When you’re the leader of the free world, as US presidents like to style themselves, there are many sources of information at your disposal. Intelligence agencies at home and overseas file daily reports. Advisors filter the haystack for needles of important data. Hard-nosed journalists spend their days breaking big stories of importance.
Or you could base your decisions on whatever happens to pop up when you’re flicking channels, as Donald Trump does. His habits are so well known that Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver has even gone so far as to buy educational ads to screen during the shows he loves – and learns from…
If it’s Saturday Night Live, it isn’t funny
Unlike former presidents, Trump seems to react immediately to whatever he sees on TV, making huge decisions on whatever he’s watching. Sometimes this means panning Saturday Night Live on Twitter...
... and other times this means putting his press secretary on notice because he was portrayed on SNL by a woman, which apparently makes him look “weak”. Sounds frivolous, but if true it means Sean Spicer lost face in his boss’s eyes because a comedy show thought it would be funny if Melissa McCarthy lampooned him.
If it’s Fox News, he springs into action
More seriously, Trump gives the impression that he takes whatever he sees on certain news channels as gospel, and announces policy plans based on their reports. The most prominent recent example was his January 24 tweet, inspired by a segment he saw on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor, which used the same language/data:
If it’s CNN, it’s fake news
Beyond dismissive of the news channel, Trump has actively attacked CNN on a number of occasions. On January 11, during his first press conference as president-elect, he attacked the network, refused to let their reporter – Jim Acosta – ask him a question, ending their exchange with “Don’t. Be. Rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question. I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news.” (Afterwards, Spicer told Acosta that he had behaved inappropriately.)
The feud has since escalated, with CNN regularly responding to Trump’s statements with fact checks both on TV and Twitter.
If it’s MSNBC, he’s listening
According to Axios, “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... The day of our interview with him, all of his tweet topics were discussed during the first two hours of Morning Joe.”
When Democratic representative Elijah Cummings was on the MSNBC show, he was asked how he’d work with Trump on medicine prices. He replied, “Joe, I want to thank you all for giving that opening, and to the president, I know you’re watching, so I’m looking forward to meeting with you.” Guess who rang just after the segment to talk drugs?
And on February 11, Trump positively tweeted a quote from legal-stuff blog Lawfare that had been featured on Morning Joe – but the article he quoted from had been largely critical of him. The writer eventually realised a small chunk of the article in question had just been screened on MSNBC, and Trump clearly hadn’t read the whole thing.
If anyone suggests that Steve Bannon’s in charge, he’s furious
According to some sources, there’s no better way to agitate Trump than to paint him as a puppet of his chief strategist Steve Bannon – sometimes literally, in the case of political cartoonists fortunate enough to get their work on the small screen. When MSNBC host Joe Scarborough talked about the unusual prominence of Bannon, Trump immediately responded:
Obviously all of this TV watching then reacting isn’t a new habit for Trump. Back in 2015, when NBC’s Chuck Todd asked him who he goes to for military advice, Trump replied, “Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show, and all of the other shows...”
To find out what made Trump the man he is today, explore his family history in Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President, airing on Tuesday, 21 February at 7:30pm on SBS. After broadcast, the documentary will be available on SBS On Demand.