It’s practically become the punch-line to a national joke: when Donald Trump needs to find personnel for his team, the president instinctively turns to people he’s seen on television. What’s often overlooked, however, is the degree to which Trump’s presidency is also guided by what he sees and hears from his favorite personalities in conservative media.
Earlier this week, as the White House came to terms with the fact that Congress wouldn’t approve $5 billion for a border wall, the president and his team backed off its shutdown threats. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders publicly discussed the “other ways” the administration would secure the funds – outside of the congressional appropriations process – and Trump eagerly did the same.
When it came time for the Senate to approve a stopgap spending bill to prevent a shutdown, it passed effortlessly in large part because the White House told Senate leaders the president would sign it.
So what happened? As the Washington Post reported, Trump started responding to what he saw on TV.
[O]n Fox News Channel and across conservative media, there was a brewing rebellion. Prominent voices urged Trump to hold firm on his wall money and warned that caving would jeopardize his reelection.
Rush Limbaugh dismissed the compromise bill on his radio program as “Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything.” Another firebrand, Ann Coulter, published a column titled “Gutless President in Wall-less Country.” Trump even found resistance on the couch of his favorite show, “Fox & Friends,” where reliable Trump-boosting host Brian Kilmeade chided him on the air Thursday.
The president was paying attention.
The Post’s article added that Trump has spent the last couple of days “flipping out” over criticisms in the media.
Politico added, “He has alternately seethed and panicked about the stream of invective he’s hearing from allies on television.”
It served as a reminder that Trump, though loath to admit it, doesn’t see himself as a leader. He is, at his core, a follower, guided by what he believes his loudest allies want and expect from him.
This president seems to believe that the support of his base is the only meaningful political pillar of his support, and with his base demanding that he shut down the government in pursuit of a border wall, Trump feels compelled to follow the instructions.
Indeed, yesterday afternoon, Trump didn’t signal to Democratic leaders that he wanted to negotiate a deal, but rather signaled to Rush Limbaugh that the far-right host will be satisfied with the president’s strategy.
Trump and conservative media are in the same car, but it’s not the president behind the wheel.