In the studio with the program Trump loves and the rest of the media loves to hate as it becomes the eye of the president's media hurricane, with ratings and revenue soaring and its controversial hosts reveling in their new relevance: "It's just so exciting. All of it. I look at this as exciting and interesting."
Brian Kilmeade was on a soccer field in Maryland on June 30 when his Fox & Friends co-hosts Steve Doocy and Ainsley Earhardt began debating President Donald Trump's latest Twitter outburst. In a multipost tirade a day earlier, Trump had attacked Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski with the bizarre claim that she was "bleeding badly from a face-lift" when she visited Mar-a-Lago over New Year's. The swipe drew condemnation from the usual Trump detractors (much of the media, women's groups, Hollywood, Democrats) but also from Republicans, and it pointedly reignited the debate about Trump's history of misogynist statements that had many predicting the demise of his presidential bid.
Much to his (professional) disappointment, Kilmeade — who lives with his wife and three children on Long Island, where he grew up — was watching his youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, compete in a soccer tournament that Friday morning. "I see the president tweeted out the thing about the other morning show, and I'm thinking, I wish I was on the air," he says. "It's just so exciting. All of it. I look at this as exciting and interesting."
Kilmeade and Earhardt take issue with Trump's tweets. "I don't think it's OK for the president to insult a woman in that way," she tells me. "We're all human beings, we're doing the best we can, and to go after someone's looks is inappropriate." But while Earhardt made that point on the air that morning, when guest Geraldo Rivera, a Fox News Channel contributor, asserted that Trump should recognize that the "lowball" tweet "went too far," she stopped, looked at the camera and interjected: "Our viewers are disagreeing with you. We're getting a lot of emails."
Those viewers, of course, largely are Trump fans; four in 10 Trump voters named Fox News as their main source for 2016 election news, according to a January study by the Pew Research Center. At a time when media consumption — and, increasingly, the perception of the news media itself — has been politicized to a degree not seen in decades, Fox & Friends has become a crucial strategic front for the president's war on the outlets he doesn't like. Trump doesn't just watch Fox & Friends religiously; he often seems to take his talking points and even his policy cues directly from its content. Like it or not, thanks to its First Fan, the show may be the most influential news program in America.
Kilmeade is keenly aware of his role in Trump's ongoing media narrative. But when he saw the "face-lift" comment — which led to Morning Joe's biggest ever tune-in the next day, when Brzezinski responded to the president — he viewed it in stark competitive terms. "It was like a third-place team going on a 10-game winning streak because you went to play in the Olympics," says the 53-year-old former sports reporter. "I'm watching this duel with these talk show hosts and the president. I'm thinking, 'Oh my goodness, he just gave them ratings. And now everyone's going to want to tune in, and that's going to make my job harder.' That's a threat."
Fox & Friends has been credited or — depending on your politics — blamed for sending a onetime reality TV star to the White House by giving Trump a platform to riff on politics back when he was contemplating a run in 2012. And since the November election, Trump has rewarded that loyalty, appearing on the show and amplifying comments made by hosts and guests to his 33 million Twitter followers. In February, he called the hosts "very honorable people" who preside over "the most honest morning show" while deriding much of the rest of the media as "dishonest" and "failing."
The administration also has used the program strategically to bolster some of its more controversial claims — as when Fox News analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano in March asserted that sources told him Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower with the help of British intelligence. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer read a partial transcript of the Fox & Friends interview from the podium in the White House briefing room and even referred reporters' questions about it to Fox. That prompted British intelligence to call it "ridiculous" and Fox's own news anchors to disavow it. Then on July 10, a Fox & Friends news item mischaracterized a report in The HIll, asserting that fired FBI Director James Comey leaked "top secret" information about his meetings with Trump. Eight minutes after it was tweeted from the Fox & Friends Twitter account, Trump sent out his own Tweet blasting Comey's supposed leaking as "so illegal!" The following morning on the show, Doocy delivered a correction. Trump has yet to correct his tweet.
Fox & Friends always has had impressive ratings by the measuring stick of cable news. The brainchild of the network's late founder Roger Ailes has been the top-rated morning cable news show for 16 years; even amid the recent surge of MSNBC's Morning Joe and CNN's New Day, its 1.6 million daily viewers still exceed the combined total of those competitors. Cable news overall has seen ratings and profits climb in the Trump era; this year, Fox & Friends is up 64 percent in the critical 25-to-54 demographic and 48 percent overall, while the show has pulled in $32 million in ad revenue since the election, according to ad tracking firm Standard Media Index. In the wake of the ouster of Ailes and primetime linchpin Bill O'Reilly, the three-hour program has become an essential piece of Fox News.
