For the mainstream media, The Washington Post’s report that Donald Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian officials at the White House last week—violating an intelligence-sharing agreement with a key U.S. ally and potentially jeopardizing a critical source—landed with the explosive force of a 10-kiloton bomb. Within the parallel universe occupied by conservative media, however, the story was a dud.
For much of Monday night, Fox News conspicuously ignored the Post report, which was quickly matched by The New York Times, CNN, and other outlets. The Five spent much of its time focused on the hubbub surrounding Miss U.S.A. 2017’s comments on feminism, while Martha MacCallum and Tucker Carlson repeatedly broke away from the night’s main news story to discuss minor controversies on college campuses. When the news was reported, it was treated with the utmost incredulity, with multiple hosts and commentators pointing to denials offered by the administration. (One chyron in the eight o’clock hour read simply, “McMaster: Washington Post story on Russia meeting is false.”) The Fox News Web site buried the story entirely, hiding it well below the fold, in tiny print beneath another item on the White House shutting down Democratic pleas for a special prosecutor to oversee the Justice Department investigation into Russian election meddling.
Others within the conservative-media echo chamber took a different tack. Breitbart, Fox’s younger, more unruly rival, appeared scandalized not by the possibility that Trump had released classified information, but that his conversation with Russian officials was leaked at all. “DEEP STATE STRIKES,” the top headline blared Monday night. The Drudge Report, the Web 1.0 broadsheet that serves as an unofficial barometer for right-wing sentiment, linked to Breitbart with the headline, “MORE LEAKS SMEAR PRESIDENT.” (In a separate set of tweets, Matt Drudge floated an alternative theory, too, accusing the Post of attacking Trump on behalf of its owner, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, who Drudge proffered was “personally motivated in bloodsport after Trump threat of AMAZON monopoly breakup. Follow the clicks!”)
As additional news outlets confirmed the Post report, the initial #FakeNews reflex across the conservative-media spectrum made way for a new line of argumentation: that the president can release any information he wants. “The report admits that it is ‘unlikely’ Trump broke any laws,” Breitbart national security reporter Kristina Wong noted.
This is, legally speaking, correct: Trump can declassify information at will. The unnamed ally that gave the U.S. top-secret intelligence likely isn’t pleased that Trump handed it willingly to the Russians, and that ally might decide not to share information in the future. But it is, as longtime Trump ally and Newsmax C.E.O. Christopher Ruddy argued, well within his rights to do so. “He can decide what is a classified secret. He decides what can be shared with allies, adversaries, or even the public. That’s his decision—not some bureaucrat’s!” Breitbart’s London editor, Raheem Kassam, made much the same point:
As usual, the 10 P.M. block on Fox News was another beast entirely, with host Sean Hannity spinning a tertiary alternate universe where Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, had just mishandled classified intelligence. Brushing off the Post report at the top of the hour, Hannity dove into another argument for why former F.B.I. director James Comey deserved to be fired for not prosecuting Clinton for her use of a private e-mail server, before delving into all of the reasons she should have been indicted.
Later turning tangentially to the Post story, he warned administration staffers to shut up and stop talking to the press for the good of the country. “I have a message for those of you who work in… the White House: Enough with the self-serving leaks!” he scolded. The real culprits, he suggested, are the “liberal so-called journalists trying to make a name for themselves with their big gotcha questions and other combative attention-seeking behavior.”
On Fox and Friends Tuesday morning, the spin continued, in addition to other, more craven exercises in water-carrying.
The bifurcation of the media ecosystem, meanwhile, continues to reach new extremes. In place of the outrage consuming the mainstream press, conservative news outlets filled the gap with an outrageous story of their own: the murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer whose death last year has been at the center of conspiracies theories that the Clintons had him killed so that they could pin the D.N.C. hack on Russia. On Wednesday morning, Drudge, Breitbart, and other right-wing sites were all leading their home pages with a story from Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, claiming that Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks . In a statement, Rich’s family refuted the story, saying that Zimmerman’s story, saying that they were “committed to facts, not fake evidence.”