Diversion and denial are the two key strategies of public relations. In response to the testimony of fired FBI Director James Comey yesterday, the right-wing media decided to focus on distractions.
Instead of defending the president against allegations that he had obstructed a federal investigation, conservative outlets like Fox News spent most of their time on Thursday discussing peripheral issues brought up during the hearing.
Which is a pretty damning choice.
Comey’s hearing, which dragged on for nearly three hours Thursday morning, contained some of the most damaging — and quotable — allegations yet against the White House, including a moment when the fired FBI director accused the administration of spreading “lies, plain and simple.” The New York Times’s Peter Baker called the testimony “almost certainly the most damning j’accuse moment by a senior law enforcement official against a president in a generation.”
But there were also a few thrilling occasions for Trump supporters: when Comey claimed that a New York Times story was “not true”; when he threw Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch under the bus; and most of all, when he confirmed that the FBI at the time was not directly investigating Trump himself — only his associates — for collusion with Russia during the election.
These moments, though they were not exactly news, gave the conservative media plenty to talk about on Thursday evening and Friday morning. As the mainstream press focused on the central question of Comey’s testimony — whether the president had interfered with the FBI’s Russia probe — right-wing outlets largely sidestepped that matter.
Most of the outright denials, instead, have come from the White House itself. On Thursday, Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz issued the administration’s official response, a statement that essentially called Comey a liar, claiming that Trump never tried to extract a loyalty oath or to influence the Russia investigation.
The typo-ridden Kasowitz letter was widely panned even on Fox News. “I don't think it resonated with any of us, even those who wish the president well,” said Andrew Napolitano, a Trump ally, on a panel immediately following the hearing. Meghan McCain added that this was further evidence that Trump needed to “clean house with his team, especially everyone in his communications department.”
“They have got to get some adults who know what they’re doing in the room,” she said.
But did conservative outlets do any better at defending the president? On Friday morning, Trump seemed to approve of his allies in the right-wing media. “Great reporting by @foxandfriends and so many others,” he tweeted. “Thank you!”
Yet at several points on Thursday, Fox News pundits briefly conceded that Comey’s testimony did raise serious allegations against Trump. “You have a very credible and compelling argument that the president of the United States has not been truthful with the American people and ordered the director of the FBI to shut down an investigation,” Napolitano said.
Chris Wallace — who Fox News brands as a journalist, not a commentator — said he thought that Comey’s testimony was “very damaging to the president.”
In fact, most of the time, the conservative media wasn’t defending the president as much as it was encouraging viewers to look elsewhere. Here are the main narratives that were circulating in the aftermath of the Comey testimony.
The one substantive narrative: this hearing exonerates Trump!
The most optimistic argument circulating on Thursday was that Comey completely exonerated the president of any wrongdoing. This was not a popular view except among the most fervent pro-Trump outlets. A Breitbart story, for instance, claimed that “Comey all but destroyed any hope Democrats had for bringing a case of obstruction of justice against President Donald Trump.”
The smoking gun, according to Breitbart, was the controversial exchange between Comey and Idaho Sen. James Risch, in which they debated what the president really meant when he allegedly told Comey, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Risch argued that Trump’s words did not literally amount to an order, and the senator pressured Comey to agree.
Risch: [Trump] did not direct you to let it go.
Comey: Not in his words, no.
Risch: He did not order you to let it go.
Comey: Again, those words are not an order.
On his evening Fox News show, Sean Hannity exaggerated the significance of this moment. “James Comey confirmed several times that the president and the White House did not ask him to stop the Russia investigation,” Hannity said.
Right-wing radio pundit Rush Limbaugh was even more forceful on his Thursday radio show. “Donald Trump did not ask [Comey] to stop the Russia investigation. Therefore, there is no obstruction of justice,” he said flatly. (“Comey doesn’t understand real-guy language,” Limbaugh added.)
At best this is a distortion of the facts. Even if Trump had worded his request obliquely, the circumstances were damning: The president had cornered Comey at a private one-on-one dinner. As Comey said several times during the hearing, the president’s words felt like a directive.
“I took it as a direction,” Comey said. “I mean, it’s the President of the United States with me alone, saying, ‘I hope this.’ I took it as this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.”
Even Fox News’s Chris Wallace pointed out how bad this looked, remarking, “Why did [Trump] ask everybody to leave the room and just want to be alone with James Comey if it was simply an innocent conversation?”
During his testimony, Comey also reiterated that Trump was not being personally investigated in the FBI’s Russia probe. Though this was not news, some on the right took this as an opportunity to claim victory anyway. “That is a major come-down from what we were starting out with,” one Fox News commentator said, referring to how Thursday’s hearing centered merely on the accusation that Trump had obstructed an FBI investigation.
These above points, by the way, mirror the administration’s own response to the Comey testimony, which flatly rejected Comey’s claims. The president “never in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone,” Trump’s personal lawyer said in his Thursday statement, implying at several points that the former FBI director was lying.
On the other hand, Trump’s lawyer said that Comey was telling the truth about one thing: “Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President privately: The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference.”
Distracting narrative 1: Comey is the real villain!
In contrast to the White House, the conservative media did not devote its energies to pushing back on the substance of Comey’s testimony, or parsing the meaning of the word “hope.” Instead, pundits mostly focused on a host of distracting themes. First, there was the issue of Comey’s own character.
On Fox News, much attention was paid to Comey’s admission that he had leaked some of his memos to the press in hopes of getting a special counsel assigned to investigate the president’s behavior, or as one chyron put it, “Comey is one of the leakers trying to undermine the Trump administration.”
