Audiences for Super Bowl pre-game shows are substantial: in the tens of millions of viewers. That’s a lot more people than you’ll find tuning into a prime-time cable news program, even Fox News’s industry-leading “O’Reilly Factor” with famously pugnacious host Bill O’Reilly. So when Fox Broadcasting aired part of O’Reilly’s interview with President Trump this afternoon on its Super Bowl pre-game show, a swath of new viewers likely sampled the King of Cable News’s approach to the 45th president.
Which is to say, they saw how a millionaire TV anchor who doubles as a vanilla-milkshake-sharing friend of the president lets him off the hook on a pressing national issue.
Here’s how: Ever since then-candidate Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes, he has seemed incapable of swallowing that deficit. Here’s a tweet from late November:
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
Not long after his inauguration, Trump retreated to this theme in a chat with lawmakers. Between three and five million immigrants illegally voted for his opponent, he alleged. So baseless was the claim that the New York Times called it a lie, in a headline no less. Months after Trump first floated this absurdity, there’s been precisely no evidence to support it. Any responsible fact-checker has used only the most nuclear terms to describe the president’s mendacity.
Into this backdrop walks O’Reilly himself. He decided that the following question would be an appropriate way to handle the matter: “Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things you can’t back up factually, and as the president, if you say, for example, that there are 3 million illegal aliens who voted and then you don’t have the data to back it up, some people are gonna say that it’s irresponsible for a president to say that. Is there any validity to that?”
The ever-introspective President Trump responded with these words: You know, I’ve been thinking about that, and there may be some validity to that criticism. I need to fact-check better on the front end. Italics inserted to indicate a joke.
Here’s how the president actually answered, “Many people have come out and said I’m right, you know that.”
Any journalist seeking to hold accountable the 45th president would have asked him a one-word question: “Who?” But O’Reilly, who has shared untold vanilla milkshakes with Trump, chose a different tack. “I know, but you got to have data to back that up.”
Students of Trump know by now that he and his crew like to cite a number of studies when pressed on this fraud claim — studies that don’t, in fact, corroborate the contention about millions of illegal votes. When pressed on the president’s claims a while back, for instance, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer incorrectly cited a Pew study. On Trump’s contentions, Spicer said, “It’s a belief he maintains.”
Yet O’Reilly either hadn’t studied up on this line of argument or he didn’t care to counter it. He let Trump answer the data question with this soliloquy: “Let me just tell you. And it doesn’t have to do with the vote, although that’s the end result. It has to do with the registration. And when you look at the registration and you see dead people that have voted, when you see people that are registered in two states that voted in two states, when you see other things, when you see illegals, people that are not citizens, and they’re on the registration rolls. Look, Bill, we can be babies, but you take a look at the registration, you have illegals, you have dead people you have this. It’s really a bad situation. It’s really bad.”
Again, the host could have blasted away, poking holes in every word of that argument. Instead the guy opted for deference. “So you think you’re gonna be proven correct in that statement?”
Trump: “Well, I think I already have. A lot of people have come out and said that I am–”
O’Reilly: “But the data has to show that 3 million illegals voted.”
Trump: “Forget that. Forget all of that. Just take a look at the registration and we’re going to do it, and I’m gonna set up a commission, to be headed by Vice President Mike Pence, and we’re gonna look at it very, very carefully.”
O’Reilly: “Well that’s good. Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
No, the bottom has already been reached. When the country’s most-watched cable-news anchor endorses the spending of tax dollars to fund a study of a non-existent “problem” whose only provenance is the insecurity of a mendacious president, that’s the “bottom.” And for those who watched O’Reilly enable Trump for the entire presidential campaign, it’s a predictable cratering.
There were other exchanges in Sunday’s session, though none more revealing than the one on voting rights. O’Reilly will air more material from this interview on his Fox News program on Monday and Tuesday nights.
UPDATE: A Fox News spokeswoman tells the Erik Wemple Blog that O’Reilly will address this issue tonight on his program.