NEW YORK — Television networks moved swiftly Monday from deciphering a mystery to setting up battle stations in their coverage of President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fox News Channel and MSNBC have become the two most popular networks in cable television with opinionated prime-time lineups. Monday, they assigned their stars Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow — as opposed to straight news anchors — to quarterback coverage of Trump’s announcement, a made-for-TV moment with a big reveal.
“We are moments away from one of the most important and consequential decisions in American history,” Hannity said in opening the show.
Fox News Channel is likely to be the outlet where most Americans learned of Trump’s decision. Fox News was a close second to CBS last year when Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch in a similar prime-time show, but that was on a winter night when many CBS viewers were probably anticipating a new episode of “NCIS.”
Fox’s coverage was led by Trump’s fiercest defender in the media and a confidant of the president who reportedly speaks to him regularly.
Following Trump’s announcement, Hannity spoke to Fox correspondents Shannon Bream, John Roberts and Ed Henry. Henry read a partial quote from a Democratic National Committee statement that said Kavanaugh shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the Supreme Court.
“I’m convinced if the president gave every American five million dollars, the left would still oppose him,” Hannity said.
He said Kavanaugh is considered “a brilliant judicial mind” and his selection was the result of a process set by “the most transparent president in history.” The reference was to a list of potential Supreme Court nominees that Trump revealed before the presidential election, which included both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.
Hannity said of another potential Trump choice, Amy Coney Barrett, that “she’s next.”
“We’ll also show you all the ways predictably the Democrats will try to obstruct the president’s constitutional duty,” Hannity said. “They’re already starting the smearing, the besmirching, the fear mongering and the character assassination of Judge Kavanaugh.”
Over on MSNBC, Maddow’s coverage looked markedly different, with discussions of the successful Republican effort to block a vote on President Barack Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, and the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s contact with Russia. She asked viewers to consider “the snapshot” of Trump associates — including Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen — under investigation or facing charges.
“We shouldn’t lose sight of what a remarkable thing this is that has just happened tonight,” she said. “The nomination comes at a time when that choice is fraught and consequential in ways that have never applied to any other U.S. president, ever.”
In a discussion with Chris Matthews, Maddow said Kavanaugh appeared to be the only one on Trump’s list who is on the record as asserting that a president should be exempt from criminal investigation and prosecution while in office, other than by Congress.
“Does the phrase ‘judge shopping’ come to mind?” Matthews said.
With Trump no favorite among liberals, Maddow’s audience is likely to be smaller: Fox drew nearly five times as many viewers as MSNBC for Gorsuch’s nomination, the Nielsen company said.
Trump worked hard to keep news of Kavanaugh’s nomination from leaking, though several news organizations confirmed it in the minutes leading up to the announcement. Even as guests entered the East Room of the White House on Monday night, placards resting on chairs in the front room simply read, “Nominee Family.” The teleprompter in the back didn’t include Kavanaugh’s name.
“I don’t think we’ve gotten this close to an announcement before without it leaking,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said.
The president “is the producer,” said CNN analyst and former Obama aide David Axelrod. “He doesn’t want anyone messing up the show.”
As Trump approached the podium, Hannity said The Associated Press had reported that Kavanaugh was the choice. Before Trump announced his choice, NBC ran a chyron that said Kavanaugh would be it. ABC and CBS went with messages that Trump was announcing his nominee, and added Kavanaugh’s name when the judge joined Trump onstage.
Associated Press writers Lynn Elber in Los Angeles and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.