When President Trump fired James B. Comey, the news surprised just about everybody — including the FBI director himself, who reportedly saw the news on TV screens while addressing bureau employees in Los Angeles.
So the early moments of Tuesday’s live coverage were, understandably, a little rough around the edges.
On Fox News, a banner falsely announced “James Comey Resigns.”
On MSNBC, even the quick-on-his-feet Chuck Todd looked flummoxed at first: “All I can say is ‘wow.’
But over on CNN, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin soon was firing on all cylinders. Wolf Blitzer broke the news and intoned that this was “an extraordinary moment in American history.”
Toobin shot back: “You bet it is, Wolf, and it is a grotesque abuse of power by the president of the United States.”
Before viewers could pick their jaws up off the floor, he barreled on: “This is the kind of thing that goes on in non-democracies.”
Then, referring to the FBI’s investigation of Russian ties to Trump associates: “They will put in a stooge who will shut down this investigation.”
Without need for a Google search, Toobin reached back for historical context: He hadn’t seen anything like this since 1973, when President Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. That, he noted, was a key factor leading to Nixon’s resignation.
Toobin was critical, knowledgeable and sure-footed. For once, CNN’s pundit-heavy staff was paying off instead of embarrassing itself.
Toobin’s passion inspired some in the meta-commentariat to poke fun. “Jeff Toobin goes falsetto,” tweeted Politico’s Jack Shafer.
And the conservative NewsBusters site wagged a reproving finger: “His attitude and demeanor were over the top,” tut-tutted Nicholas Fondacaro in a piece titled, “CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin Loses His Mind Over Comey Being Fired.”
As the evening wore on, TV news people began to settle into it. Fox’s Bret Baier delivered a fair-minded 6:30 report — solid except for his unintentionally comical explanation of the visual awaiting the arrival of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.): “You see an empty podium and whenever you see that, we have nothing to show you.”
CBS’s Scott Pelley twice referred to Comey as someone with a reputation for integrity. NBC’s Lester Holt leaned heavily — and wisely — on Justice correspondent Pete Williams’s expertise.
Some traditionally print outlets took a serious tone from the start. John Cassidy’s New Yorker commentary, posted Tuesday night, concluded: “Trump is a menace. He must be stopped.” The New York Times and The Washington Post were preparing powerful Wednesday front pages with extensive packages of reporting and analysis.
But back on cable, CNN had brought in Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway — perhaps the most annoying dissembler of our time — who cast precisely zero new light on the subject.
Before long, Anderson Cooper and a panel of eight were doing the cable news thing: Talking and talking, turning the subject this way and that like a newly dug-up fossil, without adding much new information or insight.
That’s what made Toobin’s commentary, by contrast, so compelling. As a former federal prosecutor, an author, and a legal writer for the New Yorker magazine, he has significant expertise and actual knowledge.
And as a regular analyst for CNN, Toobin knows how to talk for TV.
In memorable phrases: “Transparently bogus,” was how he reacted to a claim by some Republican senators that the FBI’s Russia investigation would simply proceed apace without any real problem.
In direct statements, like this one on Comey: “He was fired because he was investigating the White House.”
And in characterizations that pulled no punches: He called Trump’s announcement a “ridiculous letter,” and then referred to a “crazy paragraph” in which the president thanked Comey for assuring him, on three separate occasions, that he was not under investigation.
Well, maybe some of it was a little over the top. But at a surreal moment, when much of live TV was stuttering and stumbling, Toobin’s voice was both authoritative and riveting.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan