On Fox News Wednesday night, hosting the show he took over following Greta Van Susteren's abrupt departure, Brit Hume validated “questions from some viewers” about a sexual assault allegation against Donald Trump.
How could Trump possibly have put his hands “all over” Jessica Leeds on a first-class flight in the 1980s, as she claimed in the New York Times, “when there's an armrest between the two seats?” Hume and his curious viewers wondered.
“The kinds of armrests that I'm accustomed to seeing in those airplanes don't mysteriously disappear,” Hume said. “It could be,” he added a moment later, “that the Trump camp has a point about the impracticability of such an assault.”
Or it could be that Hume was peddling the lamest excuse ever concocted, in defense of a candidate Fox News has increasingly coddled — to the point of ridiculousness.
Fox News reporters and commentators were often tough on Trump during the Republican primary, at one point prompting the real estate tycoon to briefly boycott the network in frustration. Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace earned praise — even from liberal journalists — for their hard questions and follow-ups during three GOP debates.
They and others, including Shepard Smith, have continued to scrutinize Trump in the general election. And there is little reason to think Wallace will be anything but fair and firm (you thought I was going to say balanced, didn't you?) when he moderates the final debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton next week.
But some of the network's programming has recently veered into an alternate universe where facts and logic don't matter. The idea that an armrest could prevent, or even pose a significant obstacle, to nonconsensual groping is so absurd as to be insulting to voters' intelligence.
The nonsense does not stop there. Last Friday, hours after The Washington Post published a video from 2005 in which Trump brags to TV host Billy Bush about being able to “do anything” to women because he is “a star,” Sean Hannity suggested the tape could actually help the Republican presidential nominee.
“I think we all agree what Trump says on this tape is wrong and inappropriate,” Hannity conceded. “But does it now open a door and a narrative that probably wasn't going to come prior to these tapes being released, and that is the Kathy Shelton issue that I just played, the Juanita Broaddrick issue, the Kathleen Willey issue, the Paula Jones issue, Hillary's enabling and smearing and slandering of these women? And does it help Trump or hurt Trump?”
It is one thing for Hannity to assert that Trump can overcome the video — that voters will see its publication as an agenda-driven attack by the liberal media and forgive the candidate for something he said 11 years ago. That's called analysis and, however optimistic it might be, it is at least a plausible scenario.
But only in a land of make-believe could a presidential candidate benefit from a recording in which he brags about kissing and groping women without consent.
On “Fox & Friends” Wednesday morning, Steve Doocy offered a fictional account of how the tape came out.
“NBC on Friday put out the Billy Bush bus tape,” Doocy told viewers. “Apparently they'd been sitting on it for months, and it happened years ago.”
As noted above, The Washington Post — not NBC — published the video. The Post made the footage public on the same day it learned of its existence.
Doocy's faux history feeds the Trump campaign narrative that the “biased media” timed the tape's publication for maximum impact. It is a theory that defies reason, even if you ignore who got the scoop. The Post published the video at 4 p.m. Eastern time on a Friday — a time usually recognized in the media as the “news dump” time when political campaigns and businesses make unfavorable announcements in hopes of burying them before the weekend. If anything, the tape's publication was poorly timed, though unavoidable.
It is true that NBC knew about the footage before it was leaked to The Post. There are conflicting reports about how long before; the network has said only a few days, but TMZ claims “at least two months.” In any case, Doocy conveniently ignored the possibility that a delay could have been more about protecting Bush, NBC's recently-named “Today” show co-host, than about hurting Trump.
Even Bill O'Reilly, who consistently challenges Trump in interviews, has lapsed into a kind of Trumpian paranoia. He claimed without evidence on Monday that “at least three” news outlets “have ordered their employees to destroy Trump.”
“I can't say who they are right now because I don't have it nailed down,” O'Reilly said. “But I am 100 percent convinced. And these media organizations have actually put out, 'If you support Trump, we're gonna — your career is done here.' And that's how intense it is. ... News organizations have sent — not officially — but through the, you know, corporate grapevine that, 'We don't want anybody supporting Trump.' "
So, to review, there are no official orders, and O'Reilly can't say which outlets — or even how many — have put out hits on Trump through the grapevine. There are so many qualifiers in O'Reilly's charge that it is practically devoid of substance and almost entirely composed of innuendo.
That kind of stuff isn't supposed to fly in the no-spin zone.