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TV Anchors Agape After the Trump-Putin Appearance

Posted July 16, 2018 5:28 p.m. EDT

It was the first thing that CNN viewers heard as the news conference ended, an assessment both acidic and incisive, the sort of judgment not usually uttered by Very Important Television Anchors.

“You have been watching,” said the disembodied voice of Anderson Cooper, “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader that I’ve ever seen.”

Perhaps Cooper had briefly forgotten the mores of his profession — stolidity and a Cronkite-ian cool — in the heat of a surreal live event: a public pas de deux on Monday between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, in which the president criticized U.S. intelligence agencies and declined multiple opportunities to blame Putin for interfering in U.S. elections.

But Cooper’s remark, though pointed, was not far removed from the nonplused reactions of his fellow network stars, who seemed to channel a level of genuine shock rare even in the chaotic Trump era.

“All of you who are watching today will be able to tell your friends, family, your children, your grandchildren, you were watching a moment of history,” said George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, adding: “It may not be for the right reasons.”

“They were almost chummy, as if they were allies,” said a dumbfounded Norah O’Donnell of CBS News. “The way they talked about one another and how they wanted to move forward together in the future.”

CNN’s David Gergen, the veteran presidential adviser, said it was “a struggle to put it all together,” concluding, finally: “I’ve never heard an American president talk that way.”

Even the reliably pro-Trump Drudge Report issued a harsh verdict. “Putin Dominates,” the site’s lead all-caps headline read.

On Fox News, home of presidential cheerleaders like Sean Hannity and the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” the response from the network’s political journalists was mixed.

A daytime news anchor, Bill Hemmer, kicked off the postgame show by calling the event “fascinating” — Lester Holt of NBC News used the same descriptor — and went on to give a nuts-and-bolts summary of the highlights. Bret Baier, the network’s chief political anchor, called it “quite something — almost surreal at points.”

But Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief and Fox News contributor, was unsparing when he attacked a Putin proposal that Trump had embraced: that Russia might cooperate with the United States in investigating breaches of its election security.

“From my perspective as an intelligence officer, it’s like inviting a criminal to help you solve a crime you know that they committed,” Hoffman said. His interlocutor, Hemmer, seemed taken aback. “So you don’t believe in that,” he said, after an awkward pause.

Later, Mary Kissel, a Wall Street Journal editorial board member, took issue with Fox News anchor Sandra Smith’s optimistic account of the news conference, asking, “Where is the evidence that we can trust Putin to follow through on what he says?”

John Roberts, the network’s chief White House correspondent, weighing in from Helsinki, offered a different view of why the special counsel, Robert Mueller, may not cooperate with Russia on any investigation: “There are some people who might say it’s because Mueller doesn’t want to know the truth,” Roberts said.

Journalists were once again the target of Trump’s grievances during his time in Helsinki. Standing beside Putin at the news conference, he lumped “the media” in with Democrats and “partisan critics” as naysaying obstructers to his presidency. His comment came a day after he had revived his “enemy of the people” attack on the press in a much-discussed tweet.

But it was clear Monday that the most revealing exchanges at the appearance of the two heads of state were prompted by questions from the U.S. news media.

The questioners selected by the White House — Jeff Mason of Reuters and Jonathan Lemire of The Associated Press — worked to get answers from Trump and Putin on the most significant topics surrounding the summit: the charges by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential race and whether Trump believed Putin’s claim of innocence. In a follow-up, Lemire asked Putin if he had compromising material on Trump.

“It’s hard to imagine greater nonsense,” the Russian president replied, staring at the reporter. “Please get this rubbish out of your heads.”

On the Russian side, questions came from Interfax, the Russian news agency, and RT, the state-controlled Russian television network.

Television coverage of the Helsinki summit is not yet over: Fox News secured two interviews scheduled for broadcast later Monday. Putin is set to be interviewed by Chris Wallace, the anchor of “Fox News Sunday.” And Trump is scheduled to discuss the proceedings with a friendly network face: Hannity.