President Donald Trump’s supporters in the media faced a test on Monday when they were forced to respond to the president’s press conference in Helsinki, Finland, during which Trump challenged the US intelligence community’s findings that the Russian government meddled in the 2016 US presidential election while standing beside the Russian president.
Trump’s defense of Vladimir Putin’s hostility toward democracies around the world and his refusal to hold the Russian leader accountable provoked bipartisan outrage and confusion. Both Democratic and Republican leadership – and a wide range of media personalities – condemned the president’s comments, calling them everything from “an absolute disgrace” to a “missed opportunity.”
Fox News hosts who rarely criticize the president spent much of Monday and Tuesday expressing their confusion and wondering about his motivations for doing what so many consider indefensible.
John Roberts, Fox’s chief White House correspondent, conceded that there is a “growing consensus” that Trump “threw the United States under the bus,” and on Monday night, he told Fox host Tucker Carlson that Trump refused to publicly condemn Putin’s election meddling because he didn’t want to get “bogged down in the details.”
“He thought it was important to have a dialogue with Vladimir Putin – almost a parallel with [North Korean leader] Kim Jung Un – where he was willing to rise above everything else that was going on out there, not get bogged down in the details of it, even though it would appear like he was sort of throwing the intelligence community and other US institutions under the bus,” Roberts said.
Trump’s most loyal backers – some of whom act as his informal advisers – including Fox hosts Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro, and Carlson, stayed the course, dismissing the concerns of lawmakers, policy experts, and former intelligence community leaders.
But many staunch supporters of the president abandoned any attempt to justify Trump’s behavior, instead admitting they were confused by it and, in some cases, urging the president to issue a correction.
“I don’t get it, I just don’t get it,” Fox host Trish Regan said, arguing that Trump either should have defended the intelligence community and condemned Putin to his face, or not taken the meeting in Helsinki. She called the episode “horrible.”
Maria Bartiromo – one of Trump’s most vocal cheerleaders at the network – called the summit “probably the low point of the presidency so far.”
“There’s no question about that,” said Bartiromo, who recently came under fire for a friendly interview with Trump in which she lobbed softball questions and repeatedly agreed with the president’s controversial or misleading statements. “But the president didn’t want to address it in front of Vladimir Putin, which is a head-scratcher.”
“Fox and Friends” host Steve Doocy called Trump’s behavior “puzzling” and insisted that the president has previously had no problem admitting that Russia meddled in the election.
Fox Business host Neil Cavuto called the press conference “disgusting,” and Fox host Bret Baier called it “almost surreal at points.” The conservative website Drudge Report declared, “Putin Dominates in Hel,” referring to Helsinki. Newsmax’s Joe Walsh called Trump a “traitor.”
Several hosts, speaking directly to the president, argued that Russian meddling in the 2016 election doesn’t delegitimize Trump’s 2016 victory.
“The president’s under the impression – and I don’t know why, still – that if he says the Russians hacked it makes his election look illegitimate,” said Brian Kilmeade, another host of Trump’s favorite cable news show, “Fox and Friends.” Kilmeade added that Trump’s victory over 16 GOP primary opponents and Hillary Clinton can’t be credited to Russian interference, but conceded that “Russia’s goal was to upend the electoral process.”
Doocy doubled down on the difference between Russian interference and collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
“A lot of people get confused – I’m not saying the president is confused,” Doocy went on. “There is a big difference between collusion and the meddling … pretty much everyone and their brother – except for Vladimir Putin – knows that there was meddling.”
Bartiromo repeated the point that possible collusion – the subject of the ongoing special counsel investigation – is separate from the allegations that Moscow interfered in the election. She tried to make it clear, for viewers and, perhaps, the president, that Trump shouldn’t feel personally undermined by the intelligence community’s findings.
“This has nothing to do with collusion, this is not about Donald Trump,” Bartiromo said. “This is about the Russians undermining the US, not about Donald Trump.”