President Trump Finds His TV Niche in Softball Interviews

President Trump Finds His TV Niche in Softball Interviews


Even within Fox News, which fills Mr. Trump’s DVR with hours of daily pep talks, he chooses cozier digs. He dropped by the first week of Fox’s “The Ingraham Angle,” with Laura Ingraham, who spoke at his nominating convention. But he’s been scarce on the more straight-news-oriented shows of Bret Baier and Chris Wallace.

The last time Mr. Trump sat for a TV interview outside his comfort zone was in May, with NBC’s Lester Holt. That was when he volunteered his mind-set in deciding to fire the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, who was then leading the probe into Russian election interference. The president said to himself, he recounted, “‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia was a made-up story.’”

There is no such danger in Mr. Trump’s safe space. But it also means he’s not reaching anyone beyond his base — a strategy that, the Republican drubbing in the off-year elections suggests, has its limits.

For his die-hard fans, Mr. Trump sticks to his greatest hits: the media is “fake” (“one of the greatest terms of all I’ve come up with,” he told Mr. Huckabee); we’re going to build the wall; they said we couldn’t get to 270 electoral votes, but we got 306. (Ultimately 304.) He’s speaking to an audience that isn’t watching to see news made or questions answered but to hear, again: We won.

Indeed, Mr. Trump’s interviews with his boosters hardly make news except by accident, as when he defended a lag in diplomatic hiring to Ms. Ingraham by saying, “I’m the only one that matters.”

To understand Mr. Trump as a president, you have to remember that he was a celebrity first, and he still uses the media like a celebrity does. His first remark to Ms. Ingraham about the Republican tax bill was “We’ve gotten really great reviews,” as if he were plugging a new movie on “The Tonight Show.” He repeatedly gave Mr. Hannity his highest honor: praising his Nielsen ratings.

In Mr. Trump’s first celebrity phase, as a brass-plated capitalist cartoon in the ’80s and ’90s, he was a media gadfly. He chased the cameras, planted his name in the tabloids and exchanged locker-room talk with Howard Stern. The point, then, was to be outrageous, to stir the pot. There was no such thing as bad attention.

This was the approach that the candidate Trump used, keeping CNN and “Morning Joe” on speed dial, taking advantage of billions of dollars of free media to ensure that he was the protagonist of the election. For a while, in 2015 and 2016, he was freely available on TV, proving that he could shoot off his mouth in a Fifth Avenue studio and still not lose his voters.

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Mr. Trump’s second celebrity era was as the host, star and grand prize of “The Apprentice.” There, editors imposed a linear arc on his vagabond sentences, gave coherence to his impulsive decisions. “The Apprentice” had a vested interest in plumping him up — to be the best show, it needed to make him into the best businessman. It styled him to appear successful, decisive, wise, desired and obeyed.

Now, as president, Mr. Trump has delegated the job of reality producer to friendly media outlets. Where other interviewers would challenge or press for details, his chosen hosts do the clarifying for him and offer him talking points couched as questions. “Are you getting the credit for this economic revival?” Ms. Ingraham asked.

Above all, they offer affirmation, and Mr. Trump basks in it like the first warming light of creation. At the Pennsylvania interview on Oct. 11, Mr. Hannity engaged the home-team crowd as if hosting a live “Apprentice” finale. What did they think of Mr. Trump, he asked? (Yay!) What about Congress? (Boo!) And what about the media? (Booooo!)

It’s that cheering crowd, one suspects, that is really driving the dynamic here. The point of all the delicate meringue questions is not simply to avoid challenging the president. It’s to avoid challenging the audience.

These interviews are a reciprocal exchange for a closed circle. The base gets to cheer its leader and boo the haters. The interviewers get to prove their loyalty, presenting themselves as official Trump-endorsed products.

And the president gets to end the exchange nodding and smiling, like someone who knows he has gotten the better part of the deal.

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