President Trump complained yet again Wednesday about the media — “Everything’s a fake,” he said — and defended his frequent tweeting as his “only form of communicating.”
Yet it was a media outlet that aired those remarks. Fox Business Network, in its second interview of Trump in as many days, broadcast its three-hour “Varney & Co.” live from the White House. It was a show that Trump aides helped engineer to tout his economic policies, featuring Cabinet members and administration officials stopping by for interviews in the manner of a telethon or infomercial.
Since the arrival in June of former Fox News executive Bill Shine as the president’s communications director, Trump has been increasingly brazen about indulging his craving for media attention and using the White House as his personal, taxpayer-funded sound stage.
“Ordinarily, for this sort of stage-managed event, it would have to be highly consequential — this is not — or you had to pay for the air time,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, who likened the broadcast to an in-kind contribution by the network to Trump.
“When you get three hours to reach the audience you want and you're controlling the message, you're in effect getting advertising without having to pay for it,” she said.
Back when even Trump didn’t expect him to be elected, “Trump TV” was an idea floated as as a post-campaign option, a new reality show for the onetime “Apprentice” star. Now that has arrived, inside the White House: Suddenly, the president is creating almost as much TV content as he consumes.
He has wandered out to the cameras on the North Lawn for a lengthy live interview with “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy, and he also calls into the show. At Shine's direction, Trump has begun filming direct-to-camera statements for social media, at White House spots that provide a presidential setting.
Long-routine gatherings of reporters in the Oval Office as the president begins to meet with some visitor, whether a world leader or Kanye West, have morphed from quick photo ops into long, freewheeling exchanges, often broadcast in full on cable networks.
As Trump has increased his media contacts lately — he’s done five television interviews in the last five days, including on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” as well as a 37-minute session with the Associated Press — he continues to favor Fox News. Again with Shine as impresario, the president has done several on-camera interviews with Fox hosts before taking the stage at his “Make America Great Again” rallies, with the crowd of supporters as a backdrop.
Ann Compton, who covered seven presidents for ABC News, said that in her view, Trump’s eagerness to engage with White House journalists sets him apart from his predecessors. “I think that's incredibly healthy,” she said.
Still, she added, “What I see is a White House operation that does not have a defined communications strategy. They seem to be testing all sorts of strategies.”
Even as Trump has been more widely accessible to reporters, Wednesday morning’s broadcast crystallized the fusion of the conservative network and the administration.
“Having an event where you have people from the American public, Cabinet members and officials talk to the public — that's something a lot of presidents have done,” said Jennifer Psaki, who was a communications director for the Obama administration. “But what's most important is what the questions are and who's asking them.”
She added: “There's never been a White House that's closer to having a state-run media than this one with Fox News.”
Shine, who was at the right hand of former Fox chief Roger Ailes and was implicated in Ailes’ sexual harassment scandal, did not respond to requests for comment. Shine also remains close to Fox celebrity Sean Hannity. Although he continues to keep a relatively low profile, rarely appearing on camera himself, aides acknowledge his fingerprints on the president’s recent media moves.
Varney’s show tweeted Tuesday night: “Varney & Co. will be LIVE from the White House this Wednesday, 10/17 for all three hours! Who knows who might show up for an interview? Tune in or set your DVR from 9am until noon...”
Varney broadcast from a room in the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, a distinction that was blurred in the show’s pronouncements of being “live at the White House.”
Among the administration figures who popped in: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, budget director Mick Mulvaney, Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Kevin Hassett, counselor Kellyanne Conway and — the not-so-surprise guest — Trump.
The flavor of the broadcast was captured by a segment in which Conway appeared alongside a coal miner, Benson Waller, who described how regulations Trump has targeted had hurt his industry.
“Do you owe your job” to the president’s policies? Varney asked.
“I would say yes,” Waller replied.
Conway chimed in: “A lot of coal miners owe their jobs to this.”
Zinke, appearing with a Southern Ute tribal official who supports administration efforts to boost energy production on Native American lands, was not asked during his five-minute segment about Tuesday’s news that he had fired the Interior Department’s inspector general, who was investigating allegations of misconduct in the agency.
By the time Varney signed off at noon, the White House had tweeted three video clips from his interviews. Trump also tweeted the clip of his nine-minute interview with Varney.
The interview with Trump touched on a number of topics, including the alleged murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by high-ranking Saudi officials.
But Varney explored the topic on the president’s terms, helping Trump clarify the point he has emphasized about the importance of continued good relations with Saudi Arabia.
“We're not going to walk away from Saudi Arabia as an ally?” Varney asked leadingly.
Trump responded three times, “I don't want to do that.”
Trump explained his media blitz to Varney as an effort to get the word out in spite of what he considers to be biased news organizations. He singled out several for criticism, including the AP, CNN, CBS and NBC.
His pique did not extend to Fox, however.
“Enjoy the White House,” Trump told Varney as the interview concluded with a handshake. “We love having you.”