To most of the media, however, it's the show they love to hate. CNN has called it a "daily infomercial for the Trump presidency." The New York Times recently declared it "unapologetically supportive" of President Trump. And The Washington Post, in a July 10 column headlined "Kill Fox & Friends before it's too late," characterized the show as "a propaganda mill."
What infuriates many about Fox & Friends is the extent to which the show seems to have allied itself with the president. To its critics, it is a tool in Trump's crusade to counter the damaging news on Russia, health care and other issues, with social media providing an immediate platform and sounding board for like-minded viewers. "I've never seen it divided like this," says Kilmeade during my recent visit to the show's midtown studio. "I think about that all the time, but I don't think you can blame CNN or Fox or MSNBC for this; I think it really got bitter with the Clinton impeachment. You have really polarized factions going at it, and then you have three networks battling each other to tell a better, more compelling story. I think that could lead to fueling it unintentionally."
And social media?
"Absolutely catapulted it through the roof. They're not waiting for us to come on at 6."
When Trump followed his Brzezinski broadside three days later with a boorish tweet that showed Trump as a WWE wrestler pummeling the CNN logo, many critics saw it as encouraging violence against journalists. After several days of heated coverage, which included the fingering of the GIF maker on Reddit and a subsequent scandal over whether CNN would out that person, Kilmeade, on the July 7 edition of Fox & Friends, declared CNN's reaction to the GIF as "unhinged."
"CNN so overdid it with the wrestling meme that it all boomeranged again and turned around in my humble opinion in the president's favor," he tells me later. "It shows CNN going over the top, overlearning what they think gets them ratings. We can get into the nitty-gritty of, this tweet was bad, this tweet wasn't. But the fact that we do a show that doesn't try to dissemble him, doesn't try to disparage him, makes us stand out."
So the network has, conspicuously, remained outside the target zone of Trump's attacks of "fake news," a term also used liberally in various corners of Fox News. "They sing his tune," notes Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard's Shorenstein Center. "There's a big echo chamber on the right, and Fox & Friends is in the nucleus. Fox News Channel in general has a lot of influence on conservative thought. But I don’t think it gets over to the other side, unfortunately. The two sides don’t seem to talk to each other very much, there’s very little meeting of the minds. It’s like they live in two different worlds."
For many on the left — especially supporters of Hillary Clinton, who viewed the media as favoring Sanders during the primaries and then holding Clinton to a far higher standard than Trump during the general — the election was a wake-up call. If there is an effort afoot to repair the fracture in Washington, Fox & Friends — and Fox News Channel overall — can be a valuable tool, say Democrats. “Perception is reality and Fox & Friends has a very captive viewership,” says Adrienne Elrod, director of strategic communications for the Clinton campaign and a frequent guest on Fox & Friends. “Any opportunity to tell the facts and have a discourse with an audience that may not agree with my views and with my party, that’s worth taking, especially in this environment."
I ask Elrod, who estimates that she makes two or three appearances a week on Fox News, if she ever feels like a straw man. "Honestly, I don’t, not even close."
The hosts embrace their status as outlaws of the mainstream — even though the mainstream has come to them via Trump. "It's delicious irony given the fact that [CNN] had to fire Kathy Griffin; they had to fire [Reza Aslan], who called the president a piece of you-know-what; and then they had the retractions, and they just fired those people," says Doocy, 60, referring to a June 22 story linking Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci to a Russian investment fund that resulted in the forced resignations of three CNN journalists.
Adds Earhardt, "And our ratings are really good, and we're beating them, so it's no surprise that they're going to say that about us."
And yes, the Fox & Friends hosts are aware of the late-night skewering and find the long-running parody of their patter on Saturday Night Live perversely satisfying. "I just think it's really cool," says Earhardt. "It's the biggest comedy show in the world. Adds Doocy: "It's been around forever. I'm flattered actually."
