In the fall of 2004, the late Sen. Jim Bunning was facing unsettling questions about his fitness for public office during his re-election bid, and shortly before Election Day, the Kentucky Republican made matters slightly worse.
One of his constituents was at the center of a major controversy – an Army Reserve soldier in Iraq refused an order to deliver fuel because his truck wasn’t properly armored – and asked for a reaction, Bunning said, “I don’t know anything about that.” When reporters wondered how that was possible given the attention the story had received in his home state of Kentucky, the GOP senator replied, “Let me explain something: I don’t watch the national news, and I don’t read the paper. I haven’t done that for the last six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information.”
This was a sitting U.S. senator, running for re-election during a time of war. The idea that he’d rely on conservative media as his primary source of information gathering on current events seemed bizarre.
More than a decade later, however, it’s even stranger that the president of the United States is in the same boat. The New York Times reported the other day on White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s frustrations after a month on the job.
Mr. Kelly cannot stop Mr. Trump from binge-watching Fox News, which aides describe as the president’s primary source of information gathering. But Mr. Trump does not have a web browser on his phone, and does not use a laptop, so he was dependent on aides like Stephen K. Bannon, his former chief strategist, to hand-deliver printouts of articles from conservative media outlets.
Now Mr. Kelly has thinned out his package of printouts so much that Mr. Trump plaintively asked a friend recently where The Daily Caller and Breitbart were.
The American president has more access to information than probably any living human, but Donald J. Trump likes conservative outlets that tell him what he wants to hear.
And whether he realizes this or not, this isn’t good for Trump’s presidency.
Trump’s allegations that Barack Obama illegally tapped his phones, for example, were based on a bizarre piece published on a right-wing website. He soon after told the public about terrorist violence in Sweden – which didn’t actually exist – because of something he saw on Fox News. Around the same time, the president made odd claims about the national debt based on a bogus argument on Fox News, which got the information from a strange right-wing blog that’s notorious for publishing nonsense.
As we discussed a while back, the public may not appreciate just how quickly a sitting president can have any question answered. Trump can pick up the phone anytime and say, “I’d like some information on security threats in Sweden,” and very soon thereafter, a group of people will appear in front of him, providing him with as many details as he’d like. If he wants to better understand the deficit and/or the debt, he can make a simple request and have a half-dozen economists in his office, ready to give a tutorial at a time of his choosing.
This applies to practically any topic, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a perk of the office.
But Trump doesn’t avail himself of this unique access to facts, preferring instead to make conservative media his “primary source of information gathering.”
The effects on his presidency are obvious.
Postscript: Trump “does not have a web browser on his phone”? I didn’t even know that was possible. If someone took the browser app off his phone, I’d be curious to know who and why.