What a difference a new administration makes. After spending years as self-appointed patrollers of so-called political optics, relentlessly ticketing Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for supposedly major and minor infractions, the D.C. press has dropped that pursuit under Donald Trump.
No longer obsessing over how things look or bemoaning a lack of proper theatrics, Beltway journalists have shelved that pursuit under the current Republican president, whose optics are routinely horrendous as he tweets out racist taunts, bullies adversaries, and buddies up to foreign dictators. Faced with an openly corrupt president who doesn't even try to hide his misdeeds, the media's police squad has gone into hiding and stopped handing out tickets altogether.
As a rule, there was no brazen corruption or lawbreaking when recent Democratic presidents were in office, so the press had to lean into “optics” in order to create drama and allegations of wrongdoing. The optics-based attacks also helped amplify Republican narratives and attacks on Democrats. The media's same misguided approach was applied to Clinton's 2016 campaign. And the press claims were always the same: We can't find any actual evidence of wrongdoing, but we just don't like the way things look.
Interestingly, the optics beat was recently resurrected—not to judge and assess Trump, but to belittle former special counsel Robert Mueller and his congressional testimony on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Donning their theater critic caps, reporters and pundits rushed out to announce that the optics of the testimony were flat, and that the hearings had been a “flop” for Democrats and their push for impeachment. It was a GOP-friendly conclusion that turned out to be completely erroneous.
Most people look back and laugh at the media kerfuffle that erupted when President Barack Obama wore a tan suit to a press briefing during the summer of 2014. People laugh because, in hindsight, the press outrage seems to be so ridiculously petty and pointless. (It's a suit!) But at the time, it was a big deal for the Optics Police, and journalists were serious in their anger.
Obama was sending the wrong message, they claimed. Obama misread the room. Obama was ignoring Beltway traditions. On and on that kind of nitpicking coverage continued for all eight years of Obama’s presidency, as pundits kept insisting America's first black president just couldn’t quite find his groove and hit the right savvy optics chord. (Why didn't he schmooze more?)
And let's not forget that the media's entire Clinton Foundation witch hunt, which raged through 2015 and 2016, was built entirely around supposed bad optics.