What should be the focus of coverage when three United States prisoners are freed from North Korea? If you’re the journalists at CNN overnight, you make sure to mention the Robert Mueller investigation, Stormy Daniels and to worry about Donald Trump getting credit for these Americans returning.
At 2:26 AM ET, in the early hours of Thursday, CNN’s cameras were waiting for Trump and Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base. Journalist John Vause deemed this the time to speculate on scandals: “Donald Trump believes that this success in the foreign policy field might be enough, you know, to distract attention away from the Robert Mueller investigation into Russia, the criminal investigation of his own personal attorney, you know, the Stormy Daniels affair.”
Senior White house Correspondent Jeff Zeleny reminded: “The Mueller investigation is indeed alive and well.” Was anyone not aware of this? Zeleny added: “But the White House officials and supporters of the President actually hope he can focus on something substantive like the release of these three Americans.”
(In 2009, Zeleny’s idea of a hardball to Barack Obama was to ask him what “enchanted” the Democrat about being president.)
At 2:56 AM ET, CNN brought on Philip Yun, who was an adviser for Bill Clinton, to whine about Trump being there to greet the returning American prisoners: “Well, this is Donald Trump as a... TV moment for him. If nothing else, he knows how to get publicity, how to a bleed a lot of drama.”
Later, Vause and Zeleny returned to worry about the credit the President might get for these Americans coming home:
JOHN VAUSE: Jeff, what's interesting is in the past like when Donald Trump went to Las Vegas after the, you know, mass shooting there. He met with the first responders, the medical workers.
How soon will it be before we see images these turned around and, you know, put out on social media by the President or some kind of, you know, a campaign message?
ZELENY: I expect before the sun rises you will see something like that without question. I mean, that is just the fact of life in the social media times certainly this President, you know, certainly aware of the images. I expect his campaign to mention it and he certainly will share this message.
To be sure, CNN journalists did cite the return of the prisoners as “good news” and a moment of celebration. But there was a signifigant amount of time devoted to whining about optics, credit and even discussions of Mueller and Stormy Daniels.
At 6:08 AM ET, CNN International journalist Will Ripley chided about Donald Trump “exploiting” the prisoners:
To see the men put on camera after the isolation they endured, especially Kim. He spent day in, day out in a labor camp, carrying heavy rocks, being fed meals that had bugs in them, according to other people that have been held in north Korean labor camps and described the conditions. To go from that isolation for two and a half years to you are face-to-face with Donald Trump and you do have dozens of photographers taking your picture, I do worry that they were being exploited a bit.
Oddly, in CNN host Brian Stelter’s evening e-mail on Wednesday, the journalist complained: “But it's disheartening to see how even this story has been placed on the pro/anti-Trump axis. Trump fans on social media are already lambasting the news media for not covering the homecoming enough, and for not giving Trump enough credit.” Perhaps Stelter should have watched his own network’s late night coverage.
A partial transcript is below. Click “expand” to read more:
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3 minutes and 8 seconds
VAUSE: Jeff Zeleny, to you, obviously, you know, it's 2:26 in the morning. The president is there. He knows that this is a feel-good moment and there is some reporting out there that maybe, you know, Donald Trump believes that this success in the foreign policy field might be enough, you know, to distract attention away from the Robert Mueller investigation into Russia, the criminal investigation of his own personal attorney, you know, the Stormy Daniels affair. What sort of thinking there in the White House? What have you heard?
ZELENY: There is no question that all of these weighty matter here is are indeed giving the President something to focus on and as we were just watching, the secretary of state's plane landing, I can see it just going in the distance there. So extraordinary to point out that he is the brand-new Secretary of State. Mike Pompeo just confirmed less than two weeks ago, and already he is returning home from his second trip to see Kim Jong-un. That is significant in every respect. The President pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal this week so significant.
But the headlines here in the United States still have been about the Russia controversy, largely because the President fuels that himself. Largely because of all of these developments of course with his long-time lawyer and fixer. You know, the Mueller investigation is indeed alive and well.
But the White House officials and supporters of the President actually hope he can focus on something substantive like the release of these three Americans, and indeed this diplomacy here. It is something that could actually lift the President. It is something that could certainly help him here at home, but so significant it's a split screen presidency, no question about it, but this here, in the early morning hours of Washington, is something very real and something he clearly wants to be involved in. He knows optics, as we've been saying and that explains the flag behind me here, and it explains why he is here. John?
SESAY: Jeff Zeleny, we appreciate it again. Just to bring up —
ZELENY: And —
SESAY: Go ahead, Jeff.
ZELENY: No and I was also just going to say I think the next three weeks are going to be a key moment in this presidency. Yes, there are developments in the Mueller investigation. Every hour it seems, every day it seems. But what happens with the historic summit could shape this president's legacy and presidency and he has been saying that he is certainly willing to walk away from a meeting. But he is very keen on having this happen. So some White House officials I speak to hope he’s not too eager to make a deal here. It is something that has never been involved with anything like this. It’s extraordinary to think that, you know, for all the hot rhetoric that he was engaging in. Perhaps that was strategy, perhaps not. But this is a historic three weeks to come here before the meeting in Singapore likely in June.
