On Tuesday night, I, along with many Americans, was shocked when Trump tweeted that he possessed a “Nuclear Button” that was “a much bigger & more powerful one than” that of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Having spent the last three months monitoring Trump’s Twitter feed professionally, I also had a good sense of why this spectacle was unfolding. After pulling up and watching a recording of the previous few minutes of Fox News, my hunch was confirmed: The president was live-tweeting the network’s coverage.
Everyone has a theory about Trump’s hyper-aggressive early morning tweetstorms. Some think they are a deliberate ploy the president uses to distract the press from his administration’s potential weaknesses, or to frame the public debate to his liking. Others warn his rapid shifts from one topic to another indicate mental instability.
But my many hours following the president’s tweets for Media Matters for America, the progressive media watchdog organization, have convinced me the truth is often much simpler: The president is just live-tweeting Fox, particularly the network’s Trump-loving morning show, Fox & Friends.
It’s no secret, of course, that the president likes to tweet about what he sees on TV. Thanks to diligent reporting from the White House beat, we know Trump often watches several hours of cable news each day via the “Super TiVo” he had installed at the White House. And journalists at CNN, the Washington Post, New York magazine, among others, have compiled lists of Trump tweets they believe were inspired by Fox.
But here’s what is shocking: After comparing the president’s tweets to Fox coverage every day since October, I can tell you that the Fox-Trump feedback loop is happening far more often than you think. There is no strategy to Trump’s Twitter feed; he is not trying to distract the media. He is being distracted. He darts with quark-like speed from topic to topic in his tweets because that’s how cable news works.
Here’s what’s also shocking: A man with unparalleled access to the world’s most powerful information-gathering machine, with an intelligence budget estimated at $73 billion last year, prefers to rely on conservative cable news hosts to understand current events.
I have long known that the president was a Fox & Friends superfan—well before he ran for office, he had a weekly guest spot on the program for years, and since his election, he has regularly held the program’s co-hosts up as model journalists. But one morning in October, a colleague pointed out that Trump had tweeted an endorsement of a book minutes after the author, appearing on Fox & Friends to promote the work, praised him. Curious if there was a pattern, I examined the rest of the president’s tweets from that morning, and found that several others seemed to line up with the program, reacting or commenting on various topics raised by the broadcast—from kneeling NFL players to negotiating with Democrats over immigration—without ever explicitly mentioning the show itself.
The results were so striking that my morning routine quickly became a shadow of the president’s. I check Trump’s Twitter feed on my way into the office every day. If the president is tweeting—those tweets often beginning soon after Fox & Friends’ 6 a.m. start—when I get to my desk I pull up footage from Fox’s programming on our internal video archive, frequently comparing it to footage from CNN and MSNBC. I use Twitter as my notepad, sharing my reasoning with my followers as I go. When I change my mind about whether a Trump tweet corresponds to a particular segment, I explain why and show my work. Around nine a.m., when Fox & Friends’ co-hosts sign off, the president usually moves on to the business of running the most powerful nation in the history of the world, and I can move on as well. (Well, until the next tweet.)
Sometimes the president’s tweets don’t correspond to cable news coverage—his boasting about the economy, for example, is usually untethered from the news cycle. Other times, they echo cable news explicitly. For example, Trump might identify a guest who was just on Fox & Friends, quote from a caption that appears on the screen, or even tag the program’s Twitter handle, making my task easier.
And sometimes the tweets fall into a gray area, covering the same broad topic as Fox’s programming but without any specific identifiers. Then I need to fall back on inference, and in those cases, it helps when Trump has tweeted several times over the morning. Do the topics of a series of tweets match the order Fox discussed them? Does one tweet in a series have a strong tie to the network, suggesting that the other tweets were also reactions to Fox?
On Tuesday morning, for instance, on his first morning back in Washington, D.C., after an 11-day vacation, the president tweeted what I believe were five consecutive tweets based on Fox’s programming, though he specifically referenced Fox & Friends in only one of them. His tweet urging the imprisonment of Huma Abedin followed a Fox segment on the former Hillary Clinton aide. When he tweeted that “it was just reported” there had been no commercial aviation deaths in 2017, and took credit, the report he cited was from Fox & Friends.
Many of the president’s most vicious tweets, which often baffle observers because they seem to come out of nowhere, make more sense when you realize that they are actually his responses to Fox’s programming. This rule can apply to his attacks on the NFL:
To his claim that the Uranium One deal posed a scandal for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama:
To several of his attacks on the FBI:
But not all of the Trump tweets match with Fox segments that praise the president and thrash his perceived enemies. There are some random ones, too.
Remember that strange moment in October when Trump tried to tweet a happy birthday to the country music artist Lee Greenwood? He tagged the wrong handle, deleted the tweet, and sent out a corrected version while the rest of Twitter tried to figure out what was going on. The event is easier to understand if you know that about an hour before Trump sent his initial tweet, Fox & Friends reported it was Greenwood’s birthday:
The timing, by the way, doesn’t always perfectly line up. That’s because, from my observations, Trump also uses his DVR vigorously, often starting at the beginning of a program even if it started hours before he sits down to watch it, then fast-forwarding through commercials and segments that don’t interest him.
Trump may not be trying to divert the media, but the media definitely gets distracted. Trump’s morning tweets upend the news cycle, with cable news producers and assignment editors redistributing time and resources to cover his latest comments. Statements from the president are inherently newsworthy. But the result is certainly a positive one for Fox: The network’s partisan programming gets validation from the president, and forces the rest of the press to cover Fox’s obsessions whether they are newsworthy or not.
In December, Mediaite put the co-hosts of Fox & Friends at the top of their “Most Influential in Media” list, pointing out “the topics they cover essentially set the national agenda for the rest of the day.” They’re not wrong. Soon after White House counselor Kellyanne Conway congratulated the co-hosts for the designation during an interview on the show, Trump weighed in, urging the “many Fake News Hate Shows” to “study your formula for success!” He had been watching.
I had been, too.