The arraignment of former President Trump in a Manhattan criminal court on Tuesday created one of those increasingly rare collective TV viewing experiences with every cable news channel and broadcast network focused on the proceedings.
The day was saturated with images of Trump’s motorcade making the four-mile drive down FDR Drive from Trump Tower to the criminal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, where he was arraigned and entered a not guilty plea on 34 felony counts related to alleged hush money payments to a porn star with whom he allegedly had an affair.
It was the most historic and somber video of a living president since Richard Nixon departed from the White House lawn in a helicopter the morning after he resigned from office in 1974.
“A scene unlike any other in American history,” is how CBS News congressional correspondent Scott MacFarlane described the scene from outside the courthouse. “A former president brought here to Manhattan to be criminally indicted.”
CNN branded its coverage with an ominous title at the bottom of the screen: “The Arrest and Arraignment of Donald Trump.”
In a fragmented and partisan media landscape, viewers had their choice of outlets, especially those that cater to conservative and pro-Trump audiences, reflecting the tribal nature of the TV news audience that is divided along political lines.
But the political critiques were not as hyperbolic as usual due to the solemn nature of the event and a somewhat tepid reaction from many Trump critics as they digested the unsealed indictment brought by Manhattan Dist. Atty. Alvin Bragg.
Jonathan Turley, a legal analyst for Fox News who is highly skeptical of the New York charges against Trump and believes the investigation into his handling of classified documents is far more problematic, likely expressed how much of the country absorbed the story as it unfolded in the afternoon on the East Coast.
“This isn’t the white Bronco O.J. Simpson trip,” Turley said. “People are looking at these cars and seeing completely different things. Half of this country views it as a president who is being taken to answer for alleged crimes. The other half tends to view this as an indictment of the criminal law system, that this is the weaponization of our legal system and this is only going to deepen that divide … for many of us.”
Fox News kept its fiery conservative commentators away from the breaking news coverage, holding their fire until the network’s opinion shows in prime time.
The network stuck with Washington anchors John Roberts, Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum and a team of legal experts who were joined by Bill Barr, the former attorney general in the Trump administration. While there was criticism of the case, the panel was clearly struck by the gravity of the occasion.
“There’s no underestimating the significance of what he’s been through,” said MacCallum. “Somebody who has been the president of the United States of America was just fingerprinted and booked and processed to head into a courtroom to be arraigned.”
Faced with a puffy-eyed Trump walking silently by reporters in the courthouse, Baier countered the claims previously made by some Fox News commentators that the political fortunes for Trump, a candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination, would be galvanized by the controversial indictment in New York.
“This is a surreal moment and one that politically in the short term is probably beneficial for stirring up his base, but in the long term, a lot of people question how much this benefits him,” Baier said.
Trump’s reliable defenders left at Fox News were there for him as the network moved into its opinion programming.
“You’re putting Donald Trump’s life in danger,” said Jesse Watters, co-host of “The Five.” “You’re setting him up and advertising to the entire world, the former president of the United States, the Republican nominee for the presidency, is going to be at this location, at this time, on this date. And you’ve got towers, and you’ve got windows.”
Newsmax, the conservative network that has been a fervid Trump supporter, dialed down the rhetoric during the arraignment, using more politically agnostic anchor Greta Van Susteren for legal analysis.
But Newsmax commentators took aim afterward, providing familiar phrases that their guests typically use in talking about the case against Trump (“Soros-backed DA,” “political vengeance” “weaponization,” “discredited witnesses”).
Late afternoon host Chris Salcedo went to work immediately, calling Trump’s arrest “a complete bastardization of the rule of law” and said it evoked the old Soviet Union.
The San Diego-based OAN Network, the most strident of the right-wing outlets, spent little time covering the story at all, putting a live video feed of the courthouse in the corner of the screen while it covered other issues, and it provided no real time analysis.
The relatively subdued tone of the coverage may have also been due to the lack of turmoil among those gathered to protest for and against Trump outside the courthouse.
The conservative networks’ actions have been under close scrutiny as they have all been accused of presenting false information about voter fraud in the 2020 election, spreading allegations raised by Trump and his legal team.
Fox News, Newsmax and OAN are all defendants in defamation cases filed by voting machine and software companies Dominion and Smartmatic. They have denied wrongdoing.
The most bizarre television moment Tuesday was provided by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), the election-denying Trump acolyte who spent all of 10 minutes addressing a largely hostile crowd before she was whisked off in a vehicle.
Greene then went into a screed in which she compared Trump’s arrest to those of famous persecuted figures.
“Trump is joining some of the most incredible people in history,” Greene said. “I just can’t believe it’s happening, but I’ll always support him. He’s done nothing wrong.”
Greene was heard giving the remarks on the Right Side Broadcasting Network, an outlet that includes disgraced former Trump adviser Steve Bannon as one of its hosts. Fox News didn’t touch her remarks, and MSNBC presented them through a correspondent without any video.
While the right wing remains unrelenting in its support of Trump, some viewers on the left have little patience when they see a hint of sympathy for the former president.
Van Jones, the CNN commentator who partnered with the Trump White House on criminal justice reform, said the former president looked like a “granddad having a very bad day.”
“I can tell you, having spent time with defendants, this is one of the worst moments of anybody’s life,” he said.
Jones was soon hearing it on social media.
“This isn’t a grandpa getting arrested at Walmart for stealing Geritol. This is [someone] who paid hush money for his illicit affairs and whose decades of criminal behavior has finally caught up to him,” wrote Reecie Colbert in a tweet.
But the look of isolation on the face of the former president was noticed by other journalists as well.
“Where are the other Senate and House members?” asked Robert Costa, Washington correspondent for CBS News. “There is a reluctance for so many of them to get there in the arena with Trump in a time of trouble. They will send a tweet and make a statement but they do not want to get too close to a situation that is volatile.”