Given the breakneck pace of the news cycle the past couple weeks, President Donald Trump and his administration seem to be on course to set a new record for blockbuster news stories documenting malfeasance by an administration.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Trump gave highly classified intelligence to Russian officials during their recent Oval Office visit -- while his administration is under investigation for colluding with Russians during the election last year, and on the day when only Russian media were allowed inside the Oval Office. (The New York Times reported that the intel had been provided to the U.S. by Israel. According to ABC News, the life of an Israeli intelligence agent embedded within ISIS is now endangered by Trump's actions.)
Setting aside the serious substantive concerns about Trump’s reported behavior -- do optics get any worse than that? (And remember, Trump spent 2016 accusing his political opponent of being unfit for office over her supposed recklessness in handling classified information.)
The Post story broke only a week after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey at least in part because -- as Trump shockingly admitted during a televised interview -- the president didn’t like that Comey was investigating the possible Trump/Russia connection. This was after the FBI chief reportedly requested more resources for his probe, and after Trump had reportedly asked that Comey pledge his personal loyalty to the new president.
Yesterday, the Times broke the news -- which was subsequently confirmed by other outlets – that Comey had penned a memo after a February meeting with Trump, during which the president allegedly asked Comey to back off the agency’s investigation of Michael Flynn, who had served as the president's national security adviser -- an astounding move that some legal scholars are labeling obstruction of justice. Flynn was fired after he was found to have lied about previous contacts with Russian officials.
So it’s been quite a Trump run.
While the various actions taken by Trump detailed in recent news reports are causing some experts and journalists to sound the alarm, Fox News has been desperately trying to run defense for the administration and downplay allegations of potential lawbreaking and inappropriate behavior, reassuring its viewers that there’s no there there.
For years under the Obama administration, when Fox couldn’t establish or back up its flimsy claims of wrongdoing by the Democratic administration, it relied on a lower bar by which to judge government behavior: optics and the “appearance of impropriety.”
Predictably, Fox News seems to have abandoned that standard under Trump.
Last week, Brian Kilmeade and the rest of Fox News were just exhausted by the “media hysteria” over Trump’s disturbing decision to fire Comey. Pounding the network's key narratives that the stunning dismissal was actually long overdue, that the White House explanation made perfect sense, and that the Beltway media were blowing everything out of proportion, Kilmeade not only waved off allegations of wrongdoing, but he also questioned whether critics were paying too much attention to the appearances surrounding the termination.
“Should optics matter?” Kilmeade asked as the Comey story continued to churn through the Beltway. Surveying the pile-up, Kilmeade suddenly didn’t care how things looked politically. “Is there anything wrong with not caring about the optics?” the co-host asked his guests.
Indeed, the “appearance” bell at Fox News has suddenly gone completely quiet: The phrase “appearance of impropriety” has been uttered only once since Trump was inaugurated -- and that was in reference to Hillary Clinton! -- according to a Nexis search of Fox News transcripts for the channel’s evening programs.
Fox’s new hallmark lack of concern for optics and appearances only hardened when another bombshell story erupted seven days later with The Post's report Trump gave Russian officials highly classified intelligence. That stunner not only failed to produce condemnations from Fox News, which immediately shifted into furious spin and deflect mode, but talkers didn’t appear worried about out how news about spilled secrets to the Russians looked. There was no concern for optics.
So yes, Fox News’ “Appearance of Impropriety” era is officially over. But oh, what a hearty run it had.
For years, Fox News served as a sort of unofficial Republican Oversight Committee as the network held daily televised hearings on the criminality that was supposedly running rampant in the Obama administration.
And when Fox News couldn’t summon up clear evidence of wrongdoing to support its often wild, elaborate charges (Hint: it virtually never could), Fox talkers regularly hopped on their favorite hobby horse: appearances. For Fox News, if it looked bad, it was bad. And for years that meant Democrats needed to be the target of congressional inquiries, and sometimes even criminal investigation.
Fox News’ “appearance” obsession was transferred over to Clinton last year:
The “appearance” chatter was truly relentless, especially surrounding the Clinton Foundation:
- “There’s no getting away from the appearance of impropriety here.” (Juan Williams)
- “Did it have the appearance of impropriety, and was it potentially illegal? Those are all fair game questions in an election for the presidency.” (Megyn Kelly)
- “I think the idea of foreign governments giving massive contributions to a foundation run by a couple with a -- with one former president and another likely presidential candidate, and current, at that point, secretary of state -- that in and of itself has the appearance of such impropriety.” (Laura Ingraham)
But giving secrets away to the Russians after firing the FBI director doesn’t appear to be improper? Even after Trump specifically admitted he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation, or that “made up story,” as Trump has called the inquiry.
That would’ve been like if Obama had fired Comey last summer and said Comey got canned because he was investigating Clinton’s emails, which in Obama’s opinion was a totally bogus pursuit.
For now, though, as Trump rewrites the record books for awful optics, Fox News remains mum on the “appearance of impropriety” front.