Trump Wanted a Radio Show, but He Didn’t Want to Compete With Limbaugh

President Trump said he envisioned a show running two hours a day, according to White House officials, and would do it were it not for the risk of encroaching on Rush Limbaugh, the conservative host.

President Trump and Rush Limbaugh at a rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo., in November 2018. With the most popular radio show in the country, Mr. Limbaugh is one of the president’s most influential allies.
Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

On a Saturday in early March, Donald J. Trump, clad in a baseball cap, strode into the Situation Room for a meeting with the coronavirus task force. He didn’t stop by the group’s daily meetings often, but he had an idea he was eager to share: He wanted to start a White House talk radio show.

At the time, the virus was rapidly spreading across the country, and Mr. Trump would soon announce a ban on European travel. A talk radio show, Mr. Trump excitedly explained, would allow him to quell Americans’ fears and answer their questions about the pandemic directly, according to three White House officials who heard the pitch. There would be no screening, he said, just an open line for people to call and engage one-on-one with the president.

But that Saturday, almost as suddenly as he proposed it, the president outlined one reason he would not be moving forward with it: He did not want to compete with Rush Limbaugh.

No one in the room was sure how to respond, two of the officials said. Someone suggested hosting the show in the mornings or on weekends, to steer clear of the conservative radio host’s schedule. But Mr. Trump shook his head, saying he envisioned his show as two hours a day, every day. And were it not for Mr. Limbaugh, and the risk of encroaching on his territory, he reiterated, he would do it.

One of the officials involved directly in the effort said it wasn’t the first time Mr. Trump had discussed hosting a radio show from the White House.

But if some in the room that day were unsure whether the president’s proposal was a joke, they knew his deference to Mr. Limbaugh was anything but.

When it comes to the president’s favored media figures, most observers tend to fixate on the Fox News lineup of Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. But several people close to Mr. Trump say that in the midst of a pandemic, he has come to keenly appreciate the extent of Mr. Limbaugh’s reach, and the fact that his show, perhaps more than any other source, offers a real-time metric of how the president’s decisions are playing with his supporters.

Now, as multiple voices vie for the president’s ear on the appropriate timeline for America’s path to normalcy, Mr. Limbaugh is amplifying Mr. Trump’s instinct for swiftness. And for this president, as well as much of his party, Mr. Limbaugh’s affirmation remains a powerful motivator.

“Talk radio is still a powerhouse when it comes to Republican voters,” said Jason Miller, co-host of the War Room podcast and a former Trump communications adviser. And the president, Mr. Miller said, “realizes how big a powerhouse Rush is.”

The White House declined to comment on Mr. Trump’s desire for a radio show. The president ultimately opted for daily televised press briefings instead, which have in effect served as a stand-in for campaign rallies and regularly span two hours.

“The Rush Limbaugh Show” has been the most popular talk-radio show in the country for decades, currently drawing 15.5 million listeners a week. In that time Mr. Limbaugh has traded in the kind of deeply divisive messaging that Mr. Trump regularly brandishes to appeal to his conservative base.

Like the president, Mr. Limbaugh has also dispensed disinformation and falsehoods at a rapid clip. In the last few weeks alone he has repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “common cold.” His history of anti-gay remarks was revived as recently as February, when he said Americans would not elect Pete Buttigieg after seeing him “kissing his husband onstage, next to Mr. Man, Donald Trump.” (Mr. Limbaugh later told listeners that Mr. Trump had called him and told him not to apologize for the comments.)

Mr. Limbaugh is among Mr. Trump’s most influential backers, praising him for his politics and leadership well before many other Republicans cast their lot with him. He recently called attacks on the president’s handling of the virus crisis “a political hit job.” The president has returned the favor: In a surprise move during his State of the Union address in February, he awarded Mr. Limbaugh, who had recently revealed he had late-stage lung cancer, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He highlighted Mr. Limbaugh’s charitable work and called him “the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet.”

