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On the eve of war, Tucker Carlson defended Putin. Now he’s backpedaling

A man in a suit on the TV news set
Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)
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The conflict in Ukraine and backpedaling were the main themes of Tucker Carlson’s show Thursday after the Fox News host was slammed for defending Russian President Vladimir Putin, and dragging President Biden, in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of the Eastern European nation.

“I don’t think anybody approves of what Putin did yesterday,” he said. “I certainly don’t.”

That wasn’t the note he sounded 24 hours earlier, just before tanks rolled over the border between Ukraine and Belarus, bombs detonated over the capital, Kyiv, and families sought shelter in underground subway stations. As on-scene reporters stressed the gravity of the situation, and American media outlets reacted with equal solemnity, one notable exception emerged: Fox News.

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As Putin started a war, the conservative news outlet’s top talent sympathized with the former KGB-agent-turned-despot over the U.S. and its allies — a stunning move even for the network that provided a megaphone for Trump’s Big Lie about a “rigged” election. But on Wednesday, any expectation that Carlson and Fox News colleague Laura Ingraham would tone down the pro-Putin disinformation they’d been feeding their viewers quickly evaporated.

Fox News abandoned “fair and balanced” before Donald Trump assumed office, but its assault on truth has only ramped up since. And the devolution was televised.

Jan. 19, 2021

Instead, Carlson used Wednesday’s show to wave the flag not for the U.S. or its suffering ally Ukraine, but for Putin. Questioning why we should hate the autocratic and isolated Russian ruler, the “Tucker Carlson Tonight” host discounted Ukraine as “a pure client state of the United States State Department.”

That same evening, Ingraham blamed the conflict on the “weakness and the incompetence” of the Biden administration, a position echoed by a number of Republican elected officials, and called Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky’s desperate appeal for Putin to stop the attack a “pathetic display.” You read that correctly. She was mocking a last-ditch effort to save lives and country.

A woman in a purple top speaks at a microphone
Laura Ingraham speaks during the third day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Characterizing the Russian advance as a “border dispute,” Carlson preferred to lay blame on the opposition: Democrats had conditioned folks “to hate Putin,” he said, going so far as to urge his viewers to rethink their feelings about good ol’ Vlad: “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?”

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The answer, to Carlson’s mind, is no. (Nothing, not even jailing antiwar protesters, is worse than submitting cable news hosts to criticism.) Which makes Putin the good guy and Biden the bad. And since Joe likes Ukraine, Fox News logic demands irrationally turning on your own country and supporting the enemy to ... own the libs?

Never mind the unprovoked attack was soon condemned by multiple heads of state, or that it prompted sanctions and sparked protests from Sydney to St. Petersburg. Carlson had all the footing he needed: Former President Trump had already referred to Putin as a “genius” for his aggression in the region, just as he had spoken highly for years of the man whose meddling helped him into the White House.

For the first time in decades, foreign correspondents find themselves covering a European conflict.

Feb. 24, 2022

By primetime Thursday, Carlson had changed his tune: “Vladimir Putin started this war,” he said. “He is to blame tonight for what we’re seeing tonight in the Ukraine.”

Then he quickly pivoted. “The question is ... how should the United States respond to what he has done? Within minutes of the outbreak of the war last night the usual liars on television began leveraging this tragedy for partisan political gain. ... It’s contemptible. But we’re going to ignore that tonight and talk about what matters.”

As much as Carlson wanted folks to ignore his previous week (OK, five years) of blowing kisses at Russia’s strongman, his love letters were scattered about social media. Russian state media reportedly aired his flattering commentary with subtitles to show Putin’s subjects how Americans really feel, as well as an article titled, “Tucker Carlson wonders why U.S. elites hate Putin.”

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The pro-Russia stance of the network’s “opinion” hosts created quite the cognitive dissonance with Fox’s news operations. Whiplash kicked in Wednesday when the network moved from mortar blasts to partisan chatter. Trey Yingst in Kyiv reported from under a helmet against the backdrop of sirens, then host Shannon Bream threw to White House correspondent Kevin Corke, who immediately situated the reactions of American politicians within the realm of Democratic/Republican squabbling.

“Barack Obama, you may recall, said to Mitt Romney’s suggestion back in 2012 that the Kremlin was America’s number one enemy that ‘the 1980s called, they want their foreign policy back,’” Corke said. “Joe Biden at the time said we were mired in a Cold War mind-set if you listened to Romney. Hillary Clinton said his thinking was dated and backward....”

As for reaction from inside the Kremlin? You’ll have to ask Carlson.

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