On Thursday, all three network morning shows hyperventilated over the news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2016, met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. While the NBC, ABC, and CBS broadcasts all seized on Democrats calling for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign, the same networks tried to excuse a meeting between then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton at the height of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.
Leading off NBC’s Today, Matt Lauer proclaimed: “Breaking overnight, Attorney General Jeff Sessions facing calls to resign over a new revelation that he met with Russia's ambassador during the presidential campaign.” In a report minutes later, correspondent Peter Alexander announced: “With lawmakers calling for an independent investigation into Russian interference in the election and possible contacts between candidate Trump's campaign and the Russians, this morning, bombshell revelations. The Washington Post first reporting Attorney General Jeff Sessions...had two conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. last year...”
In a discussion with political analyst Mark Halperin that followed, co-host Savannah Guthrie wondered: “Is the political pressure now so high that Sessions is really gonna feel the heat and feel that he has to step aside and get a special prosecutor?” Halperin responded: “...there’s big pressure now on Capitol Hill, what kind of investigation will Capitol Hill do of all of these Russia questions? And this is, because of how explosive it is....the pressure there’s gonna be greater for a large congressional investigation.”
He concluded: “The Attorney General’s putting this off as these are innocent meetings, maybe they are. But they clearly raise suspicion.”
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At the top of ABC’s Good Morning America, co-host George Stephanopoulos declared: “Breaking overnight, President Trump’s attorney general under fire. New reports that Jeff Sessions spoke to the Russian ambassador twice before the election.” Senior justice correspondent Pierre Thomas reported: “Some Democrats are calling on Sessions to resign after reports that he met with the Russian ambassador before the election and did not tell Congress during his confirmation hearings.”
All this critical because U.S. Intelligence agencies have been investigating whether any Trump associates were communicating with Russian officials during the campaign....Sessions has been under pressure from Democrats to recuse himself because he was one of Trump's earliest congressional supporters and the key adviser during the campaign. Now, with questions about his own contacts with Russians, Democrats are calling for him to step aside from any investigations involving the Russians and there will likely be additional calls for a special prosecutor.
Starting CBS This Morning, co-host Norah O’Donnell hyped: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions is under pressure to recuse himself from the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.” Moments later, she added: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions is under new pressure to withdraw from an investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election. The Justice Department confirms that Sessions spoke with Russia’s U.S. ambassador twice last year while he was a U.S. senator and adviser to the Trump campaign.”
Fellow co-host Gayle King chimed in: “And now, some congressional Democrats are calling for the Attorney General to resign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said this: ‘Jeff Sessions lied under oath and is not fit to serve.’”
For all the sensational headlines over Sessions, when news broke of a secret airport meeting between then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Clinton in June of 2016, in midst of the FBI investigating then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server, the networks were happy to provide every benefit of the doubt to the Obama administration cabinet official and the Clinton campaign.
On the June 30 CBS This Morning, co-host Charlie Rose introduced a report on the topic with: “Attorney General Loretta Lynch met privately this week with former President Bill Clinton at a Phoenix airport. Lynch says there was no discussion about the FBI probe.” O’Donnell added: “...the meeting that aides say was an unplanned coincidence.”
After a soundbite played of Lynch claiming that Clinton simply wanted to “say hello” and that they discussed their “grandchildren,” correspondent Nancy Cordes offered: “An aide to President Clinton told CBS News saying hello to a cabinet secretary or other dignitaries is a courtesy the former president always extends.” She then acknowledged: “But even the impression of favoritism could hurt Lynch as her department investigates Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server as Secretary of State. Some Republicans have called for the appointment of a special prosecutor.”
It was not until the next day, July 1, that ABC and NBC covered the controversy on their evening newscasts. On World News Tonight, correspondent Tom Llamas assured viewers: “Aides to Bill Clinton and Lynch say it was a chance meeting, and they were simply exchanging pleasantries....all personal, no business.”
On NBC Nightly News, correspondent Andrea Mitchell dismissed the notion of anything improper: “They run into each other on the tarmac at the airport. It's 108 degrees so they board her air-conditioned government plane along with her husband and visit for 30 minutes....Lynch saying it was social about golf, grandchildren and visits each had paid to former Attorney General Janet Reno, who is ailing.”
Only brief mentions were made of Republican criticism at the end of both reports.
On her MSNBC show earlier that afternoon, Mitchell actually labeled speculation about the suspicious meeting to be nothing but “conspiracy theories.” On Morning Joe, Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd downplayed the controversy as mere “human error.”
Two attorneys general, two political parties, and two radically different standards of media coverage.