1 minute and 28 seconds
VAUSE: So, Philip, this is unusual for a U.S. president to turn up at 2:30 a.m., it’s now 2:50 there at Joint Base Andrews to greet these detainees. You know, firsthand, moments after they touch down. Back home. So just explain the unusual nature to this and your thoughts on, you know, why Donald Trump is doing this and how it's break from tradition.
YUN: Well, this is Donald Trump as a TV — TV moment for him. If nothing else he knows how to get publicity, how to a bleed a lot of drama. He's the lead up to this has been teasers through Twitter. So, this is very consistent with what he does and as was said earlier this is pretty unusual. I mean, we’ve had former presidents come back with former, you know, former detainees as well. Clinton did. We had former CIA head of intelligence Clapper bring back some people as well. None of this fanfare at all. It's usually much more low key. This is unusual, but, you know, that’s President Trump. He's done everything differently and this is the way it's happening. My only concern is that it builds up way too much sort of expectation in certain ways as to what's possible and that's something we have to guard against. This does not mean we're to get a deal. It’s going take a little while.
ZELENY: And boy, I can tell you the crowd that is greeting them are photographers quite frankly dozens or at least a couple dozen photographers with their cameras trained towards this shot with the flag blind it. This is what the President and the white House want. This shot they believe is a, you know, if not the first chapter, perhaps the second chapter in what they hope will be real diplomacy with North Korea. But significant Melania Trump came with the President this evening. She doesn't always travel with him and do things with him. But this is a moment that certainly her grace and touch is certainly appreciated and necessary.
1 minute and 12 seconds
VAUSE: You know, Jeff, what's interesting is in the past like when Donald Trump went to Las Vegas after the, you know, mass shooting there. He met with the first responders, the medical workers.
VAUSE: And that video was turned into a campaign sort of a video which they put on social media. We saw something similar when he went to, you know, Texas during the hurricanes there. How soon will it be before we see images these turned around and, you know, put out on social media by the President or some kind of, you know, a campaign message?
ZELENY: I — I expect before the sun rises you will see something like that without question. I mean, that is just the fact of life in the social media times certainly this President, you know, certainly aware of the images. I expect his campaign to mention it and he certainly will share this message. The question, I think, in a deeper way, is, you know, what happens when that meeting takes place with Kim Jong un. Is he going to be able to negotiate, you know, something lasting? You know, the Iran nuclear deal which was dismantled this week was, you know, years in the making. This is at the very beginning road of this. But it clearly is something that this President wants to do.
2 minutes and 4 seconds
SESAY: It is notable and we should let it pass that as the President welcomed the three Americans back home, in those remarks he hit two familiar notes. One would be to reference ratings and say this is going to break the record for ratings at 3:00 a.m. We know the President is fond of talking about ratings and secondly to hit out at The New York Times.
ZELENY: Yes. I mean, that was classic president Trump could not have gotten through a moment even one as symbolic and weighty as this without talking about the ratings. You can see, you know, the glimmer in his eye and saw all the TV cameras had come for him at 3:00 in the morning here in Washington. And he made a joke as you said that it was the best ratings for any show at 3:00 a.m. Eastern time in Washington. But also he did take a shot, as you said, at The New York Times. He's been doing this for several days, specifically about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
He was referencing a criticism that was in the editorial pages earlier, but I think, setting that aside, the President clearly was enjoying this moment. He was also saying, you know, this is a special night. Congratulations for being in your country. So, you know, fraught with symbolism, certainly weighted with symbolism. The President is headed back to the White House, getting sleep perhaps before he begins the day Thursday. But boy, the real work actually begins on diplomacy now as they work toward setting up the final details of the meeting. It will be announced officially in the coming days and certainly he will be meeting with Secretary of State to debrief him and again make a strategy for that face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un. That will be the biggest diplomatic presidential moment that Trump has faced and it will take some planning and preparation.
1 minute and 49 seconds
VAUSE: Everybody has the hope that these talks succeed, but I guess one of the concerns is that, you know, made for TV moments like this one with the President turning up at 2:00 in the morning at Joint Base Andrews to greet these three detainees as they arrive home seems to be hyping the situation and building up a lot of expectations ahead of these talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong un and that's where there could be some problems.
KENNETH CHOI: Well, you know, the President Trump is clearly understanding how the media operates and I think, you know, 3:00 in the morning he's talking about the ratings. Yes, it’s somebody who’s understanding, you know, the TV thing. And I think he's raising all the hypes because he's got some confidence in getting things done. I just want to raise this up, Kim Jong-un, I think, two days ago met President Xi of China. And I hope they do not make any miscalculation because, you know, the North Koreans obviously meeting the President Xi from China because they want some sort of an insurance. And if President Xi from China, you know, does ease the sanctions issues.
Let’s say open the back door to dealings of trades or whatever going into North Korea. That will be a mistake because President Trump is clearly mentioning there will be no ease of sanction until North Korea actually steps into the right direction and start denuclearization process. So I hope that President Trump, President Xi, and maybe Prime Minister Abe and maybe President Moon they are all on the same page talking about the denuclearization process and I hope the North Korean leader also gets on this board, on our side. And make sure that they're on the same page about how the denuclearization process should take place.