When the Trump campaign announced earlier this week that it would begin airing a 30-ish minute talk show on Facebook Live every night until the election, the move was heralded as a dry run for the much-ballyhooed Trump TV. In recent weeks, various media outlets have reported that Trump’s team, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, is exploring the possibility of creating a Trump cable network, to rival, if not destroy, Fox and to capitalize on Trump’s devoted followers even if he loses the presidency. Yet from last Monday night’s inaugural broadcast of the Facebook Live program, called Trump Tower Live, its hosts, Cliff Sims, blond, neatly bearded and from Alabama, and Boris Epshteyn, a Russian-born Trump adviser raised in New Jersey who still possesses a New Yawk accent, vociferously denied that it was a Trump TV trial balloon. “The left-wing media is trying to spin this as Trump TV. That’s not what this is,” Epshteyn said. “We’re bypassing the left-wing media, which skews everything.” One only has to watch an installment of the program, a slapdash piece of propaganda, to know that they are telling the truth: This is not a Trump TV flier. It barely flies.
Trump Tower Live is a totally effective piece of ad hoc campaign material that does not rise to the level of cable news anywhere. It seems so genuinely seat-of-the-pants and underscrutinized that it is hard to imagine that anyone high up in the campaign, let alone anyone hoping to broker a deal for a half-a-billion-dollar cable network, would want to use it as a calling card. The first episode began with Epshteyn, Sims, and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway sitting awkwardly in the Trump war room waiting to begin. Epshteyn, who has the mien and the manner of an extra on Boardwalk Empire, mulishly asked, “What’s going on?” Sims good-naturedly replied, “Give him a second, Boris, it’s all right,” setting up the low-key sitcom dynamic undergirding the whole operation: Epshteyn’s New York aggression, finding no proper combatant.
In that first episode, Sims, who according to the New York Times had the successful idea to use Facebook Live the night of the final presidential debate, was the primary host. By the second episode, Epshteyn, with a new haircut, had taken over. The technical difficulties, however, remained, with the feed cutting out on Rudy Giuliani. By the second night, the chyrons that had appeared in the first episode were gone, but a female co-host had arrived and so had three Apple laptops, signaling that fealty to Apple knows no party lines. The first episode had 60,000 live viewers, the second had 23,000, but by the end of the week the first episode had been viewed 1.5 million times and the second 1.1 million.
The average episode celebrates Donald, insults Hillary, and insults the mainstream media in nearly equal measure. Donald will create jobs, he’ll fix health care, he’ll look out for the working mother and black Americans. The wind is at his back, the polls are skewed, Hillary needs to win swing states but she can’t. Hillary is corrupt, she’s on the take, she’ll sell out the country, she should be in prison, she freed Puerto Rican terrorists to advance her senatorial career. The left-wing media is biased, NBC News doesn’t even give its guests a cold cup of coffee, the Trump campaign is trying to reach the people directly. At a certain point in each episode, Sims turns to his laptop to read tweeted responses to a certain prompt, like, what’s a good birthday present for Hillary Clinton, besides, Epshteyn cackled, all the naps she needs? The team isn’t even reading answers from the Facebook Live feed, but simply using Facebook Live to read tweets suggesting that Hillary should get a new pantsuit because “orange is the new black.”
All of this takes place in a setting of such mutual agreement that even if you don’t agree with any of it, it’s surprisingly soothing: There’s no fighting, there’s no disagreeing, there’s only harmony—despite Epshteyn’s best efforts. Epshteyn is a lawyer, and he seems like he is always spoiling for a good verbal tussle. He would be having a lot more fun if people would only disagree with him, this despite his constant refrain that “we are having so much fun.” Midconversation last Wednesday, he broke off, inspired by one of the TVs in the room, which was broadcasting a CNN story about Khizr Khan’s impact on the Trump brand. “July called and wants their story back!” he said. “It is disgusting what the mass media is doing right now. Sorry if I get a little heated. They are talking about someone being offended in July, and Trump’s brand taking a hit.” Epshteyn was arguing with the television. For a second, it seemed like cable news.