President Trump cannot possibly be pleased with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Nor can Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. Nor can Michael Flynn, the fired national security adviser. Nor can Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What gripe could possibly unite these fellows?

Tucker Carlson refuses to defend them. And he is quite vocal about it. “I’m not defending Trump. As an American, I mean it,” said Carlson back in June. Context for that failure to defend came from Carlson’s exasperation with the Russia collusion story. Even though Robert S. Mueller III had been appointed special counsel just a few weeks earlier, Carlson suggested that the whole affair had ground on for too long. “We’ve got as precisely as much proof right now that President Trump committed treason as we had seven months ago when all of this started,” he said.

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And so Carlson blasted all the folks whom he holds responsible for feeding the collusion story: Former FBI director James B. Comey, for leaking notes of a meeting with Trump; the media, for being the media; Democrats, for driving the collusion “story line.” They’re all culpable, he argued, for a story that wasn’t panning out — at least not on the Carlson timeline.

Note the one thing that these culpable parties carry in common. They’re all top-of-the-list antagonists of President Trump, as we learn from his Twitter account, his random media appearances, and so on. As he whacks away at these folks, Carlson doubtless understands that he opens himself to the charge that he’s doing the bidding of Trump.

And he cannot possibly allow that impression to prevail. Hence the I’m-not-defending construction. It’s a staple of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” as the chart below chronicles:

