'Wow': Stunned TV Hosts Reacted in Real Time to Trump

How the U.S. president's televised press conference on Tuesday managed to unite both sides of the bipartisan divide

Michael M. Grynbaum, New York Times
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“What I just saw gave me the wrong kind of chills,” a visibly stunned Chuck Todd said on MSNBC. “Honestly, I’m a bit shaken by what I just heard.”

Unable to disguise her disgust, the Fox News host Kat Timpf said: “I’m still in the phase where I’m wondering if it was actually real life. I have too much eye makeup on to start crying right now.”

And on CNN, as the network cut away from President Trump’s extraordinary 23-minute news conference at Trump Tower, the anchor Jake Tapper could not contain his astonishment.

“Wow,” he said. “That was something else.”

For a few visceral minutes on Tuesday, television’s partisan lines dissolved as dumbfounded anchors reacted on-air – some in clearly personal ways – to Mr. Trump’s fiery remarks, in which he seemed to cast equal blame on white supremacists and the demonstrators who marched against them during the weekend’s deadly clash in Charlottesville, Va.

On Fox News, normally a redoubt of Trump support, the 5 p.m. co-hosts of “The Specialists” shook their heads, with the anchor Guy Benson saying that Mr. Trump “lost me” when he insisted that some “very fine people” participated in the white supremacist rally.

“They were chanting things like, ‘Jews will not replace us,’” Mr. Benson said. “There’s nothing good about that.”

His co-host, Ms. Timpf, a libertarian pundit who contributes to National Review Online, exhaled deeply. “It was one of the biggest messes that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I can’t believe it happened.”

Disbelief also dominated the early reaction on MSNBC and CNN, where Mr. Tapper ended his afternoon show by directly addressing viewers.

“To anybody out there watching today who is confused and thinks, ‘I thought that the Klan and neo-Nazis and white supremacists, I thought there was no debate about this thing among civilized people’ – there isn’t a debate about it,” he said.

Like many of Mr. Trump’s dramatic moments, Tuesday’s impromptu question-and-answer session unspooled on cable television. But as the president’s exchanges grew testier, ABC and CBS cut into regular programming to carry the news conference, adding millions of households to the audience.

Later, the network evening newscasts ran long, unexpurgated clips of Mr. Trump’s appearance, rather than the usual short clips. CBS devoted its entire half-hour “Evening News” to the president’s comments and the aftermath of the weekend’s rioting.

Other Americans learned of the events through online sites more sympathetic to Mr. Trump – including Breitbart News, which heralded the news conference as a triumph. “Potus Comes Roaring Back With Press Smackdown at Trump Tower,” ran the bright-red headline on the right-wing site.

The president’s use of the term “alt-left” on Tuesday to describe liberal protesters echoed recent coverage on Fox News and some right-wing sites, where the term had gained currency in the last several days.

“President Donald Trump blasted establishment and left-wing media on Tuesday afternoon for failing to report the facts on violent left-wing protesters in Charlottesville,” read the lead story on Breitbart.

Mr. Trump has caused a rift in the conservative media, a tension on vivid display during a Fox News exchange between the commentators Charles Krauthammer and Laura Ingraham.

Ms. Ingraham, a Trump supporter who has been courted by the White House, allowed that the president’s remarks might have hurt his agenda. But she also offered a partial defense, saying of Mr. Trump, “He made some points that were factually right.”

Mr. Krauthammer retorted, “What Trump did today was a moral disgrace,” and said that the president had broken from his predecessors who recognized the history of civil rights.

“I’m not going to pass moral judgment on whether Donald Trump is morally on the same plane as you are, Charles,” Ms. Ingraham replied.

She added, “We have to be honest about the evil of racism and the evil of a far left that is trying to tear down both history and intimidate free speech in the country.”

By prime time, TV’s usual divides had returned. Anderson Cooper on CNN opened his show by bluntly saying, “A few hours ago, the president of the United States revealed so clearly who and what he really is.”

“Has any president in modern history lied so frequently and so fast as this one?” Mr. Cooper asked.

Fox News had a different take. Tucker Carlson said Mr. Trump “fired back at the media” and then went on to discuss famous historical figures, including Thomas Jefferson and Plato, who owned slaves.

Trump in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S. August 12, 2017. Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS