Pity the talking heads on cable who have to make sense of breaking news live, on camera, in front of a national audience.
On Tuesday at 11 am, Donald Trump Jr. released the emails at the crux of allegations that he met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who offered incriminating evidence against Hillary Clinton collected by the Russian government.
The broad outlines of this episode have been described by the New York Times in a series of stories over the past few days — but the emails themselves contain even more damaging details. Most of all, they establish that Trump Jr. knew the entire setup had a connection to the Russian government. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” one email to Trump Jr. reads.
“If it’s what you say I love it,” he replied.
At that very moment on Fox News, White House correspondent Kevin Corke was warning viewers to be properly skeptical about the New York Times’s claims. “I want to be careful how we characterize this because it sounds a little bit like deep state stuff,” he said.
“People are using unnamed sources, or saying, ‘according to people who have seen certain emails,’” he cautioned.
Those emails the Times story was based on, it turns out, were the very ones Trump Jr. published on Twitter a few minutes later.
“Taking a deeper look at this email, it might not look so good for Donald Trump Jr.,” Fox News anchor Julie Banderas said, reading the breaking news on her phone.
“A hostile foreign government that wants to help a political campaign? Yes, there is a problem with that,” she added.
Fox News did not return to the Donald Trump Jr. story for another 30 minutes, instead taking a detour through the news of an Army soldier who allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS, a US military plane crash, and an update on the Republican health care bill. By then, the pundits had been summoned and the defensive takes had solidified.
If you can’t deny bad news, minimize it
Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, claimed the emails did not offer any evidence of actual collusion, only that Donald Trump Jr. was, in theory, willing to collude with Russia.
“There’s an awful lot of critics that are going to jump to the conclusion that this is a smoking gun,” Holmes said. “The reality is, as far as we know from that meeting itself, absolutely nothing came out of this.”
Later, on Fox News’s lunchtime news panel, former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who recently signed a deal to become a Fox News contributor, downplayed the consequences of the emails.
“One: Was this bad judgment to take a meeting, or was it a crime? Seems to me it’s bad judgment,” he said. “Two: Is it collusion, or is it opposition research? Seem to me it’s opposition research.”
Corke, the Fox News reporter, argued that the Russian connection should be scrutinized. What does it really mean to say that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer? “When you’re talking about a Russian official, that could be anybody,” he said. “When you’re talking about high-level officials, that could mean you’re a wealthy oligarch, you have money, you’re part of the group.”
Corke then offered some unsolicited public relations advice: “I can tell you this for sure, the questions will not go away today, and that is the biggest failure in this circumstance,” he said, treating the matter as a problem of management and optics.
“You have to really muscle down on this thing, get everybody into a room if you need to, figure out who knows what, who did what, who said what, get it all out there so you don’t have this constant drip which continues to bedevil the White House,” he added.
On Tuesday afternoon, progressive media watchdog Media Matters pointed out that Fox News made some creative omissions when quoting from the Trump Jr. emails. In one instance, an on-screen graphic left out the crucial part explaining that the offer to share “sensitive information” about Clinton was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” This was a key sentence from the emails which established that Trump Jr. was aware that on some level he was dealing with the Kremlin.
To be fair, it’s hard to judge whether the quote was intentionally edited to cast Trump Jr. in a more favorable light. Just seconds earlier, Fox News had broadcast another quote from emails stating that the information came from the “Crown prosecutor of Russia.”
And, as Media Matters notes, co-host Meghan McCain later went back to read the full quote. “The biggest concern of these emails is the quote, ‘This is a obviously very high level and sensitive information but it is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,’” McCain said. “That was going to get them in the most trouble. Right now, there’s no ambiguity left.”
The Fox News slant is often subtle
Among those who don’t regularly watch Fox News, there’s a common misconception that the channel is full of outright lies and distortions. That might be true at times in the evening, when Fox News switches over to its slate of primetime pundits who offer opinion and analysis rather than straight news.
But by and large, the newsroom’s slant is much subtler. It involves extending the benefit of the doubt at all times to Republicans and particularly to Donald Trump. It involves pointing out potential weaknesses in damaging stories from the mainstream media. And it involves avoiding certain lines of inquiry.
On Tuesday morning, as the Trump Jr. news was breaking, other channels like CNN and MSNBC were wondering what these emails meant for the Trump presidency. Did Donald Trump Jr. do something illegal? How much did Donald Trump know about the meeting? How will this affect the current investigation into the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia?
In the land of Fox News, these were not questions under serious discussion. Instead, the central topic was how the White House would fight back against these allegations, the potential arguments it could use, and what steps it could take to avoid further embarrassment. But even on Fox News, the talking heads did not mince words: The situation did not look good.
Perhaps that’s why Trump Jr. agreed to make an appearance today not on Fox News’s daytime programs, but on Sean Hannity’s evening show, which doesn’t even pretend to perform journalism. Already on Monday night, Hannity accused the media of “foaming at the mouth” over the Trump Jr. story, of suffering from a “Russia psychosis.” (That monologue, which was pretaped, aired at an awkward time: right after the New York Times released more incriminating details about Donald Trump Jr.)
On Tuesday, following the release of the emails, Hannity took a different tack. He dredged up an old tweet from WikiLeaks showing that a Chinese ambassador had once tried to set up a private meeting with Hilary Clinton. Unlike in the case of Trump Jr., though, there was no evidence that this ambassador was offering any incriminating evidence against Clinton’s political opponents. But this key detail didn’t seem to matter to Hannity.
“Is this Hillary Collusion??” he asked on Twitter, using two question marks.
We should expect more of same Swiss cheese logic tonight during Hannity’s much-hyped interview with Trump Jr. In fact, here’s a prediction: Hannity will announce that Trump Jr. did nothing wrong, Trump Jr. will agree, and together they will scold the press for being hysterical. Then maybe they’ll get in some more jabs at Hillary Clinton.