The revelation Monday of charges against three former Trump campaign officials in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into possible Russian influence in American politics delivered a sharp jolt to the news cycle.
Anticipation over the arrests had been high for days after news that the first charges in Mueller’s investigation were imminent had seeped out over the weekend. And the documents outlining allegations against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, business partner Rick Gates and former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, laid out what investigators had found in unvarnished detail.
For most national media outlets, the news that three campaign officials had been charged headlined websites and front pages, and were the focus of most of the day’s coverage, including in the traditionally conservative Wall Street Journal.
The front page of tomorrow’s Washington Post pic.twitter.com/vhKRy8cGqy
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) October 31, 2017
But in the highly politicized media environment, where news is increasingly targeted to partisan audiences, the indictment story played out very differently on conservative sites, such as Fox News, Breitbart and the Daily Caller.
Here is a look at the news as seen through a conservative media lens.
A ‘nothing burger’
The most notable conservative reaction came quickly, from the man who looms large over the investigation: President Trump.
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” the president wrote on Twitter soon after the indictments were made public Monday morning. “But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”
He added: “Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
Subsequent narratives echoed the president, downplaying the significance of the arrests.
“These transactions predate Paul Manafort’s involvement with the campaign,” conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham said on her show. “The idea that this is a bad day for Trump because it in any way alludes to a collusion with Russia — you’ve got to be living on another planet if you think that.”
She added: “This is a nothing burger.”
Some reports seemed to hew closely to White House talking points.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s press secretary, said the arrests had “nothing to do with the president … Most of them took place well before the campaign ever even existed.”
Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent James Rosen noted during an evening report that “Donald Trump is far removed from the allegations.”
“If there was collusion, any evidence or even an allegation has yet to be revealed by the special counsel,” the network’s chief White House correspondent John Roberts noted.
The New York Post — which, along with Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, is also owned by Rupert Murdoch — had nearly dropped the story of the indictments from its homepage by the end of the day, focusing instead on sexual harassment scandals related to Kevin Spacey, Peyton Manning and Harvey Weinstein.
Many viewers noticed how the story was covered differently by various television networks.
“CNN: Manafort indicted. MSNBC: Manafort indicted. Fox News: Is it mongooses or mongeese? We talk to experts,” comedian Kumail Nanjiani joked about the disparity in coverage.
The Trump dossier and a 2010 uranium deal
Some news outlets played up coverage casting doubt on the integrity of the investigation, a long-running narrative that heated up on conservative media last week before the arrests.
Rush Limbaugh opened his show on Monday talking about the Clinton campaign’s connection to the dossier compiled by Fusion GPS on Donald Trump, a point the president has recently been tweeting about. The Washington Post reported last week that the campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped fund the research that lead to the dossier.
“Ergo the leak on Friday that Mueller had an indictment,” Limbaugh said. “That totally changed the narrative, it changed the direction, and its purpose was to basically cover up and shift away to the side the Clinton involvement in the Trump dossier. It was a classic case of distraction.”
He added: “And none of it, I can tell you, with ontological certitude, none of the Manafort indictment as we sit here today has a single thing to do with Donald Trump, with the Trump campaign or with Russian collusion.”
Alex Jones’ Infowars, a popular site and radio show that frequently promotes misinformation and conspiracy theories, led its website with three stories about Spacey, who had been accused of making sexual advances on a 14-year-old actor.
“This is more sour grapes and it’s not going well,” Jones said of Mueller probe, between advertisements for colloidal silver, anti-fascist Infowars T-shirts and a bizarre aside that Hitler was photographed in 1955 alive in Argentina, 10 years after his death.
Speaking on Jones’ show, informal Trump adviser Roger J. Stone Jr. called for the president to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate a 2010 uranium deal that has become the center of a controversy gaining steam in conservative media — with allegations that the Clintons benefited despite little evidence indicating as much.
“That investigation would have to focus on Mr. Mueller, Mr. Comey, Mr. McCabe, the associate director of the FBI and (Deputy Attorney General) Rod Rosenstein,” Stone said. “Those gentlemen would have to step down if they were the target of a federal investigation.”
Manafort. On tax charges going back 10 yrs. And a guy no one’s heard of who volunteered for Trump. No “collusion.” No relevance to Trump.
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) October 30, 2017
On Fox News, contributor Michael Goodwin argued that Mueller should resign. “I think he has to be purer than Caesar’s wife here,” Goodwin said. “I think these conflicts will muddy the waters.”
The Gateway Pundit, a site with a wide following known for trafficking in falsehoods, echoed previous statements the president has made in calling the investigation the “Mueller Witch Hunt.”
RT, a Russian state-sponsored media network, ran an opinion piece on its homepage that asked, “Is Russiagate dead?” The headline continued: “Paul Manafort & Kiev caught up in FBI dragnet, Kremlin not mentioned.”
Talking about Podesta and Clinton
Other sites focused on the announcement that Tony Podesta — a prominent lobbyist, Democrat and brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief — planned to resign after his firm was indirectly referenced in the charges against Manafort and Gates.
By evening, Breitbart’s lead story was about Podesta — illustrated with a photo of him with a drink in his hand — though he had not been charged with a crime or named in the court filings.
The most prominent story Breitbart ran about the charges highlighted remarks from Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “WH: Manafort arrest ‘has nothing to do with the president.’” By the end of the day, the site’s lead story was about Spacey.
The influential aggregator the Drudge Report appeared to lead with a story about the arrests. “MUELLER’S HALLOWEEN,” the site’s lead headline blared. “WASHINGTON SPOOKED.” But the headlines linked to The Washington Post’s story about Tony Podesta. Other stories linked on the site seemed to cast doubt on the investigation: “JUDGE AN OBAMA APPOINTEE, CLINTON DONOR”; “Manafort’s Constitutional Rights Violated?” “FORMER PROSECUTOR: SHAKY, OVERCHARGED CASE.”
The Daily Caller also chose to go big with the Podesta news, with two stories. The most prominent stories about the probe were about how Trump was never mentioned in the indictment, and about an error — blamed on Mueller (“Mueller Makes Key Error,” the headline read) — in the Manafort indictment that misidentified former Ukraine prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko as the country’s former president.
Fox News host Sean Hannity opened his show with a monologue about the Clinton connections to the uranium deal and the Trump dossier.
“The very thing they are accusing President Trump of doing, they did it themselves,” he said.
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) October 31, 2017