Fox News is infamous for ignoring inconvenient truths for Donald Trump and his Republican party. On Election Day 2017—one of the first truly consequential elections following the 2016 presidential—Trump booster Sean Hannity spent all of six primetime seconds on Democrats' convincing sweep in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Don't blink, viewers! Or how about last year when the FBI executed a search warrant on the premises of Trump's longtime lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen? While every actual news outlet in America was riveted by the unfolding drama, GOP everyman Tucker Carlson dazzled his viewers with a segment on aggressive, sex-crazed pandas.
But on Friday, as Trump lashed out at a seasoned U.S. diplomat in the midst of her sworn congressional testimony, Fox News was doing what every other actual news outlet in the nation was doing—covering the impeachment hearings. Trump's witness bullying was a bombshell most Fox anchors would have ignored on any other day. But because House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff stopped the hearing to read Trump's tweets and ask Yovanovitch if she wanted to respond, Trump's intimidation became part of a hearing Fox was already covering.
"This whole hearing turned on a dime when the president tweeted about her real time," noted Fox anchor Brett Baier. "That enabled Schiff to then characterize that tweet as intimidating the witness or tampering with the witness, which is a crime. Adding essentially an article of impeachment real time." In other words, Trump singlehandedly authored another article of impeachment. Wow, now that is some stunning straight talk on Fox.
Fox News analyst and former Clinton investigator Ken Starr told viewers Trump had clearly not been advised by counsel to send such a tweet. "Extraordinarily poor judgement," Starr remarked. "The president frequently says, 'I follow my instincts.' Sometimes we have to control our instincts, so obviously I think this is quite injurious." Nonetheless, Starr followed up with his personal conclusion that Trump's tweet didn't rise to the level of witness intimidation, but the damage was done. Just imagine, Trump watching real time in the White House residence as Fox News pundits questioned Dear Leader—he must have been fuming.
But as delightful as it is to imagine Trump in his jam jams hurling his diet coke can at the TV, what really matters is the healthy share of Fox News viewers taking in any objective criticism at all of their chief. At the end of this year’s 3rd quarter, Fox News logged its 71st consecutive quarter as the most-watched cable news network in total day and prime-time viewership, according to Nielsen Media Research, averaging about 1.4 million daytime viewers and some 2.4 million prime-time viewers. But Fox's impeachment viewership is dusting those numbers. Of the 13.1 million viewers who tuned into the first day of the impeachment hearings, Fox claimed the greatest share of them with 2.9 million followed by MSNBC with 2.7 million. But it's the Fox viewers who are being treated to a reality check that they barely ever get glimpse of.
"It's not just the size of the their audience," noted MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, who spent much of her career as a Republican spokesperson. "It's that those are the viewers largely represented by Republican senators who will likely be the jurors in a Senate trial."
In fact, even House Republicans seemed to understand that Trump's onslaught was playing badly to the live audience back home, and they spent a great deal of time falling all over themselves to praise Yovanovitch, in stark contrast to Trump. As a Politico lede observed, "Donald Trump is alone." Indeed not a single GOP lawmaker backed up Trump's smear and not a single one challenged Yovanovitch's version of events. Instead, they sought to paint her as largely irrelevant as a fact witness since she hadn't personally witnessed many of the central elements at issue in the impeachment probe.
But if House Republicans found Trump's conduct so repulsive they spent the next several hours doing clean-up, just imagine how the spectacle played to Senate Republicans, especially those in dicey reelection bids. Someone like Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner or Maine Sen. Susan Collins will live and die electorally based on how these hearings play to the suburbs in their states and whether that crucial slice of voters views them as independent from the president or inextricably linked to him.
Just to be clear: It's not that we're suddenly going to see a wholesale defection of Fox News viewers from Trump, it's that the outcome of 2020 will likely be decided at the margins and every shaved half point here or there could actually be decisive.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after the first day of hearings and concluding before the second day showed that 68% of Americans reported following the hearings, including 28% who watched or listened to them live, while another 25% said they were not paying attention to the proceedings. And although the first day of hearings hadn't moved the needle much at all on support for Trump's impeachment (44%) versus opposition to it (40%), it did suggest the hearings weren't playing great for Trump.
Among those paying attention, 41% said the hearings had made them “more supportive” of impeaching Trump, while 25% said they had made them “less supportive.”
Whether public opinion moves further in support or opposition of impeaching Trump or simply serves to reinforce people's pre-existing views remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: We have never witnessed a TV event like this in the hyper-polarized Trump presidency. And as expected, Trump and his impulses are his worst enemy. This week alone, Trump singlehandedly authored an article of impeachment, further alienated the very female voters he desperately needs to get reelected, and put GOP lawmakers on the Hill in a box. And these were just the “2nd-hand, 3rd-hand, and 4th-hand” witnesses, as Trump's Republican allies stressed repeatedly throughout the week. Just imagine when the nation hears from people who directly listened to Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or his boisterous cell convo with Ambassador Gordon Sondland, which was apparently overheard by at least three witnesses.
Given that this was just the first week of hearings—the table setter as it were—it seems fair to say, the best is yet to come.