President Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Media critic

In April 2018, HBO comedian Bill Maher embarrassed Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera. The issue was Rivera’s pal of 40 years — President Trump. When Maher pressed Rivera on Trump’s plain-as-day excesses and lies and outrages, Rivera retreated to his elitist harbor: “I’ve known Trump for 40 years. ... I can separate the man who has always been gracious to me, always been nice to my family — you know we were on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ together every day for six weeks — I’ve known him, really ....”

Who cares, responded Maher. “He’s running the world, what does that matter that he was nice to you at Thanksgiving?” Later in the discussion, Maher drilled his guest on Trump’s lies. “He has never lied to me in 40 years,” said Rivera. Maher attempted to enlighten the Fox News personality — a person can be great to a celebrity and not as great to the rest of the world.

It’s a lesson that Rivera appears to be internalizing years after Trump launched his racist evisceration of national political norms. “Once you make nationhood and citizenship like that conditional on your political loyalties, you run a very dangerous path there,” Rivera last week told his colleagues on “Fox & Friends” regarding the story of the week: Trump’s “go back” instructions to four nonwhite Democratic congresswomen.

In an interview with the New York Times, he said more:

For some who defended Mr. Trump against charges of racism in the past, this was a turning point. “As much as I have denied it and averted my eyes from it, this latest incident made it impossible,” Geraldo Rivera, a roaming correspondent at large for Fox News and longtime friend, said in an interview.

“My friendship with the president has cost me friendships, it has cost me schisms in the family, my wife and I are constantly at odds about the president,” he added. “I do insist that he’s been treated unfairly. But the unmistakable words, the literal words he said, is an indication that the critics were much more right than I.”

Those words were delivered in a New York Times story dated July 20, 2019. They could have been delivered, however, in June 2015 (Mexican rapists), December 2015 (Muslim ban proposal), June 2016 (Judge Gonzalo Curiel), August 2017 (Charlottesville), and so on. Which is to say, Rivera’s defense is no defense at all.

That Trump’s clear-as-day racism is causing discomfort and dissonance at Fox News also emerged Sunday from “Fox News Sunday,” the must-watch show anchored by Chris Wallace. In dealing with the enduring topic of Trump’s attacks on Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Wallace asked Lisa Boothe, a Fox News contributor, to ignore the political analysis and deliver a moral judgment on the president’s “go back” imperative. Check out this transcript:

WALLACE: I want to talk to Lisa about this. There was a lot of talk this week about whether or not this was politically smart, which it seems to me misses the real point, and that is, was this wrong? Was it over the line to say "go back where you came from"?

LISA BOOTHE, CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I wouldn’t defend, necessarily, the tweet that he sent out but I would also point out there’s been a lot of comparisons made to the late Senator John McCain when he did shut down hecklers who called President Obama an — then-candidate Obama an Arab. But you have still Representative John Lewis then compare them to George Wallace and, you know, basically fostering an environment of hate when we saw 1963, white supremacist bombed a church.

WALLACE: Let's try to stick to Donald Trump and what he did this week.

BOOTHE: The point is, Chris, is that's the environment that we operate in where you've seen for a long time the left weaponize these words of racism or sexism against their political opponents.

We also saw that with Mitt Romney —

(CROSSTALK)

WALLACE: But you’re not answer[ing] my question, which is, was it wrong for the president to say send them back to the country they go — why don’t you go back to the country from which you came? Was that wrong?

BOOTHE: But I'm a political analyst, Chris, that's not my job to say it was wrong or not.

WALLACE: So, you don't have a view?

BOOTHE: Ask his — ask his White House and his campaign. It’s my job to analyze the optics and the politics of this. And to Jonathan’s point, I would say, I think President Trump has good instincts in looking at the electorate. He may not have looked at that “Axios” report that you guys reported on, the poll that shows that these four members of Congress, particularly Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Omar absolutely toxic with key groups of voters.

But he has political instincts, and we’d seen him set up and tee off 2020 as the left is anti-American, they are socialist, they are way too far extreme for America, and that’s the direction they want to go in. And if you want to elevate four people to make that point, these four women meet those descriptions.

Fox News doesn’t have an ombudsperson — and almost certainly never will. No problem, because Wallace has a knack for filling that void. The veteran newsman clearly recognized that much of the chatter on his own network related to the political prudence of attacking these women of color. Oh, this is Trump’s strategy! He’s making them the face of the Democratic Partysmart! How will Nancy Pelosi handle the situation?

Such an optical focus is a comfy refuge for Trump apologists, because it moves the discussion to Trump’s alleged political genius, the way he understands the country, the common people and the red, white and blue. But just behold the worry on Boothe’s face when she’s confronted with a simple question of right or wrong.

And the idea that her job is to merely address optics may come as a shock to the studio audience that attended the July 14 edition of “The Next Revolution,” a Sunday-night Fox News program hosted by Steve Hilton. The program invited two lawmakers — Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda (Calif.) and Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) — to discuss immigration. Boothe used the opportunity to lecture Rouda and his party leadership about substance:

BOOTHE: But here’s the thing, we have a lot of people that are coming here saying that they have a credible fear, but they don’t and ultimately, their cases are rejected in immigration court because they’re actually coming here for economic reasons and not because they actually have a credible fear.

So those individuals who have been denied in court should of course be deported because they came here seeking asylum under false pretenses. But I think the bigger problem is, unfortunately, in your party, particularly your party leaders have been completely inept in dealing with this crisis.

(Cheering and Applause)

Because for the longest time, you have Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer telling us that this was a manufactured crisis from President Trump, and now what they’re doing is demagoguing the people on the front lines dealing with this crisis.

Your House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler just recently accused immigration officials of negligent homicide. So this demagoguing does not help.

(Cheering and Applause)

And instead of offering solutions, what have we heard? Decriminalizing border crossings, free healthcare to illegal immigrants. You have Congresswoman Escobar who has been accused by immigration officials of her staff coaching migrants of how to lie to immigration officials.

So I’m not accusing you of this, but many people in your party, particularly the leader, have been completely inept.

On the Friday edition of the roundtable program “The Five,” there was Boothe, again, digging into non-optics. In this instance, she was ripping the media for allegedly un-American coverage of space exploration. Let her explain:

BOOTHE: Welcome back. Well, some in the media are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by bashing America. The New York Times is actually praising the Soviet Union for equality and diversity in the space race. The Times patting the Soviets on the back for beating the U.S. by sending the first man, first woman, first Asian man, and black man into orbit. The Washington Post also joining in by tweeting, the culture that put man on the moon was intense for fun — or intense fun, family unfriendly, and mostly white and male. Juan [Williams], I’m going to start with you on this. You look at the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon, it’s the epitome of American greatness. So why use this moment to denigrate it to, you know, racist and sexist?

Surely, Boothe was scolded by her superiors for stepping outside of her optics-only job description.

Read more:

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