Earhardt, 40, a married mom of a girl born in November 2015, is the fourth female co-host of the program, joining in early 2016 and replacing Elisabeth Hasselbeck. Doocy and Kilmeade have been with the show since its inception in 1998. "I have had such a wonderful experience here, and if I didn't, I wouldn't be here," she says.
Ailes' death in May was announced on the show. Earhardt — who came to Fox News in 2007 after working at local affiliates in Columbia, South Carolina (her hometown), and Austin — characterizes Ailes as a "legend." "My daughter will go to college because of Roger. And I will forever be grateful to that man for that," she says. "I'm friends with his wife; she came to my baby shower. Roger was a father figure to me. He had some big sins. Who doesn't have sins? He paid a big price for that."
She knows the show consistently is picked apart by media watchdog groups, as when Earhardt recounted a June 19 Washington Times story citing a dubious study positing that 5.7 million illegal immigrants may have voted in 2008 and when the hosts mused (incorrectly, it turned out) that Comey was seen entering the offices of The New York Times.
While Fox & Friends is in the programming unit of Fox News alongside primetime opinion hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity — and not the news and editorial unit that oversees shows hosted by Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith — executive producer Gavin Hadden IV stresses that it is nonetheless a news show, albeit one infused with the conservative worldview of its hosts.
"I think we're both," says Hadden. "We have hosts who have strong, solid opinions. But we also have reporters on from all over the world covering every single story."
And as flattering as they find the presidential seal of approval, they are not programming to an audience of one.
"I'm smart enough to realize that this is the most powerful person in the world, and he likes [our] show," says Kilmeade. "There are worse things that could happen to somebody. Do I know he's watching? Yeah. Does it affect what I do? Well, I was critical of him when he was running, and I'm still critical of him sometimes. My preference is to be respected, not liked by him. But I don't know anybody else in the history of television that can honestly say that you know the president is watching every day. Maybe Johnny Carson."
Kilmeade notes that he has received "a couple" of calls from Trump since he has been president. But Trump has done far fewer interviews since taking office than during the campaign. Earhardt's visit in June with Trump and the first lady was booked in the usual way, through the White House communications office, she says. Earhardt asked Trump whether his apparent Twitter bluff that he taped his conversations with the fired FBI director was "a smart way to make sure he stayed honest in [Senate] hearings." To which Trump replied: "Well, it wasn't very stupid, I can tell you that."
It's possible the show has had as much influence on Trump as he seems to have had on it. "We were doing Donald Trump issues before Donald Trump was Donald Trump," says Doocy. "I mean, we were doing immigration, we were doing sanctuary cities, we were doing terrorism, all that stuff years before he was interested in running for president. We're pretty much just doing the exact same stuff for 20 years."
Indeed, the hosts depict the show as rocking in the same boat as the rest of the media: responding to and buffeted by the warp-speed news cycle. Before Trump, notes Kilmeade, "we would have a rundown, and around 9 o'clock, things would start to change. Now I think at 6 o'clock we are already an hour late. Like, the rundown we have at 4 [a.m.] doesn't look anything like the one we have at 5:15."
Producers for Fox & Friends say they don't get marching orders from up high. But Rupert Murdoch, who talks to Trump often and has assumed a more hands-on role at Fox News after Ailes' departure, has been known to pop by on occasion. "He's so intrigued, he's so into the storylines," says Kilmeade. "He's like, 'Whaddya think, where is this heading, how is the special election gonna go?' And to think a guy who has accomplished everything he did — he's 86 years old — is still that intrigued by the news. That keeps you going. He's always trying to pat you on the back."
Hadden, who has been at Fox & Friends for 11 years and last year was promoted to executive producer, insists that everyone — from the production assistants to the anchors and producers — have a voice in putting the show together. And he says he does not feel pressure to please the president. "We produce the show the same way every single day. We don't want to lecture the American people or the viewer like a lot of other places do. We want to have a conversation with them, and we want to talk about what issues affect them the most, regardless of who's in the White House. That's what we want to do."
And the hosts seem to genuinely get along; there is no visible tension on the set. All of them came up through local news. Kilmeade spent 11 years doing stand-up in New York and then Los Angeles while he was working at various TV news jobs, not because he had aspirations to make it as a comedian but rather to aid his memorization skills. His first job as a teenager was hanging signs for Jerry Seinfeld's dad, who owned a sign shop in Massapequa. "I walked in and I said, 'I need a job.' And he goes, 'Are you artistic?' I go, 'No.' He goes, 'Would you follow us around and pull up ladders and put up signs?' I go, 'Yeah.' Every Saturday he paid me cash. He was the hardest working guy; little guy, but he could lift a piano."