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Person(s) or thing(s) that Tucker Carlson absolutely will not defend Quote Context The Skinny
The federal response to devastation in Puerto Rico “Look, I’m not defending the federal response to anything. I would never do that. I always assume it is going to be lame and late, though, by the way, DOD and FEMA were there before the storm.” (Oct. 19) Argument with Evangeline Gomez, who’d argued the federal government’s response was plagued by racism. It’s about time someone stuck it to Evangeline Gomez.
White House immigration hard-liners like (now-former aide) Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller “I’m not here to defend them, but …” (Feb. 13) A debate with immigration attorney David Leopold in which Carlson expressed worry about efforts by the Mexican government to help people fight deportation from the United States. Tucker Carlson sticking up for immigration tough guys? Who would have thought?
Christopher Columbus “I’m not defending Columbus. I don’t need to, he’s not a relative of mine, he’s been dead for 500 years. I just want …” (Oct. 9) The annual tradition of pointing out Columbus’s barbarity on the occasion of his holiday. The Great Explorers drive down wages for American workers.
President Trump “Look, I’m not defending Trump. I disagree with what he did today. But …” (Sept. 14) Trump in September negotiated with Democratic leaders to protect undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. Though Carlson actually disagreed with Trump on this one, he used his first programming block to hammer away at … Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio).
White supremacy “I’m not defending white supremacy. I don’t believe it in. I don’t approve of it.” (Aug. 18) A free expression debate: Should Web-hosting companies do business with a racist site like the Daily Stormer? Though Carlson may not approve of white supremacy, a constituency of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” surely does.
The Internet “I’m not defending the creepiness on the Internet. I hate it just like you do.” (Aug. 22) Debate with civil rights attorney Brian Claypool about countermeasures against hate speech on the Internet. In his former job at the Daily Caller, Carlson promoted creepiness on the Internet. And in email, too. He’s right, however, on the dangers of censorship.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s description of MS-13 gang as a “cartel” “It’s not my job to defend the attorney general’s description, but …” (May 2) A debate with an analyst who felt that Sessions’s description was imprecise. Descriptions notwithstanding, Carlson does an excellent job of highlighting violent crime by Latinos.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “I’m not here to defend Putin.” (May 3) In a chat with Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Carlson argued that James Comey had a much bigger impact on the 2016 presidential election than did Putin. “There actually is no … evidence that’s been made public that Putin had any effect on this election.” Intelligence community document, January 2017: “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.”
Bernie Sanders “Look, I’m not defending Bernie Sanders’s silly socialism at all. But …” (Sept. 5) Debate with Democratic strategist Richard Goodstein regarding Hillary Clinton’s contention in “What Happened” that Sanders’s primary challenge damaged her presidential campaign and that some of his supporters were sexist. Tucker Carlson defends only Bernie Sanders’s earnest socialism.
Paul Manafort “I’m not defending Paul Manafort, by the way, whom I don’t know and, you know, I’m not carrying water for Paul Manafort, that’s for sure. However …” (Sept. 19) News broke that the feds were surveilling Manafort. Does that lend credence to Trump’s March tweet that President Barack Obama had “my ‘wires tapped’ ”? Plus: Paul Manafort already has a defense lawyer.
President Trump “I’m not defending Trump. As an American, I mean it.” (June 8) Carlson tired of seeing the Russia collusion story continue to putter along without any hard evidence of wrongdoing. No, Carlson wasn’t defending Trump. He was just echoing his favorite talking point on Russia.
Republicans “I’m not here to defend Republicans. But …” (June 8) Part of the same debate as in the item above. Why defend Republicans when you can attack Democrats?
The Trump people “I mean, I’m like, not defending the Trump people or making a partisan point. I’m making a point as an American.” (May 25) A discussion with a former CIA officer deploring leaks and leakers following the Manchester terrorist attack in Britain. “Why can’t the identity of these people be rooted out?” asked Carlson. Carlson: always fearsome when arguing as an American.
@realDonaldTrump “I’m not defending the president’s tweets. I don’t think he ought to be tweeting, at all.” (June 5) A backlash against Trump for his tweets in the aftermath of a June terrorist attack in London. Assuming those misgivings about Trump’s Twitter use are genuine, Carlson managed to overlook them long enough to attack the people who complained about the president’s tweets, even though Carlson, too, believes he shouldn’t be tweeting.
A budget proposal “I don’t want to be in the position of defending the budget that I don’t like in a lot of ways. But …” (May 31) Dwayne Royster, political director of the Pico National Network, had said of the Trump budget: “This budget [is] an attempt to implement ethnic cleansing in this nation from people of color, but also, poor white folk for whom the services being caught will be impacted the most.” Choice: 1) Lay out concerns about budget; 2) Lambast Dwayne Royster. Let’s go with No. 2!
Michael Flynn, former national security adviser “You know, I’m not here to defend Mike Flynn, who I think should not have been taking money from the Turkish government.” (April 4) A much-discussed clash with foreign policy guru Max Boot about the Russia investigation, of which Flynn is a key player. Carlson, meanwhile, focused on the activities of a previous national security adviser, Obama appointee Susan Rice. Hmmm, whom to bash — the Trump appointee or the Obama appointee?
The “Access Hollywood” tape “President Trump said what he said on the tape. I’m not defending it, but …” (March 14) The tape was leaked from NBC to The Washington Post, and Carlson was mad about that. “As far as we can tell, NBC News has never conducted a meaningful internal investigation into how that tape wound up at The Washington Post.” Trump apologist rule: Deploring leaks > talking about Trump’s boast of “grabbing” women by the you-know-what.
President-elect Trump’s tweet comparing the intelligence agencies to “Nazi Germany” “I am not defending that and I would never defend that. I hated that quote. … My only point is …” (March 6) In a debate with Democratic Rep. Jim Himes (Conn.), Carlson presented his concerns that the “intelligence agencies” were “spying” on the Trump campaign. My only point is: How much longer can I keep distracting people from the day’s headlines?
Gary Cohn, Goldman Sachs executive who interviewed for — and later secured — an appointment in the Trump White House “I’m not here to defend Gary Cohn, whom I don’t know or … Goldman Sachs.” (Dec. 5) A debate with an American University student involved in a “Dump Trump, Fire Cohn” campaign. “We’re doing our best to understand,” Carlson told the student at the end of the segment. Right: Condescending to an anti-Cohn student activist is not defending Cohn.
Michael Flynn, former national security adviser “Look, I’m not here to defend what Flynn did, because like you, I’m not really sure what Flynn did. … But …” (Feb. 14) In debate with Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego (Ariz.) over Flynn’s firing for allegedly lying to Vice President Pence about his discussions with a Russian official, Carlson expressed outrage that Flynn’s contacts were leaked to the media. At one point, Carlson worked as a journalist.
Stephen K. Bannon, then-chief strategist for President Trump “Far be it for me to defend Bannon.” (Feb. 8) USA Today published an opinion piece stating that Bannon and the leader of the Islamic State “both harbor apocalyptic visions of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.” Xenophobe pulling strings in the White House? Yawn. USA Today making a controversial connection in an editorial? Scramble the Carlson jets!

