Chuck Todd was like a dinner host forced to announce that the much-anticipated star guest was a no-show. The air was out of the party balloons.
“And so it begins,” he first told MSNBC viewers at 5 p.m. “We’re going to have nearly nine-plus hours of incredible coverage of the final big primary night of the season.”
But if this were a commercially driven marathon, incredible or not, the principal news was both pre-ordained and already known as the large typeface behind him underscored: “CLINTON CLINCHES.” If only the “news” were the larger reality of the night that for the media starred, of course, Donald Trump.
Hours before any vote totals would arrive from the day’s six primary contests, Todd had conceded, “As far as our numbers are concerned, she did that last night.”
Yes, led by The Associated Press, many had said it was over, too, for the Democrats just as it was a long time ago for the Republicans.
But, said Todd, there remains “big questions tonight: What is Bernie Sanders going to do and what is he going to say tonight? Is the Repubican Party on the brink of a full-on insurrection?”
Indeed, there was that second matter. It almost seemed as if that was the only matter. Much of the media’s early coverage made conspicuously shorter shrift than once imaginable of Hillary Clinton’s historic de facto coronation as the first female nominee of a major American political party.
The distractions were inspired by the unceasing debate about Donald Trump’s patently outrageous comments about the Indiana-born and bred “Mexican” judge overseeing litigation involving the alleged scam of Trump University.
“TRUMP: COMMENTS ON JUDGE ‘MISCONSTRUED'” was the chyron on CNN as its early coverage was dominated by the contentious matter and Trump’s seemingly unconvincing formal response issued earlier.
David Gergen, a former longtime White House operative and now eminence grise of cable commentators via Harvard’s Kennedy School, looked sincerely pained on CNN as he was surrounded by seven other pundits in his immediate midst and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin off-screen.
My goodness, he essentially said, how are we still talking about Trump and Republican Party fumbling on this night?
CNN didn’t take much heed, plunging further into the Trump comments and his new response. Ed Brookover, a Trump aide, strained to spin the statement and defend Trump as merely a victim of slight semantical ambiguity, not ill will toward any ethnic or religious group.
He bashed “Washington elites,” including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both fellow Republicans, for being wrong in chiding Trump. He didn’t mention his own elite D.C. pedigree as former political director for the Republican National Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee (not to mention being partner at a typical influence-peddling communications firm in town).
Hour later, after the first polls had closed and before results were in, it was much the same. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly sparred with equally conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, with the host largely defending Trump and Krauthammer underscoring that Trump’s comments were “racist… quite revealing and scary.”
“It was revealing,” repeated Krauthammer, a onetime chief resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “To judge a judge on the basis of his ethnicity” was beyond the pale, Krauthammer said. O’Reilly’s smugly genial response: “Good debate, Charles. We’ll get lot of mail on that, and we’ll send it to you.”
The topic was very much the same on CNN, where the only time Clinton’s name was mentioned for some stretches was when it flashed on the chyron at the screen’s bottom (“CRUCIAL NIGHT FOR CLINTON, SANDERS & TRUMP”).
Here, the O’Reilly role in defending Trump, though less artfully, was played by pundit Jeffrey Lord. He proved a piñata for his seven colleagues at adjacent desks as he made the case for why one should be suspicious of the judge because of his family’s Mexican background.
“Will you denounce what Trump said as racism?” asked Van Jones, an African-American liberal. Lord would not. S.E. Cupp, another conservative, was no less disparaging of Lord. “Trump’s point was clear, yours is circuitous,” she said to Lord, arguing that Lord’s argument for Trump was not one even Trump sought to make.
“Sometimes you’ve got to say the guy was wrong,” said David Axelrod, a liberal Democrat and former chief strategist for President Obama. Jones piped in shortly later that Lord was irrational. Their latest face-off probably assures a healthy future as a well-compensated duo theatrically battling it out on the gravy train of cable punditry, the speech circuit.
But if this was yet another prime example of a rhetorical food fight that cable TV producers adore, it did have its trainwreck allure. It went for long stretches without commercial interruption as Lord quite wittingly served as a piñata for an otherwise bipartisan denunciation of Trump’s remarks and ambiguous defense.
And then came Trump himself in an uncharacteristically restrained statement that preceded Clinton forthcoming victory address and Bernie Sanders’ (likely very late) declaration of his intent.
Trump did not confront the “Mexican” comment head-on. But he left no doubt about his general campaign strategy of trashing Clinton and deriding a “rigged” political system. He’d have a “major” speech on her, probably next Monday.
Only one thing was assured when it came to him and the media after done: He’d dominate news cycles in the days to come.