Right-wing pundits treated that revelation as the major news coming out of Comey’s testimony. “The leaking of that memorandum is very serious, and I think the FBI and Department of Justice need to take a look,” Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for George W. Bush, said on Hannity. “It may well be a crime.”
Blaming the messenger and questioning his motives is a timeworn technique in both law and propaganda. On Neil Cavuto’s show, Federalist senior editor Mollie Hemingway offered the classic “he was no angel” rebuttal: “This is not a choir boy here,” she said. “[Comey] could teach masterclasses in how to cover your own behind and engage in typical Washington, DC shenanigans.”
On Thursday night, Tucker Carlson wondered aloud if it was time for an investigation of James Comey himself.
“Did that seem odd to you, as somebody from another country looking in, that the head law enforcement official in America was leaking stories?” Carlson asked his guest, the British right-wing extremist Nigel Farage.
“It seems disgraceful,” Farage said. “He was playing political games whilst holding a very important position. I do get the feeling that so much of the establishment seems to want Trump to fail. They are trying to trip him up at every given opportunity.”
Some took their attacks on Comey a step further, blaming him for creating the problem by not speaking up when he felt the president was starting to cross ethical lines. (Comey’s official answer, from his testimony, was that he was “so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in.”)
On Thursday night, Sean Hannity mocked Comey for being “so weak.”
“You couldn't say, ‘Mr. President, this is inappropriate. We’re a special investigative body. I know you are new to politics’? Or, ‘I can't be part of this discussion’? Would that have been so hard?”
For what it’s worth, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer took the opposite tack on Thursday afternoon, praising Comey for being honest about his shortcomings. “He was very restrained, quite self-deprecating, and all it did was increase his credibility because he wasn't painting himself like he was the guy in the white hat and Donald Trump was the guy in the black hat,” he said on a Fox News panel.
Distracting narrative 2: Loretta Lynch is the real villain!
Another favorite topic of the right-wing media was Comey’s complaint about Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who at one point had asked Comey to downplay the Clinton email investigation by calling it a “matter.”
“The attorney general had directed me not to call it an investigation, but instead to call it a matter, which confused me and concerned me,” Comey said during his testimony.
This was not news — the New York Times had reported as much in April:
At the meeting, everyone agreed that Mr. Comey should not reveal details about the Clinton investigation. But Ms. Lynch told him to be even more circumspect: Do not even call it an investigation, she said, according to three people who attended the meeting. Call it a “matter.”
Ms. Lynch reasoned that the word “investigation” would raise other questions: What charges were being investigated? Who was the target? But most important, she believed that the department should stick by its policy of not confirming investigations.
Yet many right-wing media outlets seized on this freshly dredged-up fact, and it became a central topic of conversation all night on Fox News. “Isn’t that tampering with an election?” said Steve Doocy on Fox and Friends Friday morning, around the time of Trump’s tweet. “Isn’t that obstruction of justice, as some have wondered?”
“You think Mr. Comey was going to deliver Donald Trump on an edible platter and instead, you get Loretta Lynch,” Greg Gutfield crowed on The Five.
“Why did Comey make and leak detailed memos about President Trump, but do nothing in response to the political pressure that he received from the previous attorney general Loretta Lynch?” Tucker Carlson asked on his Thursday night show, in an attempt to draw a parallel between the two episodes.
The answer to Carlson’s question, of course, is that Comey did take action. As the New York Times story in April detailed, Comey believed Lynch “had subtly helped play down the Clinton investigation” and was also concerned that Lynch’s impromptu meeting with Bill Clinton at a Phoenix airport created the appearance of a conflict of interest. Those were two of the main reasons that Comey held his controversial press conference last July, in which he called Hilary Clinton “extremely careless” with her emails but also said that “no charges are appropriate.”
On conservative media, the Loretta Lynch detour was a fruitful one, giving pundits an opportunity to relitigate their many conspiracy theories about the impromptu meeting between Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch on the tarmac at a Phoenix airport last year.
“The tarmac meeting with Lynch and Clinton, there wasn't enough questioning about that in terms of how inappropriate you think that was at the time,” Dana Perino complained on The Five, before launching into a list of her concerns.
Distracting narrative 3: the media is the real villain!
During his testimony Thursday, Comey criticized one New York Times article from February, saying that “in the main, it was not true.” This article claimed that Trump associates and campaign staffers “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.”
It’s still not clear what Comey’s problem with the story was, and a response from the New York Times pointed out that many news outlets have also reported that Trump associates had phone calls or face-to-face meetings with elements of Russian intelligence.
The Times speculated that Comey may be disputing the claim that the Russians in question were “senior Russian intelligence officials.” In other words, the Trump staff might not have met with official spies, but merely “government officials and private citizens with deep links to Russian spy services,” according to the Times.
Regardless of the underlying issue, the right-wing media had a field day with Comey’s allegations against the Times. On Hannity, the chyron was “Media credibility crisis after Comey hearing.”
“It’s a huge embarrassment for the Gray Lady,” Fox News pundit Geraldo Rivera said on Hannity. “They got it dead wrong.” The conversation then turned into a familiar bashing of the mainstream media and the “deep state.”
“I think through ignorance and malevolence, they laid bare, especially the media, their absolute contempt for the facts and for the law,” said Fox News reporter Gregg Jarrett, who accused the media of committing “a political mugging of the president.”
“That should be a crime,” Jarrett said. “If it was a crime, our jails would be overflowing with politicians and mostly the media.”
“That’s so well-said, Gregg,” Hannity said, summing up Comey’s testimony as “a massive defeat for Democrats and, of course, the propaganda media.”