For the country and for Donald Trump, the indictment of a former president represented an unprecedented day. For TV news organizations, it felt like a throwback.
Hour after hour on Tuesday, the story occupied the full attention of broadcast and cable news networks. They waited for glimpses of Trump’s face to interpret his expression, followed his motorcade’s movements from the air, speculated on how it must feel to be arrested.
The coverage recalled better days for now-struggling cable news outlets, through two presidential campaigns and two impeachment trials, when Trump occupied hours of air time. Consumers eagerly followed along, the way they haven’t for many stories since.
For two days this week, Trump’s indictment on 34 counts of falsifying business records, gave outlets the chance to go back in time.
“This is the most significant arraignment in the history of arraignments,” Danny Cevallos, a legal analyst for NBC News, said on that network’s special report.
“It’s hard to over-dramatize what this means for Donald Trump,” said MSNBC’s Chris Jansing.
Oh, but many tried.
On Monday, Trump’s travels from Florida to New York led cable news networks to revisit the worst of earlier excesses. Throughout the day, aerial camera shots followed Trump’s plane as it took off from Florida and landed in New York, and as his motorcade traveled to Trump Tower in Manhattan — the backdrop to hours of speculation about the case.
At one point, Trump’s son Eric posted on social media a picture of a television set inside the plane showing a Fox News Channel picture of the plane waiting on a Florida tarmac. “Watching the plane … from the plane,” he said.
Such coverage is “ridiculous,” former Ohio Gov. John Kasich said on MSNBC Tuesday. “There are more interesting things happening, but I guess we’re all fixated.”
Kasich spoke on a split screen, his face sharing time with a camera’s view trained on the entrance to Trump Tower, waiting for Trump to walk out the front door and into a car to take him to a Manhattan courthouse for his arraignment.
Tuesday was clearly newsier than Trump’s travels the day before, but much of the coverage consisted of waiting for such fleeting moments. New York state Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan declined media requests for video coverage of the hearing where Trump heard the charges against him and pleaded not guilty.
That led to constant, mostly empty talk about what might happen.
Will Trump’s motorcade to the court take Fifth Avenue or the FDR Drive? (The latter.) Will a mug shot of Trump be taken and released? (No.) Would the former president speak to the media before he goes into the court? (No.) After the hearing is done? (Also no.)
CNN re-ran footage of Trump walking out of a doorway, a court officer declining to hold the door for him, and speculated about the last time something like this had happened to the former president.
His walk out the door was judged “five seconds of history” by ABC’s David Muir. Those views of Trump, along with still pictures of him during the arraignment, turned political and legal commentators into facial-expression and body-language experts.
“This does not look like someone who is celebrating the moment … It looks like a man who is very unhappy to be there,” said ABC’s Jonathan Karl.
“Look at his face, look at his body language,” said CBS’ Robert Costa. “I’m just a reporter. But it tells you something when you can see how someone is dealing with a moment.”
Said CNN’s Jake Tapper: “That is a very pissed-off Donald Trump.”
The former president planned his own primetime speech later Tuesday from his Mar-a-Lago resort, a test for networks on how they would cover his words.
CNN interrupted its arraignment coverage briefly — for news of a court decision in another Trump investigation.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Trump would often call him when Christie was a U.S. attorney with questions and observations about the legal process. “No matter what his staff says, this is a very, very difficult day for Donald Trump,” he said.
Asked by ABC’s Muir if Trump ever thought he would face charges, Christie said, “I think he thought he was too clever to ever wind up in this situation — too clever, too smart, too careful.”
On Fox News Channel, Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, joined a discussion with commentators about whether prosecutors should bring charges against the former president in the New York case or in other investigations Trump faces — over turning over presidential records, his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection or allegedly interfering in Georgia’s presidential vote in 2020.
“One wonders about the wisdom of this case and one wonders about the wisdom of all the other cases that could be brought,” Fox analyst Brit Hume said.
Barr talked about prosecutorial discretion and said of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s charges — before the indictment was unsealed publicly — that “this appears to be just a pathetically weak case.”
“It’s hard to believe Alvin Bragg would bring these charges against anyone except Donald Trump,” Fox’s Martha MacCallum said.