In the world of pundits, there are the bomb throwers, there are the professionally nonpartisan, and then there are the toadies, like Byron York. For the better part of two decades, York’s been a mainstay in American political media. Serious-faced and bespectacled, York -- and to some extent, people like The Washington Post's Hugh Hewitt -- are treated as more respectable conservative voices, an aesthetically welcome contrast to conspiracy-minded kings of bluster like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Even so, the work serves a nearly identical purpose: to protect and promote Republican ideals.
Throughout the Trump administration, much of York’s writings and media appearances could be best characterized as an attempt to run interference for the president. As the House impeachment inquiry began, his work took on even more of a singular focus.
York is determined that the real impeachment story is about the origin of the whistleblower complaint, not the largely corroborated substance of it. He suggested that the administration’s willingness to provide Ukraine with lethal weaponry was somehow exculpatory evidence against Trump's apparent attempt to push Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden under the threat of withholding aid. In another column, he employed the “Sideshow Bob defense,” saying it is “a fundamental problem with the Democratic case” that “they are accusing Trump of attempted crimes that never actually came to fruition.” After acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted that the administration engaged in a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian government (which he later retracted), York appeared on Fox News to defend Mulvaney by focusing on the portions of his statement unrelated to a quid pro quo. While congressional committees held closed-door depositions for the impeachment inquiry, York argued that the hearings should be held in public, repeatedly accusing Democrats of engaging in “secrecy.” The day the House was to finally vote on an impeachment resolution to begin public hearings, York dubbed it “The Adam Schiff Empowerment Act.” And he attacked the reputation of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council who testified before Congress during the impeachment hearings, and brushed him off as “a witness whose testimony was filled with opinion, with impressions, who had little new to offer.”
Prior to the Ukraine scandal, York was on hand to defend the repeated stays of Air Force members at Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland. He scoffed at The New York Times’ 1619 Project marking the 400th anniversary of American slavery and argued that it was done in part to smear Trump ahead of an election. In York’s view, yes, Trump is the victim of “presidential harassment” by the Democrats and he was the victim of “spying” by the Obama administration. York also agreed with the president that special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections “exonerated” him.
After a gunman massacred 22 people inside a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, York devoted a column to arguing that the shooter’s manifesto proves that he wasn’t motivated by Trump. During an appearance on Fox News, he remarked that the shooter “was actually very prescient” for his belief that media outlets would tie his anti-immigrant attack to Trump rhetoric. In June, he wrote an article linking “anti-Trump fever” to the assault of a right-wing activist.
York uses a couple simple tricks to appear less partisan than he actually is.
York seems far more willing than many other pro-Trump columnists to make small admissions critical of Trump that give the appearance of some sort of objectivity. For instance, in an article about E. Jean Carroll and her report that Trump sexually assaulted her, York conceded that Trump has a history of getting caught in lies, noting, “Trump has denied things in the past, such as the payoff to Stormy Daniels, that were, in fact, true.” In an October 20 piece, he rejected Trump’s “Crowdstrike” conspiracy theory as having “no basis in fact,” though he would later flirt with a watered-down version of the conspiracy that Ukraine conspired to harm Trump’s chances in the 2016 election. This strategy gives York a veneer of respectability, allowing him to criticize the president without actually publishing anything that might be read as negative.
Another tactic York uses is hardly unique to his own writing, but it’s worth remarking on, anyway. He has a tendency to fudge the truth just enough to make it fit with the point he’s trying to make. In a June column clearly intended to justify Trump’s February declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, York argued that Democrats concerned about the well-being of detainees should admit they were wrong for opposing Trump’s proclamation. York highlighted quotes from Democratic leadership that called Trump’s declaration a “fake crisis.” The article was written with a clear goal of getting readers to conflate Trump’s belief that the number of border-crossings had become a crisis with Democrats’ concerns that the people being detained were being subjected to inhumane living conditions. The crisis York pointed to, about detainee living conditions, was wholly different from the one Trump used as a premise for his emergency declaration. Trump created that crisis.
The same goes for one of his most recent claims, that Democrats don’t want people looking into how the investigations into Ukraine or Russia started and are thus protecting the whistleblower’s identity. This is untrue, and it distorts the fact that Democrats are making their arguments on the substance of the whistleblower’s claims -- rather then focusing on the whistleblower him- or herself -- because they’re trying to hide some presumably shady and partisan origin story. But as Marcy Wheeler noted at Emptywheel, “It cannot be true that we need to learn about the whistleblower to understand how all this started and also be true that the whistleblower’s view is meaningless because he was operating exclusively from hearsay. The claim itself underscores that multiple people on the call itself objected when they heard the president extort a foreign leader.”
There’s not a lot of consistency in York’s arguments, and he’s shown himself more than willing to drop a talking point the moment it no longer works in his favor.
Nowhere has this been as clear as in York’s ever-shifting defense of Trump throughout the Russia investigation. For instance, in May 2017, he claimed that a “confederation of Democrats, pundits, Obama holdovers, and NeverTrumpers” were trying to take Trump down for something he and his campaign didn’t do.
Throughout the Trump-Russia investigation, the core question -- the question that mattered above all others -- was whether President Trump or his associates colluded with Russia to try to influence the 2016 election. If there were proof of that, the effect on Trump's presidency would have been devastating, and possibly fatal.
The problem, for the confederation of Democrats, pundits, Obama holdovers, and NeverTrumpers who hoped to see that result, has been that so far, after a lot of investigating, no evidence has emerged that collusion actually occurred. Although they allowed that previously unknown proof could always emerge, last week some of the lawmakers most deeply involved in the investigation, and most closely in touch with the intelligence community and law enforcement working on the probe, conceded that there appeared to be no there there.
Just two months later, a New York Times report uncovered details of the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting in which Donald Trump Jr., presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Trump’s then-campaign chair Paul Manafort met with Russians with the goal of getting damaging information on Trump’s political opponent Hillary Clinton. York’s tune changed in the blink of an eye. Gone was “there appeared to be no there there,” replaced with the rhetorical question, “What campaign wouldn't seek motherlode of Clinton emails?”
As the Mueller report would later note, Trump Jr. wasn’t charged with a crime on the basis that he may not have known that he was breaking the law. From page 187:
On the facts here, the government would unlikely be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the June 9 meeting participants had general knowledge that their conduct was unlawful. The investigation has not developed evidence that the participants in the meeting were familiar with the foreign-contribution ban or the application of federal law to the relevant factual context.
York’s columns feel less like a part of some grand narrative and more like episodic works without consistent factual themes. At best, York’s political insights can be viewed as a misguided attempt at playing devil’s advocate for conservative voters, fueled by motivated reasoning. At worst, he’s just another layer of right-wing obfuscation in a time when truth and clarity is in demand.