The mushrooming chaos erupting from the White House is testing the boundaries of one of the Trump administration’s safest spaces: Fox News.
On Tuesday evening, the New York Times published a bombshell story reporting that former FBI director James Comey wrote a memo after a meeting with President Trump that detailed how the president asked him to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The revelation of the memo — shared with Comey’s close associates and confirmed by other outlets, but not obtained by them — quickly cascaded across a cable news landscape already gearing up to cover another major story, the Washington Post’s Monday report that the president discussed classified information with Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting.
Exhausted Republicans ducked for cover. Some Washington Democrats started to mention tentatively the word impeachment. MSNBC promised in a chyron that it would be “Trump v. Comey all night.”
But on Fox News, at least initially, the news landed with a thud.
“Comey is a smart man. There’s no way he doesn’t realize, in the absence of tapes, it’s his word against Donald Trump’s word, and it’s going nowhere,” Eric Bolling said on Fox’s 5 p.m. hour show, the Fox News Specialists. “So what is the point of this?”
This kicked off the network’s split approach for the night — and laid bare the dueling impulses at the network.
On the one hand, Fox pundits on the network’s primetime block, from Jesse Watters to Tucker Carlson to Sean Hannity, pooh-poohed the report. On the other hand, Fox’s journalists delivered facts between the punditry — facts that confirmed some of the New York Times’ story.
During the 6 p.m. hour, for instance, Fox’s chief political anchor Bret Baier twice relayed the fact that Republican lawmakers were not willing to go on camera to defend Trump.
At 8 p.m., Carlson squared off against a New York City Council Member, and the two talked completely past each other — Carlson about Penn Station bathrooms and the councilman about Trump and Russia. Later segments on Carlson’s show reflected on the liberal media’s hysteria and the fact that ABC cancelled a Tim Allen sitcom enjoyed by conservatives.
Then at 9 p.m., on The Five, Fox’s largely conservative roundtable took turns questioning Baier, who soberly reported what he knew about the Comey story. “I think you’re going to see more calls and hear more calls for a special prosecutor or special commission,” Baier told the panel.
Fox host Jesse Watters said it was a story with no video or audio, and that only three or four average people out of ten would even know who James Comey is anyway: “It’s a boring scandal,” he said.
Host Kimberly Guilfoyle — who said on Tuesday that she is in talks with the Trump administration about replacing Sean Spicer as press secretary, before reiterating in a statement how much she loves her current job — suggested that Comey could have fabricated the memo. “I can write a note and backdate it,” she said. Baier replied that he believed the documents would have been locked down.
Greg Gutfeld offered his take, parsing Trump’s remarks for their real meaning. “When you say you hope for something, it’s not like it’s a command,” he said.
Hannity, the network’s chief Trump booster, used his 10 p.m. hour to decry the media’s “hyperventilating breathlessness,” Comey’s pursuit of “revenge,” and the “deep state selectively leaking information to damage the president.” He also spent much of the hour discussing the death of murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich and a recent story based on dubious sourcing that in the past few days reignited conspiracy theories about Rich’s death, over the objections of his family.
At 11 p.m., Hannity’s opinion time was over, and Baier returned with a panel of Fox reporters. That panel included Catherine Herridge, who reported that a source told her that Comey documented at least one meeting with Trump (though she did not go as far to say it was the same one the Times reported). The source told Herridge that Comey is known as a “copious note taker,” and that it was standard practice for him to take notes directly after meetings.
Fox New’s tone manifested online too. Splashed across the front page of the network’s website, and accompanied by headlines of people demanding answers from the White House, was the day’s news: “COMEY’S REVENGE? White House pushes back on report Trump asked ex-FBI boss to end Flynn probe.”