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As public health officials urge caution in relaxing stay-at-home restrictions, corporate executives and conservative activists alike are pleading with the president to reopen the economy. Mr. Trump has argued that he alone has the power to override stay-at-home orders imposed at the state level — a claim that legal scholars reject and that he appeared to walk back on Tuesday. Still, many Republican governors are looking directly to the White House to set the tone for a path forward.

As for his own guidance, Mr. Trump’s preferred media sources have tempered their advocacy. After initially dismissing the severity of the virus, many of Mr. Trump’s go-to talkers on Fox News have approached the question with relative delicacy, appearing to take their cues from the president rather than try to proactively urge one path or another.

Mr. Limbaugh, conversely, has been a forceful voice from the get-go. Along with casting medical experts like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci as “Hillary Clinton sympathizers,” he has used his enormous platform to call for a rapid return to normal life.

“Are we just going to sit by and watch $22 trillion — that’s the value, that’s the sum total of the G.D.P., that’s the U.S. economy — are we just going to sit by here and watch it evaporate?” Mr. Limbaugh said in one segment on March 31. “Because that’s what we’re doing, under the guise of not losing any unnecessary life.”

Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

On Monday, Mr. Limbaugh argued that the “shutdown” was “a political effort to get rid of Donald Trump in the election this November” — as well as a Democratic ploy to “keep people fed without them having to go to work” and to “fine them for going to church.”

Mr. Limbaugh, a frequent golf partner of Mr. Trump’s in Palm Beach, Fla., has been candid and proud about his direct line to the president. During his show on Friday, Mr. Limbaugh revealed that the president calls him “once a week just to see how I’m doing” and that sometimes Vice President Mike Pence joins. He added that their conversations were only about his health, not policy. (Attempts to reach Mr. Limbaugh through a colleague for this article were unsuccessful.)

But in this moment, as Mr. Trump grapples with what he has called “the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Mr. Limbaugh has an unparalleled perch.

“A lot of politicians — obviously conservatives — tune into his show as they’re trying to figure out what their point of view should be,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Mr. Schlapp noted that with most decisions, the president uses various media sources as a way to “think through questions.” And while the president is listening to his public health advisers in this moment, Mr. Schlapp said, he’s also adhering to the formulas he knows best.

“The school nurse doesn’t run the school,” Mr. Schlapp said. “The principal runs the school.”

Polling shows that the vast majority of Americans support a national stay-at-home order, but Mr. Limbaugh’s audience — in other words, the president’s base — shares his agitation about jump-starting the economy. His recent shows illustrate the extent to which many of Mr. Trump’s supporters remain suspicious of the public health experts.

“I agree the right person is in office to bring this country out of this,” said a Las Vegas police officer named Marcus who called into Mr. Limbaugh’s show on Monday. “But, you know, when you look at numbers, Rush — the numbers don’t add up as far as, like, you know, the amount of people that die of a normal flu every year and those sort of things. I mean, it’s terrifying how one thing can make us give up our rights so quickly.”

On Friday, a caller from Prescott, Ariz., wondered if experts were urging the shutdown of the economy as a way to model the potential effects of legislation intended to combat climate change. “Isn’t this kind of like a dry run of the Green New Deal?” he asked.

In the midst of everything, Mr. Limbaugh’s listeners unequivocally support the president. On Friday, a New York construction worker named Andy criticized the transformation of Manhattan into a “ghost town,” and said, “There is no better man to be in the White House right now than Donald Trump.”

It is the kind of affirmation that helps illuminate radio’s increasing appeal to Mr. Trump. Television indeed plays an outsize role in the president’s assessment of himself and his administration. But with no campaign rallies to look forward to, people close to the president say he feels stifled in his inability to communicate directly with his supporters, complaining that the news media tries to distort his message at his daily briefings.

The president may have dropped plans for his own talk radio show. But for Mr. Trump, what Mr. Limbaugh offers is perhaps second best: a taste of the validation he craves, as well as a blueprint for how to make his supporters even happier.

“Rush is perfectly confident and competent to play the outsider to the system,” said Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor. “In that way, he and the president learn from each other.”