Doocy hails from a Kansas family of Democrats. He worked on the 1974 Senate campaign of Democrat Bill Roy, who nearly defeated Bob Dole until Dole made abortion a central plank in his campaign. "When I was growing up, around the dinner table, we'd just be talking about politics because my dad loved politics," says Doocy. "It was just about the actual issues, whereas today it's so personal. It's like they have just invented some new blood sport where they're out to decapitate [each other]."
Earhardt, who is from a conservative Christian family, worked for one of her state senators when she was in college at the University of South Carolina.
"We had two senators, [Democrat] Fritz Hollings and [Republican] Strom Thurmond," she says. "And I worked for Fritz Hollings. And it was a great experience. My grandfather, a staunch Republican, said, 'Don't tell anyone you work for him.' But my family wasn't really super political. I was in local news; I was covering car crashes and potholes and schools. And so when I got the job at Fox News Channel, and we were going to be talking about politics, I was very nervous about it. Once you're reporting on it every single day, you're fascinated by it."
It's Tuesday, June 27, a few minutes before 6 a.m., and the Fox & Friends hosts are seated on the show's famed "curvy couch" in the network's $30 million two-level studio. Earhardt, dressed in a color-block shift of black, white, red and fuchsia, beckons a guest standing in the wings to take a seat on the ledge of the studio's enormous video wall. "It's warm," she explains.
Stage manager Joel Fulton counts the hosts down to air; all three raise their eyes to the monitor. As American Authors' "Best Day of My Life" begins to play over the open, Doocy promises, "This is going to be one of the biggest news days on the Fox & Friends program ever."
He teases Earhardt's Rose Garden interview with Ivanka Trump, Kilmeade's sit-down the day before with House Speaker Paul Ryan on health care, an update on Kate's Law — a hot-button bill that would institute stiffer penalties for deported criminals who re-enter the U.S. illegally (the bill will pass the House two days later, paving the way for a victory for Trump's immigration agenda) — and the major headline of the day, so far: the Supreme Court's decision to allow parts of Trump's travel ban to go forward.
As the show goes to commercial after the 13-minute A-block, Earhardt teases her interview with Ivanka: "We ask her about a potential future in politics. Will she ever run for president?"
During the break, Kilmeade wonders aloud about Ivana Trump. "Whatever happened to her mom?" he says, turning to Earhardt.
"I was just thinking, I wish I had asked [Ivanka] about her mom," says Earhardt.
Napolitano is on hand for the discussion about the travel ban, while remote interviews with Mark Levin, Newt Gingrich and Laura Ingraham prompt a compliment from Earhardt. "Gavin," she says into her wireless mic, "amazing guests today."
Doocy, who exudes a Midwestern courtliness, cautions Earhardt on navigating the steps from the show's platform. At the old studio, which also had the same platform set, Doocy later explains to me, Henry Kissinger almost tumbled off. "I had just given him the Fox & Friends soap-on-a-rope," he says.
The carnival nature of morning TV is on full display with the closing segment, which has Animal Planet host Dave Salmoni introducing viewers to some of the animals featured on the new show Raised Human, including a lemur, a beaver and a primordial-looking alligator snapping turtle. The animals are brought into the studio during the 8:45 a.m. block in which Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs is set to promote his new book, Putin's Gambit, which, among other issues, examines what Obama knew about Russian interference in the presidential election. As Dobbs launches into a critique about Obama's handling of Russian hacking — "His entire administration is one failure to act after another," he says — an African raven begins to loudly caw.
It's a brief absurdist interlude distracting from the partisan rancor. When I ask Kilmeade later whether the nastiness is wearing on a personal level, he answers: "No, and here's why: We are a self-correcting country. We are going to head toward the middle because people are going to go, 'Yeah, I'm fed up, too.' And it will be the smart man or woman who is there waiting with the intellect, experience, charisma and leadership. We correct things in America. And I think that's what's going to happen.
"And I actually think that if people get out of [Trump's] way," he continues, "they'll see that he's going to do a good job — and if he can get out of his own way, I think he will. And by the way, if he does, he'll anger as many Republicans as Democrats."
This story first appeared in the July 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.