The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the president’s favorite news network covered his impeachment

Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio in New York. (Richard Drew/AP)
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The news network that incubated Donald Trump’s political rise and celebrated his presidency chronicled his impeachment on Wednesday. It was a sunrise-to-midnight slog that left Fox News’s top pundits outraged by what they perceived as the unfairness of the process, and — by the end of the long day — saw them pivoting to celebrate it as fuel for his reelection campaign.

Impeachment, as a news story, had been partly fueled by some of those pundits who used their shows to ruminate on conspiracy theories about Ukraine that the president latched onto. Sean Hannity regularly fanned those flames. But impeachment has also highlighted the reporting of the journalists at Fox News, who strain for credibility in an era when their network has been transformed by the obsessive attention of the president.

More people watch Fox News for impeachment coverage than any other cable news network, and Wednesday was no different. It has long been the highest-rated cable news network in the country, and on impeachment day, its ratings outstripped even broadcast networks ABC and CBS, according to Nielsen. In some ways, covering Trump’s impeachment would be the network’s ultimate stress test.

The day began at 6 a.m. with the energetic hosts of “Fox & Friends” arrayed on their customary sofa, from which they interviewed no less than six elected Republicans, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham and zero Democrats.

All the guests agreed that voting to impeach the president would be bad, very bad: a partisan attack on the president, if not a “War on Democracy,” as a chyron suggested, quoting a letter Trump had sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the day before.

No one discussed in any detail the government officials and White House aides whose testimony before House committees forms the basis of the two impeachment articles, alleging Trump abused his office by trying to bribe the president of Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and by trying to obstruct Congress by refusing to cooperate with Democrats’ investigation of the scandal.

“This is literally an impeachment about nothing,” “Fox & Friends” weekend co-host Pete Hegseth said. “The powerful split screen of today will be Nancy Pelosi gaveling with her Trump Derangement Syndrome-elite caucus there, thinking they’re going after President Trump, and he goes to Michigan and holds a Merry Christmas rally with tens of thousands of people.”

He was referring to Trump’s scheduled rally in Battle Creek, Mich. — scheduled weeks before the impeachment vote was set but fortuitously due to begin that evening about the same time the House would be voting on impeachment. The split-screen moment — discussed repeatedly by Fox personalities throughout the day — highlights how much the president’s preoccupation with his televised image has infused even the most consequential events of his presidency.

As the morning wore on, with House Republicans stalling the impeachment proceedings for several hours with a series of tactical votes, Fox News filled the time with political anchors interviewing talking heads, interspersed with commercial breaks for Ensure Original, a creationist museum in Kentucky and mail-order steaks.

The impeachment vote felt like a funeral. But what died?

Democrats had no case, contended Kenneth W. Starr, who led the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying to a grand jury about his affair with a White House intern. Chris Wallace contended that the polls looked good for Trump.

“If there is no reasonable possibility that the Senate won’t convict and remove the president, then the House should not be impeaching the president in the first place,” said Fox commentator Andy McCarthy, squeezed into the top-right quadrant of a split screen that also showed live footage of the inactive House floor and a placeholder photo of Trump.

“So well stated. Thank you!” Trump replied to McCarthy several minutes later in a tweet.

Bill Hemmer, the co-host of Fox News’s late-morning news program and replacement for frequent Trump critic Shep Smith, who left the network in October, interviewed Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), one of the few impeachment supporters to appear on the network that day.

“Do you believe your political career is over after this vote?” Hemmer asked her.

Slotkin replied that she’d rather look herself in the mirror. Fox soon cut to an ad of former White House aide Sebastian Gorka hawking fish-oil supplement.

Shortly after noon, Pelosi stood on the House floor beside an A-frame sign of an American flag and finally commenced the debate. For the next several hours, Fox News largely ceded its coverage to live footage of the third impeachment in American history.

“Maxine Waters getting a bit feisty there on the floor,” host Dana Perino said after the California Democrat drew applause for a speech assailing Trump. “And there was clapping! There’s not supposed to be clapping.”

“When you look at these folks, especially their fashion sense, it’s embarrassing,” added her co-host Greg Gutfeld. “It makes me sick to my stomach!”

Fox News nevertheless aired nearly all of the hundreds of floor speeches on the coming vote — until shortly after 8 p.m., when a bored-looking Tucker Carlson interrupted remarks by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.).

“That’s enough of that for right now,” Carlson said, and proceeded to interview Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who remarked: “This is how you make a coup attempt extremely boring.”

Trump’s long-anticipated “Merry Christmas” rally was underway by then — a muffled shouting in the bottom-right quadrant of the split screen.

“It doesn’t really feel like we are being impeached,” Trump told the roaring crowd.

“As you just heard him say,” Carlson agreed from the Fox News studio, “it doesn’t really feel like it’s happening.”

But it was happening — even as Carlson, who had in 1998 defended Republicans’ impeachment of Clinton as a moral stand, dismissed the 2019 version as “propaganda.”

“They have the votes,” he deadpanned as the vote ticked over and impeachment became official shortly before 8:30 p.m. “There it is right there.”

Carlson interviewed Perino and Bret Baier, Fox’s chief political anchor, about the story, which Carlson has said is unimportant.

And then it was on to the other acerbic opinion hosts who dominate Fox’s evening lineup. “This is not just about President Trump, this is about you,” Hannity said. “You, we, we. We smelly, Walmart-shopping Trump supporters, who cling to our God, our Constitution, and our Bibles.”

As impeachment day rolled into post-impeachment night, Hannity interviewed three more congressional Republicans; and Laura Ingraham called Pelosi an angry “grandma,” and all the while Trump rallied in Michigan, railing against his enemies — from his dedicated corner of the screen.

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