Bill Clinton hasn’t been president for nearly two decades, and Hillary Clinton has led a mostly low-profile existence since her presidential campaign ended in 2016.
But you might be confused if you were paying close attention to Fox News or other conservative media outlets in the past few days.
As the Stormy Daniels saga peaked Sunday night with a lengthy interview on "60 Minutes” about the extramarital tryst she says she had with President Trump in 2006, conservative media deflected attention from the scandal by propping up a well-worn target instead: Bill Clinton and the sexual misconduct allegations that have dogged him for many years.
Call it the “But Bill Clinton …” defense. It is not clear when it began, but as the Daniels story — with an estimated 22.1 million viewers, higher viewership than the Grammys and the Golden Globes — continued to occupy the news cycles on Monday, the finger-pointing began to perk up on conservative media sites.
The Daily Wire was one of the first to go back into history, dredging up media coverage of the Monica Lewinsky affair from the 1990s in a piece meant to highlight the supposed hypocrisy of the “MSM” —mainstream media — for its coverage of the Stormy Daniels affair.
“MSM Deemed Clinton-Lewinsky Affair Nothing More Than Consensual Sex,” blared the headline.
The Drudge Report featured the item on its front page for much of the day, as well as a 1998 New York Times opinion piece by Janna Malamud Smith, who wrote that “publicly humiliating anyone for consensual adultery is draconian, and wrong.”
Syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh weighed in Monday, as well, in a look that cited a 1998 story about the Lewinsky affair in the New Republic, what he called a “left-wing journal of opinion.”
“So during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the drive-bys were out there saying, 'It’s nobody’s business! It’s just sex. It didn’t get in the way of him leading, didn’t get in the way of him doing his job. Hillary Clinton didn’t care about it; so it’s none of our business,' " Limbaugh said. “Has anybody heard anything like that involving Trump?”
The Hill published an opinion piece written by Monica Crowley — whom Trump had tapped for a National Security Council post before a plagiarism scandal got in the way — that argued that Clinton was a “pathbreaker in changing social views on such matters,” making the public less likely to care about the personal indiscretions of its leaders.
“And consensual extramarital affairs between adults no longer pack the same political punch, particularly when they involve a guy who never posed as a saint and a porn star with hush money, an NDA and a lawsuit,” wrote Crowley, who now works for a pro-Trump think tank.
On Fox News, Howard Kurtz, one of the network's main media reporters, said that Bill Clinton’s actions were “far worse.”
This anti-Clinton fervor peaked by the time Sean Hannity, one of the most reliably pro-Trump commentators on television, began his nightly show. Hannity dedicated a significant portion of his airtime to rehashing the decades-old accusations against Clinton, lambasting “liberal” media for its coverage of those issues more than 20 years ago and defending Trump’s “alleged consensual encounter.”
“But it's very clear the mainstream media shrouds itself in moral superiority in order to just slam Donald Trump, but then gets down in the gutter to defend all things Clinton,” Hannity said on the segment, which featured two Clinton accusers, Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick, as well as Crowley and conservative commentator Michelle Malkin. “You know, when it comes to Bill Clinton, okay, they're not going to fixate on any of it, but every detail of an alleged consensual relationship as it relates to Donald Trump over a decade ago. Journalism is dead, and every day gets very deeper and deeper.”
On Tuesday morning, “Fox & Friends,” which is believed to be one of Trump’s most regularly watched shows, also sought to downplay the Daniels scandal, with one host arguing that Bill Clinton’s actions had been “forgotten.”
Data from the TV Archive Project shows that the network lagged behind CNN and MSNBC in the volume of coverage given to Daniels, while its mentions of “Hillary Clinton” spiked, despite the absence of any significant news about Clinton.
The focus on Bill Clinton absent any significant news mirrors a similar response in conservative media after the October 2016 release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump was heard bragging in 2005 about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women. At that time, Trump-aligned media outlets such as Breitbart, Fox News, and Infowars, began focusing on Clinton’s indiscretions. That coverage culminated with Trump’s invitation of three accusers, including Jones, Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, to one of the pre-election debates with Hillary Clinton.
“I think it is perfectly smart for Trump supporters to bring up the Clinton allegation to put the current news in context,” said Brian Stelter, a media correspondent at CNN who noted the trend in his daily newsletter. “Where it goes awry is when Clinton stories are used as a complete distraction in order to avoid talking about Trump at all.”
Stelter said that he thinks Hannity “talks about Clinton to avoid talking about Trump,” noting that the host's fixation on the Clintons has been a bit of a running joke since Trump's election.
“There is something unique about the conservative media ecosystem that people like Sean Hannity frequently go back to the '90s,” he said. “Hannity’s show feels like it’s coming from a time capsule.”
Clarification, March 30: The story was updated to delete an ambiguous statement that the Daily Caller contributed "little coverage" of Stormy Daniels after her "60 Minutes" interview. Although the Daily Caller's homepage did not contain much coverage of Daniels's interview Tuesday when the article was written, it had previously published other stories about the claims she made on the program.