Yes, we can tell. Those “reactions to things" have made Carlson a star of cable news. Though viewers know exactly what fellow Fox News prime-timer Sean Hannity will say every night — and still his fans never miss him — Carlson zigs and zags just enough to sidestep characterization as a party-line dogmatist. One moment, he’ll shock the Fox News crowd with a rebuke of President Trump for going soft on immigration; the next, he’ll praise the economic message of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); he’ll attack every elite in the country, as he did to cheers at the December 2018 Turning Point USA Student Action Summit:
Last Thursday night, Carlson was again exerting his attention-getting muscles. In a Daily Caller opinion piece, Carlson and Neil Patel — co-founders of the Daily Caller — ripped the idea of impeaching Trump. “The president did not, as was first reported, offer a quid pro quo to the Ukrainians,” wrote the duo. “He did not condition any U.S. support on a Biden investigation. The Justice Department has already looked at the totality of the call and determined that Trump did not break the law.”
Such sentiments wouldn’t surprise viewers of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” who’ve heard the host diminish the movement toward impeachment.
Yet Carlson and Patel opened their op-ed with this admission: “Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden,” wrote the authors. “Some Republicans are trying, but there’s no way to spin this as a good idea. Like a lot of things Trump does, it was pretty over-the-top.”
“This is a pretty transparent effort to provide a roadmap for Republicans looking for a way to publicly condemn Trump’s actions but still oppose impeachment,” noted CNN’s Abby Phillip. “Their argument is: what Trump did is bad and corrupt but we are so close to the election that voters should decide.” Other outlets picked up on the break from Trumpian orthodoxy.
Not to mention the break from “Tucker Carlson Tonight” orthodoxy.
The very night that the Daily Caller published the op-ed, for example, Carlson on Fox News described the Ukraine affair as the work of disaffected operatives in the intelligence community:
Day after day, [Trump] gave the finger to the permanent Washington establishment, often on Twitter, sometimes at press conferences, but always with unmistakable relish. Trump acted like a man who’d won an election in a democratic country. He seemed to feel free to say exactly what he really thought. He didn’t appear to believe that the intelligence agencies had veto power over his agenda. In a thousand different ways, the new president refused to bow, and for that crime, more than any other crime, he was punished, most recently by the manufactured Ukraine scandal.
Please try to square these two thoughts: “There’s no way to spin” the Ukraine scandal; the Ukraine scandal is “manufactured.”
The next night, Carlson opened his program with these remarks: “We’re nearing the end of our second full week of total saturation Ukraine coverage — that means every channel, every hour of the day,” said the host. “So at this point, you’d think it would be obvious what exactly the fuss is about. After this much talking, you would assume every person in America would understand what crimes Donald Trump is being accused of committing. But no, even now, the story still feels obscure and strangely light.”
Please try to square these two thoughts: “There’s no way to spin” the Ukraine scandal; the Ukraine scandal “feels obscure and strangely light.”
Scrolling back a bit, on the Sept. 30 edition of his show, Carlson blasted Democrats for citing national security concerns stemming from Trump’s handling of the Ukraine situation. Carlson appeared miffed that the information about Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had even reached the public realm: “Another thing that puts our national security at risk for real is when you make it impossible for the president, any president, to have private conversations with his counterparts in other countries, with other foreign leaders,” said Carlson. The host pursued a similar line of argument in February 2017, when he complained that the intelligence community was listening to the conversations of fired national security adviser Michael Flynn with the Russians. “If you do not have any privacy from the U.S. government spying on you, like, things fall apart,” he said.
After the complaint of the CIA whistleblower surfaced, Carlson deflected and minimized the president’s actions: “You think the next time a Democrat is elected president — and it will happen — the Democrats will be comfortable with the standard they have set? That if some unelected intel agency guy doesn’t like their foreign policy, he can destroy their administration,” said Carlson on Sept. 26. Later in that program, he did an entire segment dissing the whistleblower himself.
On Sept. 24, Carlson listed all the real problems facing the country, including debt, the scourge of all-powerful tech companies, “basically an open border” with Mexico and so on. “But instead of trying to fix any of that, Democrats want to spend the next year explaining — and they plan to — explaining why it was perfectly fair for Joe Biden’s ne’er-do-well son to get 600 grand a year from Ukrainian oligarchs. That’s totally fine. But it’s somehow criminal for Donald Trump to ask about that. That’s the message,” said Carlson.
The contradictions suggest the low esteem in which Carlson holds his own television audience. “The things that he’s saying on the Daily Caller and the things that he’s saying on television are mutually exclusive — there’s no question about it,” says Madeline Peltz, a close watcher of Carlson at Media Matters for America. In segment after segment, Carlson has told his viewers that the Ukraine crisis is “manufactured,” impugned the integrity of those who brought it to light, and attacked those who are taking it seriously. Then, on another platform, he professes that there’s no way to “spin” it. He should know; he has given it his best shot.