On CNN, they kept talking about the doors. “There are many doors in this courtroom and many hallways to these doors,” said one on-air panelist shortly after former President Donald Trump entered a lower Manhattan court to plead not guilty to 34 counts relating to a hush-money payment paid to an adult film actress shortly before the 2016 election. “So there are many doors to choose from,” they added, prompting panelists to muse that Trump probably hadn’t had to open a door for himself in years—he has servants and secret service agents for that, after all—and was probably annoyed that an NYPD officer escorting him into the court failed to hold one open for him.
Here, at long last, was Donald Trump’s Thomas Sutpen moment. At one point, the network’s Kaitlan Collins phoned in from just outside the courtroom—she was one of the lucky reporters allowed to watch the proceedings, albeit via a CCTV video link—to brief the network about how the door Trump was forced to open all by himself was one where he had at one point been expected to address the throngs of reporters gathered. But then he didn’t address those reporters! Anderson Cooper mused that this was probably “the first door” he’d had to push “in years.” Truly, this was a very significant door.
Why was everyone talking about doors? Well, what else was there to talk about? Here was a historic, undeniably newsworthy event: An ex-president was being charged with crimes for the first time in American history! And yet there was almost little new to know about it. The pending indictment has been in the works for weeks; the basic contours of the charges Trump is facing have been known about for years. His own personal lawyer was convicted of charges related to this matter years ago. Coverage of the arraignment was breathless and boring; surreal and utterly banal. It bore many of the hallmarks of the worst aspects of media coverage during Trump’s presidency; it bodes poorly for how the press—both in the mainstream and on the right—will cover the Republican primary.
For well over a day, the press was back on their bullshit, breathlessly tracking Donald Trump’s every move, pointedly failing to imbue them with much in the way of significance. In Florida, there were shots of his iconic plane—the gilded, faded, 30-year-old obvious metaphor “Trump Force One”—waiting on the tarmac and then taking off. Eric Trump, the president’s marginally less embarrassing second son, posted a picture of himself watching the plane on Fox News. “Watching the plane … from the plane,” he tweeted—a boast that sounds vaguely like something Rick Ross might say, until you remember that he is there to accompany his father, the former president, to be arrested for what basically amounts to campaign finance charges.
Today, the cameras alit at Trump Tower, where we were told that Trump would soon be departing. Around 1 p.m., CNN’s chyron switched from “SOON: TRUMP LEAVES TRUMP TOWER FOR NY COURTHOUSE” to “ANY MINUTE: TRUMP LEAVES TRUMP TOWER FOR NY COURTHOUSE.” The chyron was correct. Soon after, cameras followed his motorcade as it raced from 57th Street to lower Manhattan in about 10 minutes—arguably the most newsworthy moment of the day up to that point. That’s when all the door talk started.
Fortunately pictures began to leak out from the few cameras allowed inside the courtroom, and the small universe of cable news panelists finally had something new to talk about: the former president’s body language. He looked mad! Irritated! Upset! Surely, he didn’t want to be there. “He doesn’t look like someone who thinks the indictment is nonsense,” said Jake Tapper, sensing guilt. I’m not sure how many defendants there are who appear guilty or who seem like they want to be there during arraignments, but fair enough: The former president did seem as if he’d prefer to be doing something else.
No one fills the gaping void of cable news’ airtime quite like Donald Trump. He may no longer be in peak form, but when it comes to filling the desperate need of those with nothing in particular to talk about, he still has moves. Other things, believe it or not, are happening: There is a high-stakes Supreme Court election in Wisconsin; a significant mayoral contest in Chicago; a pending flip of the North Carolina legislature that might make it possible for Republicans to outlaw abortion in the state; Rupert Murdoch broke off his engagement, a sure sign that the concept of true love is a lie.
Covering the circus in Manhattan ate up valuable hours of news coverage, despite the hot load of nothing that mostly happened. Reporters vastly outnumbered protesters of all stripes outside the courtroom. The indictment itself, once unsealed, was mostly predictable: 34 counts of falsifying business records, all felonies. Trump’s case remains both straightforward (there is little doubt that he paid a porn star hush money) but legally complex.
Again, we’ve known about all of this for weeks. But we hadn’t yet allowed the stuff we already knew to gnaw its way into and out of another cycle of hype. Whatever else there is to be said about this indictment—along with any others that might follow—one thing is plainly true: Whatever steely discipline the networks developed at the end of Trump’s presidency (and subsequent coup attempt) is dissipating. Time to pack a green room of people to spelunk into the depths of “what is Trump thinking” despite the fact that he will explain himself on his own bespoke social media network if you really want to know. (Chances are it amounts to “I would rather be playing golf than pleading not guilty to a bunch of felonies.”) Hours of speculation about Trump’s body language and static shots of planes and cars as the former president moves about the world, in all their inglorious lack of newsworthiness, are back.
Inside the right wing’s media bubble, it’s also more of the same—only more so, and bigger than ever before! Fox News had been making a practice of keeping its distance during Trump’s postpresidency; that all changed after the former president broke the news that he was going to be arrested weeks ago. Since then, it has enveloped him in a bear hug, partly to keep its upstart rivals at bay: There is only room for one chief propagandist, and Fox is determined to be it.
On Fox, Trump was treated simultaneously as a political prisoner, a martyr, and a metaphor. Jesse Watters claimed that it was proof that Democrats are “hunting” Republicans and suggested that conservatives simply could not live in blue cities for fear of political prosecution. “This is too great an assault on our system, much greater than anything we saw on January 6, that’s for certain,” said Tucker Carlson, who is known to hate Trump passionately. Later, Carlson said, “There is no coming back from this moment.” It’s all 180-proof hyperbole, but it sure helps to make the network’s larger narrative go down smooth: Conservatives are victims, being endlessly targeted by a liberal elite. Trump is just the highest-profile example.
Naturally, this is Trump’s line too: that the indictment is proof that the United States is no longer a democracy, that it is a “banana republic,” a third-world country run by despots. Some of Trump’s 2024 rivals have attempted to do something cute: Ron DeSantis, for instance, has taken to talking out of both sides of his mouth, simultaneously decrying the tyranny of the indictment while giddily discussing its substance. Fox News is doing no such thing, instead making the case again and again that Trump is—like its hosts and viewers—a victim of a vast conspiracy intended to disempower and emasculate.
It all amounts to a kind of bizarro version of the 2016 Trump cycle, forcefully proclaiming that history slides seamlessly from tragedy to farce. Donald Trump is once again dominating the news in a way that he hasn’t since his presidency ended. His face is everywhere. His words at this evening’s rally in Florida will be widely covered, even if they almost certainly won’t receive the uncritical airtime that they did seven years ago. And he’s back in the news for reasons that are really negative from his perspective: Generally speaking, it is not—you know—good to be facing dozens of counts for election crimes. But there’s a bigger indictment being handed down today, the strong sense that the press is stumbling backward into its very worst habits as the primary nears, and doing so happily.