Fox News hosts and commentators are exploiting the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Washington, D.C., area to justify President Donald Trump’s deliberate decision — revealed this week in interview excerpts with journalist Bob Woodward from earlier this year — to “play it down” on the deadly nature of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Fox’s positive interpretation, though, Trump’s response is just like some key actions by President George W. Bush in 2001 — most notably, when Bush continued to read a children’s book during an appearance at a school, then posed for photos with the children and school staff, even after he had been informed by his chief of staff, Andrew Card, that the country was under attack.
Fox News has been earnestly defending Trump’s deliberate misleading of the public on the seriousness of the coronavirus — and by extension, the network’s own key role in that misinformation campaign. And while the network’s commentators have claimed Trump was showing proper leadership by not inciting a panic, they have also spread a misleadingly edited video of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden telling the public in February to remain calm but left out his warning that this was also a very serious situation.
Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy added the idea of Trump’s handling of the pandemic to the events of 9/11 Thursday morning on his show, as he discussed how military and intelligence leaders receive information on potential threats to the country.
“I mentioned at the top of the show tomorrow is September 11th. I think what we have learned over the last 19 years is that ... stuff crosses their desk every day — scary intel, some group is trying to do this, they're trying to poison the water or anthrax or all that stuff — the president gets it in the form of his presidential daily briefing every day. And what does he do?” Doocy asked rhetorically. “Well, he doesn't, you know, blurt it out, ‘Hey, somebody's trying to blow up Akron,’ or something like that. Instead, as he said, you know, he didn't want people to freak out, so he tried to keep people calm.”
This reference to presidential daily briefings seemed oddly reminiscent of the public revelation in the years after 9/11 that an item in Bush’s daily briefing of August 6, 2001, had been titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S” and that the Bush administration had seemingly ignored other key warnings. And yet, Doocy seemed to be citing it as a positive example of presidential leadership.
On Friday morning’s edition of Fox & Friends, after former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani recounted his experiences from that morning in 2001, co-host Brian Kilmeade connected what had gone on then to Trump’s actions now.
“There’s so much you just said that is so applicable to today,” Kilmeade declared. “Number one, you heard about an attack, and you didn't call a press conference to panic people. What, did you lie to them? I don't think so. Number two, George Bush — we weren't even thinking about Al Qaeda — Gore and Bush were debating three times, it never came up. Blindsided — almost like the pandemic came out of left field. You could say that.”
Later that morning, on America’s Newsroom, Washington Times opinion editor and Fox News contributor Charlie Hurt made the link even more explicit, holding up Bush at the time as a role model and castigating Democratic attacks on both Bush then and Trump now.
(Just to be clear, in that moment, Card had been telling Bush that the second plane, not the first, had hit the towers — thus clearly demonstrating that America was under a deliberate attack.)
A possibly indirect reference also came up on Outnumbered, when co-host Melissa Francis discussed that fateful day with Fox News contributor Ari Fleischer, who at the time was Bush’s press secretary. Francis justified those early minutes of inaction, purportedly in the name of being cautious with the response.
“When you found out, you know, you held up a pad to the president to not say anything yet. And I know there was some criticism for that later down the road,” Francis said. “But in this day, when people speak too quickly, and tweet too quickly, and say the wrong things — that memory jumps out at me.”
Though on the subject of people speaking too quickly, and perhaps saying or tweeting “the wrong things,” Fox News has also defended the Trump family and the Trump campaign when they were caught spreading false information about COVID-19 on Twitter. And in the early days of the pandemic, Francis herself declared that “it doesn't feel productive” to “sit there and attack” Trump’s handling of the situation.