’ll do it later.’ I said, ‘You should really call her up.’ He said, ‘I’ll call her, I’ll call her, but I can’t do it now. I’ll do it later.’ I say, ‘What time is the game over?’ I’m in my office on a Sunday, he’s in the residence with his friends and everything. He said, ‘We’re going to have dinner, the game will be over around 11 o’clock at night or midnight.’ I said, ‘Oh God.’
After the game ended—sometime between 11 and midnight—Clinton appointed Ginsburg, who would later be confirmed as the Supreme Court’s second female justice.
Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama also preferred using their free time to watch sports. In January 2002, Bush famously lost consciousness after choking on a pretzel in the White House residence while watching the Baltimore Ravens playing the Miami Dolphins on TV. Obama said he always watched ESPN’s SportsCenter while working out, and once told Disney chairman Bob Iger that he hoped to someday host SportsCenter’s “Top 10 List.”
The president with television-watching habits most similar to Trump’s is probably Lyndon B. Johnson, who famously installed three television sets in the Oval Office so he could see what the three major networks were saying about him on the evening news. “LBJ had a Texas-sized ego in a way that Trump has a New York-Manhattan-sized ego,” Riley said. “There’s a certain parallel in their sensing the universe tends to revolve around them.”
The difference is, Johnson would only need to turn on the television for 15 to 30 minutes every evening to consume the day’s news and see all the coverage of his administration. The ritual wasn’t “terribly intrusive,” Riley said, and didn’t distract from the president’s day-to-day work. Today’s 24-hour news cycle, in which the day’s developments are rehashed on cable shows and Twitter all night long, requires much more time to follow.
America’s recent commanders-in-chief didn’t attempt to keep up. They knew “there were more important things for a president to do than watching television,” Riley said. “What I’m hearing is this is not a lesson that President Trump has yet come by.”