Aug. 21 was among the busiest news days the Trump administration has experienced, in part for the sheer variety of major stories coming to a head. Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, pleaded guilty to charges including tax evasion and bank fraud; Paul Manafort, the former chairman of the Trump presidential campaign, was convicted on multiple fraud counts. So massive were these stories that the indictment of a Republican Congressman for spending campaign funds on personal expenses was practically blotted out.
The Cohen and Manafort stories were all-consuming — that is, everywhere except Fox News, which began its prime-time lineup with President Donald Trump himself, speaking at a rally in West Virginia. This rally, in which Trump touted his own accomplishments and genius as well as the special qualities of his supporters, wasn’t designed as a response to a day of news that cast serious doubt over his presidency, but, at least on Fox News, it had that effect: Transmitting the president’s thoughts, and his personal charisma, to supporters watching at home.
Notably, the president seemed as prickly and ruffled as usual, but not about the news of the day: It was as though neither Manafort nor Cohen had ever existed. Even after Trump stopped speaking, Fox’s on-air talent sought to change the conversation in much the same way, with Sean Hannity repeatedly stating that the charges at issue were relatively minor, in the grand scheme of things, and explicitly not connected to the ongoing investigation into collusion with Russia.
Hannity also, predictably, resurrected an old bete noire every chance he could, asking guests why Hillary Clinton had never faced legal reprisal for the saga of her emails. Hannity’s tendency to speak in a sort of jazzy shorthand made this somewhat random line of questioning especially surreal, as references to “acid-washing hard drives” would crop up without explanation or much context. “Here we are today. Taxi medallions. Sad,” he said, throwing to commercial with an off-handed reference to one of Cohen’s business interests. Hannity sounded, both in rhetorical style and in his relentless denial of any real story here, like the president he so vocally supports.
Fox News has long been Trump’s safe harbor, as both subject and, notably, as viewer; it’s a place where on-camera personalities both tend to treat him with endless indulgence and often seem to be speaking directly to him. The message, more than ever, is that the Trumpian concept of a “witch hunt” is real, and that not merely are Cohen’s and Manafort’s misdeeds unrelated to the Russia saga, but that they barely count at all. That Hannity went so far as to concede, on-air, that Cohen and Manafort had done things wrong (even as he said they shouldn’t face real consequences for them) felt startling — the host rarely cedes ground — but he went on to cite various Democrats who ought to have been prosecuted for their misdeeds. Mark Levin, a Hannity guest, argued that the charges against Cohen weren’t just insignificant but meaningless: “You know what took place in the Southern District of New York? Nothing that matters. Zip-o. There was no violation of federal campaign laws.”
Hannity closed out his broadcast examining the sad story of an Iowa college student allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant — a tragic tale that’s already been weaponized by the right to justify anti-immigration measures — before declaring that America needed to do “some soul-searching,” because Cohen and Manafort were being unduly dragged through the legal process: “If Russian collusion becomes taxi medallions and tax fraud, if we ignore real Russian collusion, we’re going to lose the country.”
Fox News exists at the opposite end of the spectrum from MSNBC, a network that sometimes seems to be constructing a “Homeland”-style web of corruption, extending from the White House to Russia. But just because some parts of the narrative feel overworked doesn’t mean the whole story is ludicrous. If nothing else, two close associates of the President facing such extreme legal consequences on a single day suggests that a lawless atmosphere thrives in the White House, a reality that Fox News is contorting itself more and more to avoid acknowledging.
But having staked out ground as the defender of Trump early on — having committed to flattering and cajoling him even after his infamous insult to then-Fox News star Megyn Kelly — Fox News, with its evening lineup of opinion shows, has little room to maneuver. It’s not hard to imagine a situation in which the walls close in on Trump, and in which his last friend on the TV dial denies it’s happening at all.
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