During this impeachment, for example, viewers of Fox News primetime programming saw Tucker Carlson declare that he was “Rooting for Russia” in its conflict with Ukraine. In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Russia, Carlson made it clear that was still his position. He rationalized Russia’s alleged concerns and insisted that Putin was being unfairly demonized in the West. Time and again he amplified Putin’s argument that Ukraine posed a threat to Russia, particularly Putin’s later rationale for the invasion. Carlson recently was a must on Russian state television.
What Fox News hasn’t said much about is Trump’s enthusiasm for Putin. When he said last week that Putin’s ploy to invade Ukraine was “brilliant,” a mark of Russian “know-how,” Fox News barely covered it. Other outlets have challenged Republicans to respond to Trump’s comments (comments he continued to echo even as recently as this weekend), but they have generally refused to do so. Instead, the network (including Carlson) aired interviews that indirectly echo Trump’s point, however.
It got so bad that even the network’s Jennifer Griffin strongly criticized the guests who were interviewed. One, retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor, whom she called an “apologist” for Russia. Fox News interviews of Macgregor, including the one decried by Griffin, broadcast on Russian state television; days after Griffin ripped up his commentary, Carlson hosted Macgregor for an interview.
On Wednesday morning, however, the network welcomed another voice offering condemnation of Putin that likely wouldn’t air on Carlson’s show: that of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McConnell is one of the Republicans who chose not to directly criticize Trump’s praise for Putin. At a press conference On Tuesday, he was asked if it was a mistake on Trump’s part to make the comments.
“What President Putin is is a ruthless thug who just invaded another sovereign country and killed thousands of innocent people,” McConnell replied. “That’s what President Putin is.”
During his Fox News interview the following day, however, he go slightly further.
“There should be no confusion about Vladimir Putin,” McConnell said. “Now there has been some confusion lately. He’s a thug. He’s a killer. He’s been on a rampage and it’s not going to end well for him.
When asked if he thinks Putin has changed, McConnell replied that “he’s always been that way”.
McConnell was being interviewed on Fox’s morning news program, a show that draws about half as many viewers as Carlson’s prime-time show. It’s unclear how much of an overlap there is between the two or if viewers will understand that McConnell was at least implicitly berating Trump and Carlson. It was about as mild a rebuke as it gets – some people somewhere muddyed the waters – but it was a rebuke nonetheless.
Most viewers probably didn’t need to be told that Putin is not a positive figure on the world stage. A recent poll showed that most Americans – 9 in 10 of those with an opinion – view Putin unfavorably. That includes just over 8 in 10 Republicans holding an opinion according to the Yahoo News-YouGov poll. But some Republicans may need more convincing. A third told YouGov they think Putin is doing a better job leading his country than Biden; while Democrats were 78 points more likely to say the invasion of Ukraine was unjustified than justified, the gap among Republicans was only 64 points.
The odds that those Republicans will be more won over by McConnell’s criticisms than Carlson’s rationalizations or Trump’s defensiveness are slim. The Senate Minority Leader has been a regular foil to Trump, particularly in the wake of the 2020 election. But he at least offered another voice of skepticism about Putin’s motives on a network where many louder voices presented a very different perspective.