Three ways GOP members of Congress use the Trump-Fox feedback loop

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

President Donald Trump’s worldview is shaped by the Fox News programming he can reportedly spend hours watching each day. The network’s personalities are aware of the power Trump’s attention gives them and have used the network’s platform to influence the president’s actions on policy and political strategy, at times triggering major consequences. But the Fox hosts and contributors aren’t the only ones trying to take advantage of the fact that the most powerful man on the planet is the network’s regular viewer. Republican members of Congress are also aware of the power of the Trump-Fox feedback loop and have sought to use it to advance their own goals.

In separate reports over the weekend, The Washington Post and The New York Times provided a glimpse of how GOP legislators have shifted their behavior in order to take advantage of the president’s binge-watching tendencies. The articles demonstrate how the conservative propaganda network and its biggest stars have increased their power and control over the Republican Party under the Trump administration. And those who ignore Fox’s primacy do so at their own peril -- per the Post, former Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) relationship with Trump suffered specifically because Trump would call Ryan to talk about what had aired on Fox & Friends that morning, and “Ryan was not usually watching or versed on the particulars of the show.”

As the Post reports, “Republican lawmakers have grown accustomed to Trump’s predilection to obsess over TV and the coverage of him — and have adapted.” Here’s how they are using the Trump-Fox feedback loop.

1. Pitching policy proposals directly to Trump on Fox

Fox’s hosts and guests have realized that they can influence the president’s decisions by gearing their commentary to him directly. The Post reports that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) tried the tactic with some success.

Paul “had aggressively tried to pitch White House staff on association health-care plans without luck in late 2017,” the Post reports. “So instead he went on Fox News on a Friday night and made his pitch.” Since the president was apparently watching, Paul was able to cut out the White House staffers who had been uninterested in the proposal. “Soon,” according to the Post, “Trump tried to call him, intrigued by the idea and endorsed the proposal after meeting with the senator.”

2. Running policy proposals past Trump’s favorite Fox hosts

When Trump triggered a partial government shutdown in December over southern border wall funding, and continued it longer than any other in U.S. history, he was taking the advice of his Fox allies.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had reportedly hoped he could use the Fox’s influence to end the shutdown that the network had helped start. According to the Post, before sharing with the president details of a potential deal to reopen the government that he was negotiating with the Democrats, Graham pitched it to three Fox hosts -- Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, both of whom Trump was reportedly consulting on his shutdown strategy, and Laura Ingraham. “If they were on board, Graham said, Trump would be far more likely to support such a deal,” the Post reports. “If they weren’t, Trump would be unlikely to support it.”

The Post does not detail whether Hannity, Dobbs, and Ingraham liked Graham’s proposal, but it does give a fairly large hint: “The deal never went anywhere.” That’s not surprising. It’s difficult to imagine an immigration deal that could both attract Democratic votes and avoid a veto from the likes of Dobbs, who recently warned that immigration could “consign tens of thousands perhaps millions of Americans to their deaths.” Graham has long understood this, having warned Democratic senators in 2010 that they needed to move quickly on climate change negotiations “before Fox News got wind of” it and trashed the bipartisan legislation.

In the end, Trump did sign legislation reopening the government that did not include the money he wanted for his wall. Hannity, Dobbs, and Ingraham all initially panned the deal, but after the White House reportedly reached out to Dobbs and Hannity, both hosts ultimately focused their attention on the need for Trump to declare a national emergency to obtain more wall funding, which the president eventually did.

3. Building a relationship with Trump by defending him on Fox

If the president didn’t spend so much time watching cable news, there would have been no reason for the Times to profile Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a second-term Florida congressman, as the paper did on Saturday. Gaetz has few accomplishments to speak of and little real power as a backbencher in the minority party. But by his own admission, Gaetz carved out a niche for himself (and attracted the Times’ attention) by deliberately cultivating a direct relationship with Trump through his TV set. Gaetz maintains “a near-constant presence on the president’s favorite network,” the Times reports, using those appearances to establish himself as one of Trump’s “fiercest and most frequent defenders.”

“What are the things you can do to impact an outcome?” the congressman asked the Times. “Well, the most valuable real estate in the world lies between the president’s ears. And if I can be a good friend and ally and influencer in calling to the president, then I can impact outcomes without having to be a whore for special interests.”

Likewise, the Post reports that Reps. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) “are frequently called by the president — partially because they are often on TV defending him,” which has made them “influential in shaping administration policies.”

Unfortunately, neither the Post nor the Times detailed just how Gaetz, Meadows, and Jordan have been defending Trump. A cursory review reveals the dangerous arguments the trio have made in their cynical bid for political power.

The three congressmen -- particularly Gaetz -- were reportedly at the center of Republican efforts to “fight back” against special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. That effort has involved not just denouncing Mueller himself but demanding a federal investigation of both Hillary Clinton and the investigators who began the FBI’s probe into contact between Russia and Trump’s associates. By pushing for these authoritarian responses to the Mueller probe, Gaetz, Jordan, and Meadows have helped turn them into regular Fox News talking points. And the president is watching and listening.