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Following the first 2016 presidential debate, Fox News defended Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s poor debate performance with an array of excuses and misinformation including misleading charts, “unscientific” online polling, and attacks on moderator Lester Holt. The network also offered Trump an immediate post-debate refuge with host Sean Hannity.
Donald Trump and his campaign are signaling a shift toward an election strategy laid out by conspiracy theorist, dirty trickster, and informal Trump adviser Roger Stone.
For months, Stone has pushed for Trump to invoke the Clintons’ supposed “war on women,” and both the candidate and campaign staffers have been making the rounds this week indicating that they plan to do so.
Stone heads a pro-Trump super PAC and previously served as a paid consultant to Trump’s campaign. He has been a key promoter of Trump’s candidacy in the media, particularly on the radio and internet program of 9/11 conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Stone himself is an ardent conspiracy theorist. He recently floated the theory that the Clintons had four people murdered over the summer, which dovetails with his previously stated claim that the couple is “plausibly responsible” for the deaths of roughly 40 people. Stone has also alleged that the Bush family “tried to kill” President Ronald Reagan, that President Lyndon Johnson was behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and that the father of Senator Ted Cruz was involved in the killing as well – a theory that was pushed by Donald Trump.
Stone said he had doubts that Clinton would have the stamina to do an entire 90-minute debate and claimed she was wearing an earpiece during NBC's candidate forum because she “clearly has no memory.” He also claimed Clinton was placed on an oxygen tank immediately after the recent presidential debate and “has some advanced form of epilepsy.”
Former Trump adviser Michael Caputo, guest hosting on the September 25 edition of WBEN’s Hardline, said he “heard more than one time Donald Trump say” that Stone’s book The Clintons’ War on Women “is his opposition research on the Clintons.” He added that Trump “has it on his desk.”
The book, co-authored by fellow conspiracy theorist Robert Morrow, describes itself as a guide to “how Bill and Hillary Clinton systematically abused women and others -- sexually, physically, and psychologically -- in their scramble for power and wealth.”
Morrow is also a discredited researcher. He has a history of bizarre sexual writings about Hillary Clinton and the Clinton family. Morrow also relishes tweeting the slur “nigger” and was ousted as the chair of the Travis County, TX, Republican Party by “party officials who found him a perpetual embarrassment.”
Previously, Trump has promoted Morrow and Stone’s book on his Twitter account. In January, after claiming that Bill Clinton was “one of the great woman abusers of all time," Trump cited Stone’s book for his claim that Hillary Clinton "went after the women very, very strongly and very viciously, according to the women and according to other sources."
Following his poorly received performance in Monday night’s debate, Trump appears ready to again follow Stone’s advice. Politico reported that “threats emanated from Trump Tower on Tuesday that the Republican nominee was preparing to name-check Bill Clinton’s mistresses — alleged or otherwise.”
Immediately after the debate, Trump told the media, “I'm really happy I was able to hold back on the indiscretions in respect to Bill Clinton. Because I have a lot of respect for Chelsea Clinton.” He added, “Maybe I'll tell you at the next debate. We'll see. But I'm very happy.”
Top Trump campaign surrogate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, “The president of the United States, her husband, disgraced this country with what he did in the Oval Office and she didn’t just stand by him, she attacked Monica Lewinsky. And after being married to Bill Clinton for 20 years, if you didn’t know the moment Monica Lewinsky said that Bill Clinton violated her that she was telling the truth, then you’re too stupid to be president.”
Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie appeared on Fox & Friends and said, “I think that if you look at Hillary Clinton's background and if you look at her being an enabler, really, in the '90s and really attacking these women, it goes against everything that she now tries to spout as a candidate for president.”
Eric Trump, the nominee’s son, lauded his father’s “courage” for not bringing up Lewinsky during the debate during a radio appearance.
The Stone-influenced strategy comes at the same time the Trump campaign is also reportedly receiving advice from Fox News founder and former chairman Roger Ailes, who was ousted from the network after former anchor Gretchen Carlson accused him of sexual harassment and sued him. Soon after, at least 25 women came forward, making very similar allegations about Ailes’ behavior over multiple decades. Recent reports indicate that after the debate debacle, Ailes’ role with the Trump campaign may be expanded.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has tried to divert media attention from his poor debate performance, claiming that he “eased up” on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and suggesting that he would use personal indiscretions of former President Bill Clinton to attack her in the future. By attempting to change the media conversation, Trump seeks to deflect attention from not only his performance, but also from issues raised during the debate such as his taxes, his birtherism, and his attacks on a former Miss Universe.
