“Impeach Yourselves!” read the banner headline on Breitbart.com Wednesday morning, summing up what much of the right-wing news world thinks of the congressional impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump that had been launched the previous day.
“The psychotic anti-Trump hysteria has now completely overtaken the entire Democratic Party,” Fox News anchor and Trump booster Sean Hannity told nearly 4 million viewers Tuesday.
“They think anytime a Republican is elected president, there must have been something ‘illegitimate’ going on,” Kevin D. Williamson wrote in the National Review Thursday.
So far, so typical. This is, after all, the umpteenth Trump scandal to set the country’s mainstream news outlets on fire while conservatives roll their eyes.
But there’s one conspicuous exception: The Drudge Report has for the last three days been spewing ALL CAPS, bolded, underlined, and sometimes bright-red headlines that sound terribly grim for the president.
“REPUBLICAN CRACKS EMERGE”
“AMERICA BRACES FOR IMPEACHMENT”
These were presumably written by the elusive Matt Drudge, who has been courted by Republican presidents and would-be presidents since he helped bring about President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 using exactly the same website and screaming all-capital type. In some ways Drudge’s fervent coverage of “IMPEACHMENT 2019” is a return to form. But it’s also an extraordinary break between the right-wing internet’s godfather and its favorite president.
Drudge, who could not be reached for comment, exploded out of obscurity during the Clinton era, when he turned his political gossip blog into a fount of juicy scoops about the president.
“EXCLUSIVE … MORE THAN 75 PIXS THAT SHOW LEWINSKY/CLINTON TOGETHER!” read a typical headline. “LEWINSKY THREATENED SUICIDE OVER CLINTON.”
Some media watchdogs complained that Drudge’s scoops often proved imaginary, but Drudge nevertheless broke the news on Jan. 17, 1998, that Newsweek was sitting on a story about Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which helped elevate an obscure D.C. rumor to front-page news and congressional intervention.
Drudge then became more or less the spiritual founder of and gatekeeper to the emerging conservative internet. “Call it the Drudge effect,” Chris Cillizza wrote in The Washington Post in 2007, after the website disrupted Rudy Giuliani’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by leaking an old video of him praising abortion rights.
Drudge’s favor became almost a necessity for any Republican who wanted to win or keep national office. The New York Times reported that the campaigns of both President George W. Bush and the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, employed unofficial emissaries to Drudge, tasked with keeping him and his millions of readers on their side.
Even Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had one in her 2008 primary fight: consultant Tracy Sefl, who was nicknamed the “Drudge Whisperer” for her ability to get positive Clinton headlines on the site.
“It’s been a big mistake for conservatives to assume that Drudge is not pliable,” Sefl told The Washington Post. “His loyalties are to himself and to the site, not to the party.”
But on the whole, the Drudge Report has reliably derided Democrats and championed Republicans.
Trump was no different, at first.
In the final weeks of his presidential race with Hillary Clinton in 2016, the Drudge Report ran oversized headlines falsely claiming her husband Bill had a secret love child.
The site announced Trump’s inauguration with a two-word, plus-seven size headline: “AMERICA AGAIN!”
Trump has returned the affection, once taking a break from his State of the Union preparations to tweet an image of the Drudge Report, which had just dubbed him “TEFLON DONALD.” His campaign has gone so far as to send fundraising emails that mimic the website’s typewriter/ransom-letter aesthetic.
It’s unclear what, if anything, caused the Drudge-Trump bond to fray this summer. CNN’s Oliver Darcy noticed it last month, pointing out in newsletters that Drudge had been hammering Trump over economic news for several consecutive days.
And then came Tuesday’s impeachment announcement, and the deluge of red, bold and underlined Drudgelines:
“COMPLAINT ALLEGES COVER-UP”
“DEMS SPEED IT UP”
“It may be a strange thing to say, but Drudge is making a journalistic decision here,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute. “Not only is he leaning in, but the places he’s linking to are an interesting range: The Hill. MSNBC. It’s not just Ann Coulter; it’s also Peggy Noonan,” referring to the far-right and more moderate commentators, respectively.
“He’s a weather vane, in a sense. If you’re a Republican or conservative or an operative and you’re trying to see which way the wind is blowing, the tone of Drudge has to have an effect on you. This is a signal. This is bad.”
Sefl, the Hillary Clinton campaign adviser, didn’t find Drudge’s break with Trump very surprising given his involvement with the country’s previous impeachment scandal. “A story of this magnitude is his caffeine,” she said.
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