NEW YORK (AP) — After President Donald Trump spoke live for more than an hour Thursday about his impeachment acquittal, one television network anchor apologized to viewers for a presidential obscenity, while another said it was like watching someone on a therapist’s couch.
Yet there’s no indication that anyone in the control rooms at ABC, CBS and NBC considered pulling the plug on him.
During his time at a White House podium, Trump denounced his political opponents with vulgarities, individually thanked supporters in the audience — including suggesting GOP Rep. Steve Scalise has gotten better looking since being shot — and apologized to no one except his family, for having to endure his impeachment.
There was little question that a president’s first speech after a Senate trial and acquittal was newsworthy enough for broadcasters to break into regular programming. Yet it wasn’t a prepared address, and as it went on complaints grew on social media from viewers who had seen enough.
Network executives wouldn’t speak publicly about whether pulling away from Trump was a consideration. But in at least two network newsrooms, there was a strong thought that out of fairness, the president deserved the chance to be heard after several weeks where the impeachment hearings and trial were broadcast, said people familiar with the decisions who did not want to be identified while discussing confidential conversations.
A former NBC News executive said Thursday’s broadcasts illustrated the unique difficulties of dealing with Trump.
“Here we are, near the end of the president’s first term, and not one network has really figured out how to deal with him,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, now dean of Hofstra University’s communication school.
In past administrations, networks were used to dealing with a president’s staff to get clear indications of what a president would say, how long it would take and whether it would be newsworthy enough to merit breaking into broadcast programming.
Yet with Trump, they have a president whose staff is more used to doing battle with the press than working in concert. Sometimes they’re not entirely sure what he’s going to say themselves, particularly when the president is working without a script. Deciding how much of a president’s appearance to air is often a game of chicken, those involved say: Everyone is watching what their rivals are doing and is reluctant to stand alone.
And there’s always the risk of missing something completely unexpected and newsworthy.
It was NBC’s Lester Holt on Thursday who expressed regret for showing the president referring to an investigation into his actions as “bulls—-.”
“We apologize we were not able to intercept that,” Holt said. “It was a live event. But we wanted to note that it was obviously not something we wanted children to hear.”
ABC’s Terry Moran lamented that the language of a president, which used to be elevated, has changed.
“He is changing the way presidents speak, for better or worse,” Moran said. “Probably for the worse. He takes it down into profanity and vulgarity, into the very depths of the language, and joyfully, gleefully.”
A CNN headline described Trump as vindictive during his impeachment acquittal “celebration.”
CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson called Trump’s appearance bizarre, “sort of like a session you would have with your therapist.” Only in this case, the therapist couldn’t get any words in, she said.
Also on CNN, John Harwood said it was like watching someone who was in deep distress.
“This was a very disturbing tableau for the country,” he said.
On Fox News Channel, anchor Bret Baier paused briefly when asked for his assessment. “Clearly, this was not a teleprompter speech,” he said, describing it as “stream of consciousness.”
“It’s not traditional to give a political-type speech from the White House grounds,” he said. “But there’s nothing illegal about doing it.”