And news outlets have fallen for his manipulation, a media misstep that a CNN panel acknowledged while discussing the matter.
Trump’s September 26 debate performance has been widely panned, with some calling it “an unmitigated disaster” and saying Trump had a “terrible night.” Trump since then has tried to offer excuses for his performance by criticizing moderator Lester Holt and complaining about his debate microphone. During an interview on September 27 with Fox News' Fox & Friends, Trump put out another attempted distraction, claiming he had “eased up” on Clinton during the debate because of her feelings and saying he would have mentioned “the many affairs that Bill Clinton had” if their daughter Chelsea Clinton had not been in the room. The following day, also speaking to Fox, Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie accused Clinton of being “an enabler” of her husband’s infidelities, saying, “If you look at Hillary Clinton's background and if you look at her being an enabler, really, in the '90s and really attacking these women, it goes against everything that she now tries to spout as a candidate for president.”
Various media outlets have played right into Trump’s plan by sharing the remarks, reporting that Trump said he “held back” by not bringing up Bill Clinton’s past, repeating Bossie’s claim, and devoting time to the claims on cable news shows. When journalists report on what Trump didn’t do during the debate, they play into Trump’s plan to avoid additional scrutiny of his answers on “not paying his taxes or stiffing his workers,” as Jon Favreau pointed out.
Discussing Trump and Bossie’s remarks in a roundtable discussion on CNN’s At This Hour with Berman and Bolduan on September 28, co-host Kate Bolduan asked whether Trump was “just changing the subject from he didn’t have a good debate,” and New York Times reporter Alex Burns responded that “this is the version of changing the subject … that worked for Trump so well” before. Additionally, Democratic strategist Edward Espinoza pointed out that the Trump campaign was injecting the subject of Bill Clinton’s personal indiscretions into the campaign by having his surrogates bring it up in media, and that it was working because “we’re talking about it right now”:
EDWARD ESPINOZA: This is not a new issue for them. So for Donald [Trump] to bring something like this up -- and by the way, his surrogates bringing it up in the media right now is their way of getting it out without him having to get it out. We’re talking about it right now. But they’re prepared --
KATE BOLDUAN (CO-HOST): Is it getting out or just changing the subject from he didn’t have a good debate? Because we’ve seen kind of this tactic in the past.
ALEX BURNS: This is the version of changing the subject that Trump -- that worked for Trump so well when he ended up down 12 points in August, right? That when you careen from one fight that's charged with issues of race and gender from the next all summer, that's not what he's been doing for the last few weeks when he has drawn closer in the polls. And a return to that just because it sort of changes the subject and feels good in the short term, the people who see him as having made progress in the race badly do not want him to go there.
CNN’s panel was playing into exactly what the Trump campaign wanted -- and Espinoza admitted it. The panelists were discussing Bill Clinton’s indiscretions without forcing Trump to be part of the conversation, while also helping Trump in “changing the subject” from his debate performance.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump has been able to manipulate the press to cover what he wants in the way he wants and to ignore issues he has not wanted covered. In May, he held a press conference on his alleged donations to veterans groups, hijacking cable news discussions and largely avoiding coverage of an update regarding the lawsuit against Trump University. Earlier in September, Trump got free live cable news coverage of his Washington, D.C., hotel by teasing a “major announcement” on his birther campaign. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel has also noted that Trump has released “less policy detail than any candidate for president in my lifetime,” but because he “never fail[s] to offer enough detail to fit in a headline or cable news chyron,” he’s been able to “get credit — and the headline, and the chyron — for what other candidates would consider less than a bare minimum.” And as Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson noted earlier this year, “Trump can mainline his latest hot take into the mainstream media, basically any time of night or day” through his use of Twitter.
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Right-wing media surrogates defended Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s fat-shaming comments about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado by suggesting she had a contractual obligation to stay thin. This excuse falls far short of justifying the public shaming Machado has endured from Trump.
Trump has a long history of sexism and a penchant for belittling women. Trump attacked Fox anchor Megyn Kelly for her critical coverage, calling her “Crazy Megyn” and suggesting you could see “blood coming out of her wherever” following her tough questioning in Fox News’ Republican primary debate. Trump claimed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton got “schlonged” by President Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign. He defended former Fox CEO Roger Ailes against claims of sexual harassment, and now the notoriously sexist Ailes serves as an informal adviser to the Trump campaign.
