Fox News has never cared about having a coherent and consistent message. As a propaganda and disinformation network, it's not Fox News' job to make sense: It's Fox News' job, these days, to cover for Donald Trump. Yet in the wake of the unfolding Ukraine collusion scandal, where Trump has admitted to pressuring a foreign country to dig up dirt on his domestic rival, Fox News and the conservative media seem particularly lost and scatterbrained as they search for a Trump defense. And yes, it's difficult to land on a defense strategy when Trump himself has admitted to the attempted Ukraine collusion.
The looming challenge for Fox News: How do you defend Trump from allegations of collusion, when Trump has confessed to doing it? (Trump to reporters: "There was pressure put on [Ukraine] with respect to Joe Biden.") For his media defenders in the conservative biosphere, the Ukraine scandal represents a completely different assignment than the Russian election interference scandal, which Trump vociferously denied being involved in. "The last time he was accused of collaborating with a foreign power to influence an election, he denied it and traveled the country practically chanting, “No collusion!” This time, he is saying, in effect, so what if I did?" The New York Times noted.
Perhaps sensing his political mistake in admitting to collusion, Trump on Tuesday tried to change his cover story, claiming he withheld aid to Ukraine because Europe wasn't contributing any funds, not because he wanted the Ukraine government to dig up dirt on Biden.
Of course, Fox News will likely defend Trump no matter what he does, and no matter what protocols he shreds and which laws he breaks. But the network’s Ukraine messaging in recent days doesn’t make for very compelling programming, and that's what Fox News is in the business of. The Ukraine spin doesn't seem to fire up the base the way Fox News's 18-month crusade against special counsel Robert Mueller and his Russian investigation likely got the blood pumping for hardcore viewers. Feasting on having a proper man-made villain, Fox News and the right-wing media depicted the lifelong prosecutor as a snake and a political assassin hired by Democrats to upend Trump's presidency.
The current Ukraine confusion extends to the Republican Party as well, where top officials seem unsure of how to respond to Trump's admitted collusion.
So far, most Republican members of Congress seem intent on dodging questions about Ukraine, or playing dumb, rather than presenting a stalwart defense of Trump's behavior. The lack of coherent media spin from Fox and Republicans could prove significant if it's the Ukraine scandal that eventually prompts full-on impeachment proceedings against Trump in the House. After all, threatening to withhold $400 million in Ukrainian aid in exchange for launching an investigation into a Democratic political opponent represents an obvious abuse of power.
Moving forward on Ukraine, there's no question that Fox News will try to hype Trump's phony claims about Joe Biden and his son's business dealings in the country. "Who's in more trouble here, the president who had this phone call with the Ukrainian leader, or Joe Biden, who actually did have a quid pro quo with regard to Ukraine when he was vice president?" Fox host Davis Asman recently asked, making sure to present Biden and Trump as both being in Ukraine-related trouble. The claims against Biden though, have already been thoroughly debunked. Again, that won't stop Fox News from pushing them, but it seems less likely that they'll be able to give the charges a major lift-off.
Meanwhile, initial attempts to discredit the whistleblower who raised concerns about Trump's Ukraine collusion have also fallen flat, in part because Trump has undercut Fox News' spin. Early on in the story, as Media Matters noted, Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera called the whistleblower a “deep state” punk who’s “snitching out the president's phone calls to a foreign leader.” Fox host Jesse Watters denounced the whistleblower as a “snake,” while Sean Hannity suggested the person committed a “crime” and spied on the president. Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy dismissed the whistleblower complaint by claiming, "It's almost as if they'd heard a rumor." But again, that ship seems to have sailed because Trump has admitted to what the whistleblower is claiming. What's the long-term upside of attacking Trump's accuser, when Trump has essentially conceded that the accuser's claim is accurate?
Indeed, Trump appeared to pull the rug out from under Fox News as the scandal first developed. Initially, the network rushed to try and downplay the whistleblower reports, suggesting the complaint was sour grapes and merely over "policy." "Maybe this whistleblower just disagrees that he won the election," stressed Brian Kilmeade. "And number two, the way he's conducting foreign policy."
But Trump soon torpedoed that spin by confirming the whistleblower's allegations about using the threat of withholding financial aid for the country in exchange for cooperation with a Biden investigation.
On Tuesday morning, Fox News' Doocy seemed to express frustration with how Trump was handling the Ukraine story. "If the president said 'I will give you the money but you've got to investigate Joe Biden,' that is really off-the-rails wrong. But if it's something else, you know, it would be nice to know what it is."
In other words, Fox News to Trump: Please tell us how to spin this mess.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.