On Thursday afternoon, after news broke that a Manhattan grand jury had voted to indict former President Donald Trump on charges pertaining to an alleged hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, my thoughts immediately turned to Fox News and how the conservative cable news network would cover the story. Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch dislikes Trump and would prefer that he disappear forever so that new Republican stars, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, can take the spotlight. At the same time, Trump’s strong poll numbers and ongoing popularity among far-right cable-news diehards mean that Fox News cannot actively turn on the former president, lest his many fans abandon the network for other, much stupider right-wing news sources.
With this simmering conflict in mind, I was legitimately curious as to how Fox News would initially respond to the news of the indictment—especially given that the indictment’s timing came as a bit of a surprise. So I sat down and watched the network’s coverage play out in real time in the hours after the story broke. By the time that Fox News’ big three opinion hosts—Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham—took the air Thursday night, the network had figured out its thesis: It would make its coverage of the indictment less about Trump himself than about the craven perfidy of the liberal forces that are allegedly aligned against him. But the coverage took a few weird turns en route to this thoroughly predictable resolution. Here are a few ways in which the network’s personalities initially reacted to the story.
By Gasping and Blurting Things Out
Around 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, the hosts of Fox’s early-evening talk show The Five were concluding a typically fatuous segment about transgender athletes and why they should not be allowed to compete in women’s collegiate sports. “I challenged some women, when I was a middle schooler, at field hockey. I grabbed one of their sticks and I started competing with ’em. Blew ’em away, Katie,” announced co-host Jesse Watters. “I’m faster than them and I’m stronger than them and I was stealing the little ball, and it was basically like hockey, and boom! It wasn’t even close.” (I would bet money that the field hockey players in question probably remember this incident very differently.)
Watters’ boasts were mercifully curtailed when Sandra Smith cut in with breaking news. “All right, um, we’re gonna break in with this Fox News Alert here,” said Smith. “Uh, we have just gotten word, former President Donald Trump has been indicted by a grand jury in New York.” Smith’s cadence was interrupted three times, first by an audible gasp from one of the panelists, then by an incredulous “What?” and then by a loud “Hmmm.” I am still not sure whether these loud blurts were in response to the indictment news or whether they were simply delayed reactions to Watters’ unlikely tales of his own adolescent field hockey prowess.
By Expressing Sympathy for Trump While Spinning the Indictment as Good News for Him
The fact that Trump—pathological liar, abrasive narcissist, ostentatious wealth-monger—is perhaps the least sympathetic man in America has rarely stopped Fox News from portraying him as a selfless martyr forever being crucified by his many enemies. (The point of this portrayal isn’t so much to make Trump look good as it is to make liberals look terrible.) The occasion of Trump’s indictment for allegedly paying hush money to a porn star, then, was just another opportunity for the network to play the same old familiar tune. “I feel bad for the guy. He didn’t even really have to be president. He had a lot of money, he had a great life. And he decided to run, he won, they took him down,” said Watters, the they in that statement presumably encompassing the liberal media, the deep state, the Democrats in Congress, the “Biden Crime Family,” and the “woke mobs” bent on promoting filth in America’s libraries. “And now they’re trying to nickel-and-dime him for a private agreement he made with a woman, what, eight years ago?… This is a disgrace.”
Because logical consistency is not really a priority of Fox News’ opinion shows, The Five co-host Greg Gutfeld followed up Watters’ characterization of the indictment as a horrible thing to do to Trump by noting that perhaps the indictment was actually an excellent thing to happen to Trump. “[Manhattan DA] Alvin Bragg is the MAGA Republican of the year,” said Gutfeld. “He just got Trump [nominated]. I think if there’s a mugshot, which there will be, you gotta own it. That’s gotta be the poster. He is an OG. Right? I mean, he is a badass if he’s got a mugshot.” To be fair, I suppose this is precisely the logic that led Gilded Age Americans to vote for Rutherford “Mugshot” Hayes.
By Mocking Alvin Bragg’s Weight
Fox News is deeply invested in portraying all big American cities as cesspools of crime and immorality, a strategy that works best when the network can scapegoat specific officials in these cities as the people responsible for the alleged decay. And if the network can also poke fun at the way these officials look? Even better. “Alvin Bragg tried to charge a bodega owner with attempted murder for defending himself,” said Watters. “Bragg lets felons go rape women in this city. It is a disgusting scene at the DA’s office. And that man better show up to the cameras and start answering questions about what judgements he made here. And I hope the House Republicans haul his little butt back to Capitol Hill.”