“I’m not defending” appears to be a distinguishing feature of Carlson’s show on Fox News. A Nexis search for “not defend!” turns up more than 50 results over the past year for “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Carlson’s cable peers, such as Fox News’s Sean Hannity and MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, rarely or never employed this language over the same time period.

The mantra continues a dubious tradition during the 8 p.m. prime-time hour on Fox News. Bill O’Reilly, the previous occupant of this table-setting slot, hoodwinked his audience by making showy nods to evenhandedness, even as his selection of topics, guests and talking points pointed in a decidedly ideological direction. Though he rarely used the same “not defending” framework, O’Reilly issued assurances about the “no spin zone” and his straight-talking ways, just in case viewers got the notion that he was tilting things. He was fair and balanced because he said so.

One year into his primetime career at Fox News, Carlson has proven himself a wilier type. Again and again, the host returns to a formula in which he blasts away at someone who’s more often than not a left-leaning figure of marginal name recognition. There’s generally something quite specific that Carlson and his crew have identified about these guests. Perhaps one of them, in their view, overreached in characterizing the federal response to the disaster in Puerto Rico; perhaps one of them, in their view, wasn’t sufficiently critical of a Latino gang; perhaps one of them, in their view, merely wrote something stupid. With these nits in hand, Carlson proceeds to build entire segments around the shortcomings of these folks, who are commonly critics of the Trump administration.

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At some point in the midst of ridiculing these targets, Carlson is careful to position himself in the middle of the road, and that’s where “I’m not defending” comes into play. Asked about the tactic, Carlson told the Erik Wemple Blog last week in a wide-ranging interview: “Let me say generally that we don’t talk about Trump, or I try not to talk about Trump very much at all, both because I think Trump is over-covered, but also because I think a lot of the debates that we’re having, the meaningful ones, aren’t about Trump at all.”

“I don’t think the Trump election was about Trump at all,” Carlson said. “And I think there are much bigger questions out there, and I don’t have the answers to all of them.”

More: “I just, I’m asking really simple questions about what people believe and the implications of what they believe. And I don’t know why more people aren’t doing it.” When pressed on his dedication to the anti-anti-Trump cause, Carlson responded, “It’s not all about Trump. Now I know, at your paper, everything is about Trump and like there’s some prize in store for the reporter who catches him in the 10,000th lie or something.

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“I mean, that’s how you guys see the world. That’s fine. I’m not — you know, go crazy — but I’m not interested in that.”

Now, Carlson has been not-defending Trump and Manafort and Flynn and the rest of the crew for quite some time. In November 2016, he took over the slot formerly occupied by Greta Van Susteren and has bounced around the prime-time schedule since then. Hundreds of hours of programming, in other words, and many refusals to defend the White House. Given such circumstances, you might suppose that the host would dedicate a segment or two to blasting the fellows that he’s so determined not to defend. We’re waiting.

Deflecting from the depravity of Team Trump by finding fault with those who oppose it — it’s not a strategy or a tactic or a ploy. Rather, it has developed into a worldview articulated in TV format by Fox News and echoed in other conservative media precincts as well. Writing in the New Republic in January, Jeet Heer noted how National Review moved from writing stolid anti-Trump essays during the campaign to more of an anti-anti-Trump posture once the president took office. “National Review kind of likes what Trump wants to do, though they might have doubts about the execution. They also know what they don’t like: Liberals criticizing a Republican president,” wrote Heer.

That’s precisely what Carlson cannot abide and will not defend.

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