President Donald Trump has dramatically shifted his stated rationale for firing FBI Director James Comey. But Fox News hosts have not wavered in their defenses of the president, maintaining the same narratives all week: Trump did nothing wrong, the media is overreacting, Democrats are hypocrites for criticizing the president’s actions, and the real story is that a new FBI director will have the opportunity to put Hillary Clinton in jail.
On Tuesday, Trump fired Comey, offering up the obvious lie that he had made the decision based on a recommendation from the deputy attorney general, who had criticized the manner in which the FBI director publicly discussed the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.
Comey’s firing came as his agency was investigating whether the president’s campaign had colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, and he’s not the first high-ranking government official to be fired while investigating the president’s associates. Reporting quickly indicated that it was Comey’s handling of that investigation -- and not his handling of the Clinton one -- that had led to his firing. But Trump’s surrogates and his media allies nonetheless hewed to the party line.
On Thursday afternoon, however, NBC News released a clip of Nightly News anchor Lester Holt’s interview with Trump, in which the president himself admitted that he actually had planned to fire Comey anyway and that he was acting in response to the FBI director’s handling of the Russia probe. All statements from the White House and its allies had been definitively debunked by the president himself, to the point where Trump is now claiming that it is “not possible” for his surrogates to accurately reflect his positions.
But even as the Trump White House’s story has completely reversed, Fox’s talking points defending the president have remained remarkably consistent.
Here is how Fox covered Comey firing story, in 51 screenshots dating from when the story broke on the evening of May 9 through early in the afternoon of May 12.
May 9: Fox Builds Its Pro-Trump Narratives
Fox’s coverage of Trump firing Comey kicked off with an inauspicious start -- after news broke during the 5 p.m. hour, the network first reported that the FBI director had resigned.
The network also quickly floated a potential Comey replacement: Vice President Mike Pence’s friend John Pistole, a former FBI deputy director:
As the evening progressed, Fox’s conservative hosts began generating the narratives the network would continue to employ in the days to come. Trump’s actions had been legitimate because they were based on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general:
The media was overreacting:
Democrats were hypocrites because they had previously criticized Comey:
And the appointment of a new FBI director brings with it the possibility of reopening the investigation into Clinton’s server.
May 10: A Full-Throated Defense Of The President
President Trump’s favorite morning news show, Fox & Friends, weaponized the narratives that had been building the previous night. The hosts defended the president’s decision and lashed out at the press for “pouncing” on Trump by reporting that the firing was linked to the Russia investigation and the Democrats for having a “double standard”:
The program also floated conservative favorites like Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke as possible Comey replacements, while portraying Pence's friend Pistole as the purported “bipartisan possibility.”
These narratives continued through the morning and into the afternoon:
A combative press briefing by Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not shift the narratives:
And by the evening, the talking points were consistent: The media and Democrats were in a “hysterical” “meltdown” over the events, which were really no big deal:
May 11: A Dramatic Shift In The White House Story, But No Change In Talking Points From Fox
Fox News spent the morning of May 11 pounding the same claims, saying that Democrats and journalists were overstating the story for political reasons:
That afternoon, Trump dramatically changed his story in the Holt interview, clips of which were aired on Fox.
But after fresh talking points from the briefing room:
Fox continued to pillory the president’s critics ...
… even to the point of downplaying the events by saying they weren’t as serious as the Civil War or Cuban Missile Crisis:
The story the network’s hosts really wanted to talk about was whether Trump would have the opportunity to lock Clinton up:
May 12: Mean Lester Holt Interrupted The President
By this morning, Fox & Friends had returned to saying that Trump had done nothing wrong:
The hosts, however, had identified a new enemy: Holt, who they claimed had been too quick to interrupt the president while Trump was trying to explain that he had fired the FBI director over his handling on an investigation into his associates. It had been, they said, an interrogation, nothing like the interview they had given Trump:
By its noon hour, Fox was describing its competitors' coverage noting that Comey had been investigating Trump's associates as those outlets pushing a “conspiracy theory” :