“Little?” said Gutfeld, apparently chuckling at the irony of implying that Alvin Bragg, a large man, has a little butt. Take that, Alvin Bragg’s butt!
By Trotting Out Jonathan Turley to Question the Legitimacy of the Case
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who at one point in his career was widely respected by his colleagues in the legal community, is now best known for appearing on Fox News whenever the network needs a nominal liberal to offer an allegedly scholarly take on why liberals respect neither the law nor the Constitution. As Stanford Law’s Robert Weisberg wrote in a Slate piece last year, though Turley’s “tonal pretense is still that he is the rare Burkean honest man, horrified that politics have become too contentious and law too political,” these days Turley mostly just manifests “Republican sycophancy rendered in a sober scholarly tone with pearl-clutching sanctimonious nostalgia for some pre-political era of American law.”
Turley played his part well on Special Report With Bret Baier Thursday night, noting that while the indictment of a former president was indeed historic, “it’s not necessarily good history that is being made. It’s not that I oppose the indictment of a former president. I don’t even oppose the indictment of a sitting president on a constitutional basis. But this indictment, if it is reportedly following the theory that we’ve been talking about, is political. It’s a raw political prosecution.” Turley also expressed his opinion that Bragg was “attempting to bootstrap that federal crime into a state case, and if that is the basis for the indictment, I think it’s rather outrageous. I think it’s legally pathetic.” So noted!
By Subtweeting Me, Slate’s Justin Peters, While Also Bashing the American Police State
“Dan, you’re looking a little emotional,” said Jesse Watters to guest Dan Bongino at the outset of Thursday’s episode of Jesse Watters Primetime. (Fox News viewers apparently really love Watters, so much so that the network has given him two shows within three hours.) “I feel the same way. How do you feel?”
“Well, um, listen, I don’t really feel right right now, living in this police state,” said Bongino, who was at that moment appearing on a network that is generally in favor of the imposition of a police state, at least as it pertains to stamping out crime in debased liberal cities and/or enforcing Republican culture-war priorities.
“I mean, we’re in a police state right now, I’m not even arguing this with the, you know, liberal zeroes out there who watch this network all the time. I mean, some of them, their only job is to watch our shows, which is kind of humiliating, but that’s for another day. It’s not open for debate that we live in a police state,” Bongino continued. Ouch! Maybe I shouldn’t take Bongino’s “liberal zeroes” zing personally, but it’s hard not to, given that 1) I watch Fox News all the time, 2) it is my job to watch Fox News all the time, and 3) Dan Bongino has blocked me on Twitter. Shots fired!
By Bringing It Back to the Media and the Clintons
“The irony about this stupid case is that the left-wing media catches and kills every negative piece about a Democrat,” said Watters a little bit later in Thursday’s Jesse Watters Primetime. “How many times does the media hush up a bad story about a Democrat? Right? I mean, this is criminal when it happens with a Republican?”
“To that point, think back to President Bill Clinton’s bimbo squad,” said guest Paul Mauro. “Do you remember that? They literally had people dedicated on the campaign staff to do precisely this.”
“Hillary was on the bimbo squad,” said Watters.
“Right,” said Mauro. This entire exchange was basically Fox News just playing its greatest hits. I’m actually surprised that they weren’t able to work the Swift Boat Veterans in there somehow, but perhaps they were just saving that for the encore.
By Chatting With Rod Blagojevich
Because Tucker Carlson has never met a liberal apostate he won’t bring onto his show to blast their former ideological compatriots, the Fox News host spent part of his Thursday night program visiting with Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois who spent many years in federal prison after being convicted on corruption charges pertaining to his efforts to auction off Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. “I had the misfortune of being arrested as a sitting governor at 6:00 in the morning,” Blagojevich told Carlson. “I was allegedly trying to sell President-elect Obama’s Senate seat. It was a political deal. Obama started the whole thing. Sent an emissary to me to talk about a political deal. The appellate court eventually reversed the sale of the Senate seat. It was a big lie. But Winston Churchill said that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on. And so I see what they’re doing to President Trump, and it’s more than déjà vu all over again to me.” Donald Trump, Rod Blagojevich, Winston Churchill: statesmen, all.