Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
In the wake of a report highlighting just how much time President Donald Trump devotes to sitting in front his television watching cable news every day, Fox News hosts have a message for the president: Keep it up!
Axios reporters Alexi McCammond and Jonathan Swan sent shockwaves through the political and journalism worlds of Washington, D.C., on Sunday afternoon when they published President Donald Trump’s private White House schedules for nearly every day since the November midterm elections, revealing that nearly 60 percent of his working day was classified as unstructured “executive time.” Much of the ensuing conversation in the media revolved around who at the White House engaged in such a calculated leak that seemed intended to damage the president, and what exactly does the president do during all that executive time.
As Axios and The Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out, the White House appears to be using “executive time” as an umbrella term covering two discrete types of presidential activity: morning stretches Trump largely spends in the White House residence watching Fox News and tweeting about it, and freewheeling but theoretically productive afternoon periods in which he holds meetings or makes phone calls that are either impromptu or hidden off his schedule. It’s the former periods, consistent with my own work on the Trump-Fox feedback loop, that led commentators like MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace to call Axios’ reporting a “truth bomb” demonstrating that Trump “doesn’t do much of anything as president” and CNN’s Chris Cuomo to claim it shows that his Oval Office desk is “more of a prop for photo-ops than anything else.”
The president’s Fox propagandists have a very different take on the story, of course. If Trump tuned in to his favorite network since the report was published (and there’s little on his public schedule to suggest that he hasn’t), he may have heard its commentators explaining that it is actually a very good thing that he spends large portions of his day watching them. And when they weren't defending Trump's schedule, Fox hosts were redirecting attention to criticizing the leak itself.
The day after the story’s publication, Greg Gutfeld led the charge on Fox’s afternoon panel show The Five, arguing that Trump actually needs more executive time, not less, because that approach works best for him. “We all knew this skill set is not a political skill set,” Gutfeld said, but rather one “almost entirely rooted” in “pursuing relationships, relentless persuasion and messaging.”
Gutfeld went on to praise the president’s practice of watching Fox and tweeting about what he sees. “TV, Fox News -- it's his conduit to the American people, the way he sees the American people, his voters,” he said. “So he looks and he sees what's going and then he tweets.” According to Gutfeld, that strategy has succeeded on everything from North Korea to trade policy.
Not everyone on The Five agreed with Gutfeld’s analysis. Juan Williams, the panel’s sole liberal, said the story made Trump look like “a big joke,” and that while the White House wants people to think the president is simply being “creative” during his unstructured time, “other people will have a much more derogatory term for people who aren't at work when they are supposed to be at work.”
But Jesse Watters quickly shot Williams down, joking that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have executive time because she isn’t president. “Whatever the president needs to be president is fine,” he continued, before saying that the “real story” is the leak.
These defenses of executive time permeated Fox’s coverage of the story for the rest of the night. On Special Report, Fox News Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt said the story was “not [a] big deal” because it didn’t actually show Trump behaving differently from past presidents (this is nonsense). “What do people think presidents do?” he continued. “The president's job is as a decider. That's what he is supposed to do. I don't think anybody was under the notion that Donald Trump was a wonk and that he was sitting at the Resolute Desk with charts and graphs.”
Howard Kurtz, the network’s ostensible media critic, also claimed the Axios story was a nothingburger. “To me, and to the average American, I think, like -- basically, who cares how he runs his schedule, as long as he gets things done,” he claimed on The Story. The show’s host, Martha MacCaullum, replied that what struck her is “it sounds a lot like work” because “he's reading the papers” along with watching “probably almost every cable channel during the day.”
Curiously quiet on the story were the hosts of Fox & Friends, the morning show that the president uses as his daily briefing. While Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade are certainly aware that Trump often starts his day by tweeting about their show, none of them seemed interested in taking a position on the Axios report on the extent of executive time.
Instead, on Tuesday morning they served up the question to someone they knew would defend the president: Trump’s son Eric. He did not disappoint, repeatedly saying that his dad is “truly one of the hardest-working people in the world” and mocking Axios’ reporters. “Give me a break,” he added. "These people need to move on.”