If there was one thing MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was determined not to normalize on Donald Trump’s inauguration day, it was the incoming president’s unbuttoned overcoat. Which Matthews mentioned at least three times.
“Why doesn’t Trump button his coat?” Matthews fretted. “Sign of formality there.”
Given the strange, strained and unprecedented relationship between Trump and the television news media, the most striking about Friday's coverage was its unexpected predictability.
While revelations and suppositions about Russia’s involvement in election continue to emerge, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC seemed trapped in a contextual bubble — determined to report more on the time-honored ritual than the man walking through it. Each network hewed to its traditional quasi-partisan lines, but all seemed to have agreed to an uneasy ceasefire with the new president, whose Twitter account remained silent for hours.
After months of launching, then dodging, fiery “fake news” salvos, of attempting to adjust to a presidential tone of invective that began with the primaries and ran up until hours before the swearing-in, the talking heads of cable news seemed suddenly at a loss, returning to old scripts that may have fit the pomp but not the circumstance.
And there were plenty of moments to sustain cable's endless commentary: Melania Trump showing up at the White House with a gift for the Obamas from Tiffany's (a pen and pencil set? a picture frame?); Hillary Clinton visibly steeling herself before walking down the Capitol steps to join the ceremony she thought would be hers; the rows of empty stands outside the White House; Sen. Chuck Schumer's carefully critical (and loudly booed) remarks; the rain that began, as if on cue, just seconds into Trump's inaugural address.
There was the speech itself, a fiercely nationalist, strikingly angry rebuke of the Washington establishment and the "American carnage" it has, in Trump's estimation, wrought.
What the pundits heard in the speech differed depending on who was offering commentary, but generally everyone agreed it was — how to put this? — different.
CNN's chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper deemed it one of "the most radical inaugural speeches we've ever heard," allowing “radical” to serve whatever purpose the listener required. .
The network, perhaps keen to disprove Trump’s constant claim of bias, clung to its signature middle of the road real estate, in at least one case literally: Anchor Brooke Baldwin provided running commentary from the back of a truck that was crawling down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue during the slow-moving inaugural parade.
The network relied, as ever, on its standard chessboard of talking heads, but this time there was no shouting, no drama, and everyone gushed about the miraculously peaceful transition of power, perhaps a little more enthusiastically than in years past.
Though MSNBC has made efforts to edge into the middle over the last year, it remained the leftie outlier on Friday. Anchor Tamron Hall parked in front of the newly opened Trump International Hotel, a source of potential ethical headaches for President Trump.
It also had Chris Matthews being very Chris Matthews. When he wasn’t analyzing the state of President Trump’s coat, he was name-checking John F. Kennedy, and before the clock had struck 11 a.m. on the east coast, making an ill-advised joke about the difficulty Trump would face in theoretically firing his senior adviser/son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
"Mussolini had a great solution to that," Matthews said. "He had him executed."
Rachel Maddow also invoked World War II, though in less off-color fashion. She noted that Trump's repeated use of the loaded slogan "America first" harkened back to the isolationist, anti-Semitic group that opposed American involvement in World War II. The phrase is "something that means a specific thing in this country. To repurpose it now, not that far down the historical path, it's hard."
Indeed, no less an authority than Doris Kearns Goodwin deemed the speech lacking in both empathy and humility.
MSNBC commentators were also ready to point out — repeatedly — that the crowds on the Mall were smaller than those of Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. (What few pundits, even on MSNBC, seemed willing to acknowledge was the demographic makeup of the crowd — a sea of predominantly white faces in red "Make America Great Again" hats.)
Fox, meanwhile, often seemed far more interested in the protesters that the president. Those who clashed with police in downtown D.C., breaking store windows and throwing rocks were, according to Fox Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt, making Trump’s case against carnage for him. The protest, he suggested, might hurt Democrats' leverage with "middle America suburbanites" concerned about law and order. "This will cause supporters to rally to Trump,” he said. “This will cause people to take his side, because this misconduct and attack on the process will strengthen Trump's hand."
As for Trump's speech, reaction varied, but the word "muscular" popped up with an uncomfortable frequency on Fox. Analyst Brit Hume deemed it "Not poetic, but quite strong." He also added that it wasn't "soaring rhetoric" — i.e. it wasn't Obama, and therefore not entirely a bad thing.
If anchor Chris Wallace wasn't buying the comparisons to Charles Lindbergh, he was also quick to remind some of his more ideological colleagues that Obama left the White House with record approval ratings.
The network also made a bit of news on Friday: It announced Friday that former U.K. Independence Party leader and Brexit champion Nigel Farage would be joining as a commentator.
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