Frustration, anger, bafflement and glee. That’s what spread across U.S. TV news on Thursday morning as Attorney-General William Barr offered a good-news spin on the Mueller report – and then the actual report was released.
As TV anchors, reporters and pundits absorbed it all, what unfolded onscreen was an epic meltdown of, specifically, anger and glee. The glee was on Fox News, naturally.
Every all-news channel and three of the four networks offered coverage live, the latter’s decision indicating the gravity of the situation and the consuming national interest. Normally, the networks don’t push game shows aside for breaking news.
At 9:34 a.m., Barr arrived to offer his take. Well now, he suggested, U.S. President Donald Trump is a model of probity. That was the gist. Like a small-town lawyer presenting a victim-impact statement on behalf of his client, a mere innocent victim of heinous criminal activity, Barr painted Trump as generous and co-operative with Mueller’s team.
Barr’s empathy vibe was at the level of a This is Us episode. He also said, “no evidence,” “no collusion” and “no conspiracy” several times. He gave snippy answers to a handful of questions. Nobody asking them used the word “stooge” but a person watching it at home as TV drama might well have been thinking that.
On CNN, a glum-looking Wolf Blitzer kicked off the post-Barr news conference with, “And there you have it, almost complete vindication of the President.” The look on his face said, “I don’t feel very well now."
Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, sitting beside Blitzer, looked baffled in an angry way. “An extraordinary political commercial for the President,“ he snapped. There would be no meltdown with Toobin, but then sarcasm got the better of bafflement. “Isn’t it a thing to be poor Donald Trump?” he asked.
Over on Fox News, where one was surprised not to hear champagne corks popping, the key phrase to summarize Barr was, “There’s nothing there.” Shannon Bream was pushing that point. Pundit and former U.S. attorney Andy McCarthy declared emphatically, “Barr is not acting as defence counsel for the President.” Perhaps he understood some people at home were muttering, “stooge.” He went on to list the nice, co-operative things the Trump White House had done to help Mueller.
The upshot on Fox News was that the Trump White House is filled with Boy Scouts caught up in this bizarre investigation. Then, well before the actual report was even issued, Bret Baier, keen to insert politics and wave away legal what-ifs, asked rhetorically if Mueller knew there was “no collusion” before the midterm election and, if so, hadn’t he then interfered in the body politic?
That darn Mueller was the upshot of the Fox News approach and there was dodged-a-bullet giddiness. Nobody went “Wheee!” but Brit Hume took time to admonish “our media colleagues” and describe “media coverage” of the Mueller report as “a debacle.” Fox News always takes the view that it is not “the media” and is merely telling the truth.
The truth of the Muller report came a few minutes after 11 a.m. “It’s out!” said a voice on Fox, in a very chipper manner. (Fox News is mostly watched by older men but Thursday was a day to be young and carefree.) At that moment on the screen, Trump was talking about “wounded warriors” around him at a White House event.
What happened next took at least an hour to sink in. Across the channels, reporters could be seen scanning the report for pertinent details and juicy bits. Many were staring at their phones as they reported. It was a drip-drip of details that soon amounted a blistering sequence of revelations: Trump had a meltdown when he learned Mueller had been hired as special counsel. Trump had ordered the firing of Mueller. And Barr’s earlier assertion that the White House had “fully co-operated” with the investigation was looking ridiculous.
On NBC, anchor Lester Holt was seizing on certain details. He happened to have Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow on hand. “Why didn’t the President testify personally?” Holt asked. Sekulow, enjoying himself and quoting The Rolling Stones, of all people, asserted that Trump at that time was “in a crossfire hurricane.” Holt looked more baffled than usual. “Lets talk about the American public,” he continued and Sekulow merely grinned.
On CBS, anchor Gayle King was the embodiment of frustration. She called the Mueller report “the bomb that didn’t go off,” but seemed infuriated by it. She mentioned with a tone of amazement that the report contended a direct line of communication between Donald Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks. She threw her arms up, utterly perplexed.
Back on CNN, the onscreen summary was “Mueller: Congress still has the ability to conclude there was obstruction of justice.” This was CNN’s lifeline. Jake Tapper described Barr as “a political operative.”
That darn Barr. He began the day as a man arriving to bury the Mueller report. By lunchtime, most TV news anchors, reporter and pundits were, more or less, declaring, “It’s alive, it’s alive!” Except at Fox News, where it’s dead and buried. But this is a continuing TV story. The dead arise.