Donald Trump told reporters in the fall, “I don’t get to watch much television. Primarily because of documents. I’m reading documents. A lot.”
This was amusing, not only because there’s no evidence to suggest the president reads “documents” – by all accounts, Trump even skips the presidential daily brief – but also because he seems obsessed with television. It’s how he often finds new people to hire, and it’s how the president shapes his policy agenda, such as it is.
But TV is also an important form of communication for White House aides. The Wall Street Journal reported this week on presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s evolving role, and the report included a fascinating tidbit about his relationship with John Bolton, the new White House national security adviser, who was a Fox News personality until very recently.
Over the past year, Mr. Kushner would call Mr. Bolton for advice, including on the operations of the United Nations, where Mr. Bolton served as ambassador during the George W. Bush administration.
Knowing that Mr. Bolton was a frequent commentator on cable television, White House aides would ask Mr. Kushner to call and brief him on important initiatives so that he would have a firm grasp of the administration’s position before appearing in forums that the president watches, people familiar with the matter said.
It’s an amazing dynamic without precedent. When White House officials wanted Trump to understand his own agenda, they’d brief television pundits in the hopes that they’d convey the lessons to the president through his preferred medium.
After all, Trump is more likely to buy into an idea if he sees it repeated by pundits he likes on television. The alternative, I suppose, would be presidential aides handing Trump a “document,” but everyone involved seems to understand that doesn’t work.
Take the “do not congratulate” memo, for example.
What amazes me, though, is how often this happens. When White House aides wanted to convey to Trump that the indictments of 13 Russian operatives was not good news, for example, they went to cable news in order to shape the president’s understanding of the developments.
Members of Congress reportedly regard a TV appearance “as nearly on par with an Oval Office meeting in terms of showcasing their standing or viewpoints to the president.” Foreign diplomats have also urged their governments’ leaders to appear on American television “as a means of making their case to Trump.”
Some officials close to the president have spoken about this on the record. Kellyanne Conway conceded during the campaign that if she wanted to deliver a message to Trump, she wouldn’t just tell him what’s on her mind. “A way you can communicate with him is you go on TV to communicate,” she explained.
The level of dysfunction in this White House is almost certainly under-appreciated by the public.