July 24, 2024

© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump walks to his plane after speaking at a campaign rally at Waco Regional Airport in Waco, Tex., on Saturday, March 25, 2023. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It started at the top, late Thursday afternoon.

Reporters staking out the clerk’s office at the New York County Criminal Court building noticed an unusual commotion. After the media was steered out of the area, it became clear what was happening: charges were being filed against former president Donald Trump, a normally mundane action now loaded with historic significance.

The news broke soon after, followed by a tidal wave of emotion. Trump and his allies roared against the perceived injustice, an act they positioned as inextricably linked to politics and the left’s purportedly endless effort to hobble him. Those who vehemently dislike Trump were giddy. After any number of close escapes, here, it seemed, was the accountability that they’d been expecting for some eight years.

Whether that is the outcome remains to be determined. The charges filed in Manhattan, though, were unquestionably the most significant personal threat Trump has faced in recent memory, stemming (according to news reports) from his effort to keep an alleged extramarital affair out of the public eye. And while it should be presumed that he is innocent of the charges on which he’ll be arraigned next week, that the charges exist at all reflects a shift after years in which he repeatedly skated safely out of reach.

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But the indictment was just the start. Early Friday afternoon, it was Fox News’s turn.

The cable channel’s long-obvious political predilections and partisan practices have of late been thrown open to public scrutiny. A lawsuit filed against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems, a voting-machine manufacturer repeatedly linked by Fox coverage to non-existent election fraud, sued the channel for defamation. As part of the lawsuit, Dominion gained access to enormous numbers of messages sent between executives, hosts and staff and had the opportunity to depose Fox employees including chairman Rupert Murdoch.

What was revealed was stunning, even given the channel’s understood slant. In the wake of the 2020 election, Fox found itself being pulled by Trump and his supporters to embrace and elevate false fraud claims, including claims centered on Dominion. They succumbed to the pull, recognizing correctly that other channels, like Newsmax, would gobble up their viewership if they didn’t.

The bar is justifiably high for suing a media outlet; if defamation suits were common and simple, it would be relatively easy to shut down negative coverage by draining an outlet’s time and money with frivolous or bad-faith suits. The evidence at hand, though, suggested strongly that Dominion had a decent chance of prevailing.

Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis reinforced that sense in a ruling released less than 24 hours after Trump’s indictment.

“The evidence developed in this civil proceeding demonstrates that is CRYSTAL clear that none of the Statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true,” the ruling stated at one point, referring to on-air comments.

In other words, Davis determined that Fox had, in fact, presented false claims about Dominion. It will be up to a jury to decide whether Fox did so with malice — making them liable for the false information shared by prominent hosts and their guests.

“This case is and always has been about the First Amendment protections of the media’s absolute right to cover the news,” the channel said in a statement, one of many in the same theme over the past few months. “FOX will continue to fiercely advocate for the rights of free speech and a free press as we move into the next phase of these proceedings.”

As Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia, said of the decision in an interview with The Post: “This is a disastrous decision for Fox.”

Again, it had long seemed that Fox’s often misleading or outright untrue claims led to little or no repercussions. While it could still prevail in the jury trial, the judge’s determination that the network had misled its viewers was a humiliation of its own for a network that’s been successful at brushing aside criticism of its subjectivity.

Within about 22 hours, the right’s political heavyweight and its biggest force in the media were both knocked off balance. And then, soon after the Fox ruling, the right’s vocal, aggressive online community got its turn.

Back in 2016, at about the time that alleged affair by Trump was being covered up, one of his fervent supporters began publishing social media posts suggesting that supporters of Trump’s Democratic opponent could vote by text message. Douglass Mackey — then a well-known social-media troll — created ads targeting likely supporters of Hillary Clinton, like black women, and suggesting that they could cast ballots with their phones. Attempting to keep people from voting is a violation of federal law and, on Friday, a jury convicted Mackey on a conspiracy charge.

The case had long been cast by the right as an effort by prosecutors working for a Democratic administration cracking down on an opposing voice, an attempt to “criminalize memes.” A federal jury, presented with an articulation of Mackey’s actions and the letter of the law, disagreed. News broke just about 24 hours after the charges against Trump had appeared at the clerk’s office in Manhattan.

For years, three central facets of right-wing politics in the United States — the aggressive online community, the media juggernaut and the leader of the fringe right — had run at or past the boundaries without issue. Then, over an exceptional 24-hour period, each stumbled. Mackey will be sentenced. Fox will go to trial. Trump will be arraigned.

What comes next is uncertain. But that uncertainty is itself, in this context, something novel.