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Media Madness: book shows Trump’s West Wing is obsessed with press

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Fox News’ Howard Kurtz portrays a president who values loyalty above all except the attention of leading papers and networks

Donald Trump holds up Swiss newspaper Blick as he arrives at the Congress Centre in Davos on Friday.

Donald Trump holds up Swiss newspaper Blick as he arrives at the Congress Centre in Davos on Friday.
Photograph: Laurent Gillieron/EPA

A new book depicts Donald Trump as a media obsessive who measures his staff’s loyalty by how well they defended him on television. But despite his Twitter habit, he rarely looks at the web.

A copy of Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War Over the Truth by Howard Kurtz, a host and media critic on the president’s favored Fox News network, was obtained by the Guardian ahead of its publication on Monday.

It tells of a period in which Trump would phone his son-in-law Jared Kushner every morning and ask: “Did you read the fucking New York Times?” Kushner assured him the paper did not matter.

The president, Kurtz writes, begins his day with four newspapers: the Times, New York Post, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. He watches the daily White House press briefing and uses the TiVo personal video recorder to catch up on cable shows he has missed. Communications director Hope Hicks, who has Google alerts set up for key names, sometimes shows him clips on her phone.

His sensitivity to media coverage is unique in US presidential history. Kurtz writes: “Sometimes, when Trump saw guests ably defending him, he asked [then press secretary] Sean Spicer to call them and say the president thought they did a good job. When Trump saw what he deemed unfair reporting or punditry, he used Twitter to trash the offending show or network. And occasionally he tweeted something favorable about Fox & Friends or Hannity.”

Trump now has more than 47m Twitter followers and Kurtz details how his tweets on policy leave his staff scrambling. The 71-year-old billionaire spends little time online, “but if staffers handed him printouts of articles they thought important, he read them”.

Kurtz spent three decades at the Washington Post and was host of CNN’s Reliable Sources. In 2013 he was fired by the Daily Beast after making a spurious criticism of an article in which a basketball player came out as gay. He apologised for reading the article “too fast”, failing to give the player a right to reply and displaying insensitivity.

Media Madness comes on the heels of fellow media commentator Michael Wolff’s bombshell Fire and Fury, which shook the White House and has sold more than 1.7m copies. Like Wolff’s work, Kurtz’s portrayal of a West Wing in disarray is likely to be challenged by loyalists. Kurtz quotes his own conversations with the president.

Trump remains closer to election campaign comrades such as Kellyanne Conway and Corey Lewandowski than his new Republican allies, Kurtz writes. In one episode early in the administration, the president confided in Lewandowski: “My staff sucks.”

If things don’t improve soon, Trump continued, “I’m going to get rid of everybody, and I don’t want you guys to be damaged by that.”

He even, Kurtz writes, floated the idea of making chief of staff Reince Priebus, former Republican National Committee chairman, US ambassador to Greece. At that moment, Priebus walked into the Oval Office. The president warned: “If this place isn’t working in the next month or so, I’m going to make some changes. And that change is you.”

Priebus was ousted in July, after six months in the job.

On another occasion, the book says, after Lewandowski had put backs up by publicly criticising White House staff he visited Trump and assured him: “I’m 100% loyal, sir.” The president replied: “I know that. I just wish everyone in this building was.”

Meanwhile, when Conway made a notorious gaffe by claiming that Spicer used “alternative facts” in describing Trump’s inauguration crowd as the biggest ever, the president rallied to her defence, telling her: “In a way, that was genius … They do that to me all the time, take one word.”

Media Madness also describes Anthony Scaramucci’s interlude as White House communications director. In a CNN interview, Kurtz writes, Scaramucci repeated what Conway had told him in confidence on his first day: that there were people in the administration who saw it as their job to save American from this president. Trump told him afterwards: “You’ve got some balls on you. You are a tough son of a bitch.”

Scaramucci was gone after 10 days.

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