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Watching ‘Fox & Friends,’ Trump Sees a Two-Way Mirror

In January, the hosts, “Romper Room”–style, even pretended to be watching Potus, showing a video feed of the White House and asking him to flash the lights on and off if he was watching. (Producers added an effect of the lights flickering, a “TV trick” the hosts later acknowledged.)

Video by Jarrod Starnes

It is the only TV-show account Mr. Trump follows on Twitter (though he follows several other Fox personalities). When he doesn’t watch it live, he records it. When he tweeted earlier this month that “I have very little time for watching T.V.,” he had retweeted six videos from the show over the course of three days.

“Fox & Friends” has been on the air since 1998; Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade have been with it since the beginning. (They’ve been partnered with a string of female co-hosts, currently Ainsley Earhardt.) For years, it was a nontaxing mix of news, lifestyle and conservative couch gab, a warm-up before Fox’s day of politics and commentary.

Suddenly, for no other reason than its No. 1 fan, it is the most powerful TV show in America. (It’s also easily the most-watched cable news morning show, averaging 1.6 million viewers in the second quarter, following a post-Trump ratings boost.) Mr. Doocy and Mr. Kilmeade now offer strategic advice on health care legislation. Politicians use the show as a kind of virtual Oval Office pitch meeting. In turn, Mr. Trump’s live tweets set and reshape the show’s focus.

This can make for a wild ride. On Tuesday morning, after the failure of the Senate Republican health plan, the hosts had to keep up with the president’s tweets as they whiplashed from “REPEAL failing ObamaCare now” to “As I have always said, let ObamaCare fail” to advocating “full Repeal” again. “Fox & Friends” deflected responsibility to the Senate: “As Congress Spars, President Focuses on Jobs,” one chyron read.

Other times, the show drives the president’s agenda. On July 10, “Fox & Friends” wrongly reported that James B. Comey, the fired F.B.I. director, had leaked “top secret” information in his memos about meeting with Mr. Trump. The president quickly echoed the charge on Twitter: “So illegal!” (“Swiper, no swiping!”)


Ms. Earhardt on the set of “Fox & Friends.”

Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

“Fox & Friends” briefly corrected its report the next day. The president did not.

TV news has covered and worried presidents for decades, but it has never been as central to the mind-set of a president as Mr. Trump: reality star, producer and cable-news junkie. But since his amour fou with CNN and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” has gone bad — he claims not to watch them anymore yet somehow stays deeply familiar with them — he has favored “Fox & Friends,” which requites his love.

When the United States military dropped a giant bomb in Afghanistan in April, the show set the video to the tune of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.” (“That video is black and white, but that’s what freedom looks like — that’s the red, white and blue,” Ms. Earhardt said.)

Video by Tilo Jung

This month, while other news outlets covered the news that Donald Trump Jr. had met with a Russian lawyer promising damaging government information on Hillary Clinton, “Fox & Friends” argued that Americans didn’t care about it.

Boy, did they not care! They not-cared so much that “Fox & Friends” reminded the audience constantly, for days on end, how little they cared. “Media in Hysterics Over Russian ‘Scandal,’” read a typical chyron. A panel of seven “moms from all walks of life” — including several conservative media activists — were asked whether the Russia story mattered to them “as moms.”

Diagraming the feedback loop between “Fox & Friends” and the president requires a very small bulletin board and maybe six inches of yarn. On July 11, the show aired a segment blaming Democrats for “obstructing” Mr. Trump’s nominees. At 6:42 a.m., it posted the segment on Twitter, and Mr. Trump retweeted it quickly. At 6:59, he tweeted:

Ten minutes later, that tweet was on the “Fox & Friends” video wall, prompting the hosts to criticize the Democrats again.

“This is anti-American,” said Mr. Kilmeade.

“Well, it’s anti-Trump, ultimately,” said Mr. Doocy.

“Which is anti-American,” said Mr. Kilmeade.

In the context of “Fox & Friends,” at least, Mr. Kilmeade is right. Mr. Trump — a regular caller to the show in his “Apprentice” and birther days — represents the version of America “Fox & Friends” has promoted for years, one anxious about security and heavily invested in the culture wars. “We were doing Donald Trump issues before Donald Trump was Donald Trump,” Mr. Doocy recently told The Hollywood Reporter.

To watch “Fox & Friends” is to get a specific picture of that America and its emotional triggers: “the media” (understood not to include Fox), liberals disrespecting police, liberals disrespecting Ivanka. The Charlie Gard story, about the British parents seeking treatment for their terminally ill infant — a proxy for the health care debate — is big right now, as are inspirational religious pieces and reports about leftist college students.

Political overtones aside, the “Fox & Friends” ethos is classic cable-niche targeting: identifying a specific audience — traditionalist, nostalgic, alienated from the culture of big cities — and making it feel seen.

In Friday’s “Breakfast With Friends” segment, for instance, the correspondent Abby Huntsman found a group of older men in a diner near Mr. Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, N.J. One criticized millennial “crybabies” who “want everything for nothing.” Another went on a riff about why liberals cheered against New England in the Super Bowl (because of the name “Patriots”) until Ms. Huntsman prompted him: “So how come you think the media is so focused on Russia? Does that bother you?”

“Fox & Friends” knows what its viewers want to hear, even if it sometimes nudges them on what to say. And viewers stay loyal to a program they feel speaks to them directly, whether it’s the masses watching “Fox & Friends” or the superfan in the White House who sees it as “Fox & Friend” — singular.

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