Mainstream media gushed over “vocal Trump critic” NH Gov. Chris Sununu, who has now endorsed Trump

Sununu has long pledged he’d support the eventual GOP nominee, a fact that mainstream outlets downplayed or ignored entirely

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who for over a year has enjoyed breathless positive coverage of his opposition to former President Donald Trump, on Sunday reiterated his pledge to support the Republican presidential nominee: former President Donald Trump.

Sununu’s announcement came during an interview on ABC’s This Week, as anchor George Stephanopoulos asked the governor if he would support Trump in light of the former president’s election denial, cascading legal troubles, and Sununu’s own reported belief that the former president “contributed to an insurrection.” Sununu responded that he did back Trump, tripling down on promises he’d made on CNN in February 2023 and January of this year to “support the Republican nominee.” 

Despite Sununu’s repeated pledges to eventually back the party’s candidate, his capitulation to Trump is nevertheless an embarrassment not only for him, but for the outlets that framed him as an independent or moderate voice in the Republican Party. Two large profiles — one from The New York Times and another from The Washington Post — capture the overall tenor of mainstream coverage of Sununu. 

In February 2023, just days after Sununu’s CNN interview, the Times ran a lengthy feature on him with the headline: “Chris Sununu Eyes the G.O.P.’s ‘Normal’ Lane in 2024. Does It Exist?”

The subheadline adopted Sununu’s framing, quoting him as saying, “I’m conservative,” but “I’m just not an extremist.”

Chris Sununu Eyes the G.O.P.’s ‘Normal’ Lane in 2024. Does It Exist? The New Hampshire governor’s flirtation with a presidential run is a test of abortion politics, Republican media strategy and the durability of the MAGA mentality. “I’m conservative,” he says. “I’m just not an extremist.”

Citation Screenshot of The New York Times' website on February 20, 2023

After a short introduction highlighting Trump’s electoral failures, the eighth paragraph underlined how Sununu was supposedly different.

“And so, Mr. Sununu — a ‘Seinfeld’-quoting, Covid booster-boosting son of a governor who supported Mr. Trump’s first two campaigns — is offering himself up as a walking referendum on the direction of his party,” the Times wrote.

It’s not until the 23rd paragraph that readers get the crucial context that Sununu had already pledged to support Trump if he became the party’s candidate.

For all his performative candor — “I probably shouldn’t say this” is a common preamble — Mr. Sununu has at times made the same calculations as many fellow Republicans. He said he would still support Mr. Trump over any Democrat if he recaptured the nomination.

A Washington Post profile of Sununu published nearly a year later largely followed the same template. Its headline read: “Inside New Hampshire Gov. Sununu’s drive to stop Trump, boost Haley.”

Inside New Hampshire Gov. Sununu’s drive to stop Trump, boost Haley

Citation Screenshot of The Washington Post's website on January 21, 2024

In the third paragraph, the Post wrote that the New Hampshire primary “represents a last-ditch effort to influence the future of the Republican Party, which he [Sununu] has repeatedly said should not include Trump, even if much of his party disagrees.”

The sixth paragraph framed Sununu as diametrically opposed to Trump. Sununu “has said he wants the Republican Party to be more ‘approachable’ and ‘normal’ — a goal that looks increasingly quixotic as long as Trump remains its standard-bearer.”

The Post then wrote that the New Hampshire primary was “a microcosm of the struggle of old-school Republicans like Sununu to wrest the party away from the darker, more polarizing vision of Trump.”

It’s not until the 34th paragraph, out of 39 total, that the Post informs its readers that Sununu “says he will still vote for Trump if he is the Republican nominee. ‘There’s no question we’re better off without Biden in the White House,’ he said.”

There is no shortage of articles from the Times, the Post, and other mainstream outlets similarly advancing the narrative that Sununu is an anti-Trump, truth-telling rebel. The governor was on an “intraparty crusade against Mr. Trump,” the Times wrote in January. Last November, the Post described Sununu as “a vocal Trump critic.” Axios used the same phrase in December. Back in April 2022, Politico characterized Sununu as “the one Republican Trump can’t touch.”

The story was frequently the same on mainstream cable news. In a January segment on CNN from the morning of the New Hampshire primary, anchor John Berman said voters wanted more “unplugged” — that is, unscripted and authentic — moments from then-candidate Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina. Sununu, Berman said, was “unplugged all the time.”

Anchor Kate Bolduan then jumped in. “No matter what, I want Chris Sununu energy — all the time,” Bouldan interjected. “I’m here for the Chris Sununu energy.”

Video file

Citation From the January 23, 2024, edition of CNN's CNN News Central 

The next day, the gang at MSNBC’s Morning Joe were singing Sununu’s praises, despite Haley’s significant loss in New Hampshire. After citing Sununu’s approval ratings in his own state, which he was unable to make competitive on Haley’s behalf, host Joe Scarborough suggested Haley “should take Chris Sununu to South Carolina.”

“Everywhere she goes,” host Mika Brzezinski echoed. She added that Haley might have reservations about targeting Trump too aggressively, but that Sununu “can show her that it’s actually easy once you push through that.” (Haley failed to crack 40 percent in her home state’s primary.)

Now, Sununu's sheen might be wearing off. To the Times’ credit, the paper’s write-up of his recent interview with Stephanopoulos captured the absurdity of the governor’s position in its headline: “Sununu Says Trump ‘Contributed’ to Insurrection, but Still Has His Support.”

If only mainstream outlets had been that critical years ago.