Last week was a tough one for President Donald Trump. It featured a scandal-churning Bob Woodward book, a New York Times op-ed from an anonymous Trump official who is apparently undermining his boss, and an unexpectedly rough nomination hearing for Brett Kavanaugh.
When the president’s personal or political tumult exceeds its already frighteningly high baseline, he tends to lash out and seek reaffirmation -- as last week’s troubles accumulated, he wallowed in some praise from North Korea’s dictator and vented his frustrations at “the Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media.” And whenever Trump feels politically embattled or one of his scandals has mushroomed beyond the capabilities of his inept communications team, the president can be counted on to call on his conservative media lickspittles for an ass-kissing farce of an interview. This happened twice last week: He gave a ridiculous interview to Fox News’ Pete Hegseth ahead of a political rally in Montana, and an equally absurd one-on-one with The Daily Caller.
These interviews demonstrate the corrupt nature of Trump's relationship with conservative media. The president’s overriding need for unqualified praise and affirmation, especially when he’s beset by crises, creates a clear incentive structure for right-wing media outlets: Disgustingly obsequious and adulatory behavior will be rewarded with access to the president.
This dynamic has been a running feature of the Trump presidency as afterthought pundits who would otherwise be coasting toward the ends of their careers -- Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs -- have seen their influence explode thanks to their personal relationships with Trump and their eagerness to bathe the president with reflexive and self-debasing praise. Pete Hegseth, a confidant of Trump’s and wanna-be member of the Trump administration, is similarly committed to using his quasi-journalistic perch to glorify the president.
“Folks, you may have seen an anonymous column written in The New York Times,” Hegseth said during last week’s interview ahead of Trump’s rally in Montana, eliciting a predictable round of boos from the pro-Trump crowd. “And I think this audience would say that an attack on you is an attack on the people that voted for you,” he said to the president, drawing a countervailing round of cheers. This emotional push and pull was the setup for Hegseth’s question to Trump: “Are you any closer to knowing who did it, and what should be done if you find out who did it?” Hegseth then passed his microphone to Trump, ceding the floor to his interviewee, who rambled on about “treason” and the supposed perfidy of the Times.
My colleague Matt Gertz characterized Hegseth as a “hype man” for his performance, which is accurate, but I think behavior like this merits something a bit more insulting. Hegseth’s role was more or less that of a human golf tee. He was jammed into the president’s turf, holding aloft gleaming, lovingly dimpled “questions” for Trump to club at his leisure as spectators clapped and hooted. At all other times, he rests comfortably inside the president’s pocket, waiting to be plucked out when needed. Hegseth plays this role because he knows that is the treatment Trump craves and demands from the media.
The Daily Caller’s interview with Trump in the Oval Office was only slightly less unseemly, if only because it wasn’t conducted at an actual campaign event. “So you have been batting almost 1000 on primary endorsements. You have to be pretty proud of that,” was the Daily Caller’s first question for Trump, though it wasn’t technically a “question” but rather an invitation for Trump to brag. Trump took advantage of the opportunity while also hilariously blaming his son for his endorsement of failed Wyoming gubernatorial candidate (and Daily Caller funder) Foster Friess.
The interview continued in that vein, with the Daily Caller offering praise of the president lightly disguised as “questions.” This excerpt from the transcript captures the flavor perfectly:
THE DAILY CALLER: It seems like the theme here is that in Washington it’s not often somebody comes along and sort of rethinks what everybody already believes. In Washington, despite the bipartisan differences, everyone has the same momentum, they’re all headed in the same direction. And you feel like you’re coming in —
POTUS: Well, your question was so good because nobody has ever asked me that. It’s almost like you sort of understood the situation better, does everyone agree with you on that? Because you guys are probably sitting there saying, but then you’re saying but you have to go through this incredible layer of people.
THE DAILY CALLER: You’re challenging the conventional wisdom.
At one point, White House deputy chief of staff (and disgraced former Fox News executive) Bill Shine tried to wrap things up, but Trump overruled him because of how much he was enjoying the Daily Caller’s bootlicking flattery. “Let them have it, these guys have been great. Let them have a few more,” Trump said.
Again, that sort of relentless adulation is how Trump expects to be treated, and conservative media outlets are happy to give him what he wants. And since the president spends a frankly shocking amount of his immensely valuable time melting his brain with cable news, he can immerse himself in the hosannas of his most sycophantic enablers and also let them know when they’re falling short of the high standard for adulation he demands. “Do we love Sean Hannity, by the way? I love him,” Trump remarked at last week’s rally in Montana. “But here's the only part. He puts up all these losers that say horrible things. I've got to talk to him. One after another. ‘Donald Trump, he's lost it up here.’ You know, it is pretty tough.”
It’s not tough. If “tough” were a spot on the globe, Sean Hannity’s show would be its antipode. But some fleeting criticism featured on an intensely pro-Trump program still irked the president to the point that he groused about it during a campaign rally.
The proper way to view Trump’s cultivation of relationships with the conservative press is as an act of corruption. It’s hard to deny that all parties are going into these interviews with a clear understanding of their transactional nature: Trump gets the good press and affirmation that he intensely craves, while Fox News, the Daily Caller, and all the other sycophants get to hype their “exclusives” with the president. There is no good-faith effort to inform the public; they’re just grubbing access for the sake of access, which Trump metes out as a reward for immensely flattering coverage. When Trump is hounded by scandal, conservative media serve as part of his PR and self-care strategy.
If the way to get access to Trump is to be as over-the-top obsequious as possible, then it’s easy to see how that becomes the dominant incentive behind conservative media coverage of the White House. The corruption spreads as right-wing media figures look to boost their own profiles by advertising their slavish deference to a fragile president who is driven by an infinitely deep desire for praise. Everyone wants to be Trump’s human golf tee.