Clinton attacked Trump’s history of sexism during the presidential debates, in part referencing the story of Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe winner, and saying Trump is “a man who has called women pigs, slobs, and dogs.” Trump went on Fox News’ Fox & Friends the next day and doubled down on his comments, calling Machado the “worst, the absolute worst” and saying she was “impossible” because “she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.” Numerous Trump surrogates in the media have attempted to defend Trump’s blatant sexism by suggesting that Machado had a contractual obligation to stay fit. From the September 28 edition of CNN’s New Day:
ALISYN CAMEROTA (HOST): I have to ask you. Because I know your lovely, smart, beautiful Hispanic wife, I just have to ask -- what does Mercedes think about what Trump said?
MATT SCHLAPP: We talked about it last night. Let me tell you, throughout this whole very interesting political year, we're often each other's counselor at the end of the day when interesting things happen on the trail. And I guess her reaction was -- she's in the news business, Alisyn, as you are, and it's not uncommon for women and men, but a lot of times women, in the news business or in the acting business to have actual language in their contracts that their physical appearance has to maintain some kind of standard. And people might not like that, but it's in contracts. And I'm not going to ask people if it's in their contracts or not, but she understands that. Is it fair, is it not fair? Let's face it, TV, Miss Universe pageants, movies, it's a lot about their physical appearance. Alisyn I can tell you, in my case, thank God I don't have that, because that's not exactly one of my strengths in life.
SCHLAPP: Now, come on, let's all be candid here. People who are beautiful get involved in Miss Universe pageants and part of that is their physical appearance. And I think this is when it gets to like common sense. People in America have been watching pageants for decades and they understand that's a part of it, it's a part of the culture. Is that a culture my wife has been involved with? No. But you have every right to be involved in that culture if you want. And if you sign a contract, you've got to follow it.
Even if Machado’s contract did include a requirement to stay below a certain weight, it certainly wouldn’t justify the sexist and insulting episodes of body-shaming Trump has forced her to endure. It is highly unlikely her contract compelled her to participate in a 1997 press conference that centered on Machado’s exercise regimen, a stunt BBC’s Katty Kay rightly denounced as “the most grotesque exercise in humiliation of a woman.”
Business Insider reported that the Fox News vice president for public-opinion research sent an internal memo “reminding television producers and the politics team that unscientific online polls ‘do not meet our editorial standards.’”
After the September 26 presidential debate, Fox News hosts and contributors repeatedly cited online polls, which largely favored Republican nominee Donald Trump, to defend Trump’s widely panned performance. Fox & Friends continued to hype online polls on September 28, the day after the internal Fox memo was sent, with co-host Brian Kilmeade stating that “the online polls show [Trump] winning an overwhelming margin.” In fact, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton dominated in scientific polls.
The September 27 memo, sent by Dana Blanton, Fox News’ vice president of public-opinion research, noted that “quick vote items posted on the web are nonsense, not true measures of public opinion.” Blanton wrote that "the sample obviously can't be representative of the electorate because they only reflect the views of those Internet users who have chosen to participate.” From the September 28 Business Insider article:
A Fox News executive sent a memo Tuesday afternoon reminding television producers and the politics team that unscientific online polls "do not meet our editorial standards."
Dana Blanton, the vice president of public-opinion research at Fox News, explained in the memo obtained by Business Insider that "online 'polls' like the one on Drudge, Time, etc. where people can opt-in or self-select … are really just for fun."
"As most of the publications themselves clearly state, the sample obviously can't be representative of the electorate because they only reflect the views of those Internet users who have chosen to participate," Blanton wrote.
As the Fox News executive pointed out, users who participate in such polls must have internet access, be online at the time of the poll, be fans of the website in question, and self-select to participate.
"Another problem — we know some campaigns/groups of supporters encourage people to vote in online polls and flood the results," she wrote. "These quickie click items do not meet our editorial standards."
At least three Fox News hosts cited unscientific online polls in the hours following Monday's presidential debate to suggest Donald Trump emerged as the winner of the political showdown.
While Trump did, in fact, come out ahead in a slew of online polls, the polls were all unscientific, meaning the sample of participants did not accurately reflect the sample of viewers who watched the debate. Such polls are almost always discounted by professional pollsters and analysts.
The only scientific survey conducted in the immediate aftermath was the CNN/ORC instant poll, which showed viewers thought Hillary Clinton handily defeated Trump. Respondents to a Morning Consult poll released Wednesday also said, by a 49% to 26% margin, that Clinton bested Trump in the debate.
"News networks and other organizations go to great effort and rigor to conduct scientific polls — for good reason," Blanton wrote in the memo. "They know quick vote items posted on the web are nonsense, not true measures of public opinion."
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Trump supporter Alex Jones and Trump adviser Roger Stone pushed bizarre conspiracy theories about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s health during Jones’ coverage of the first presidential debate.
During the live-stream of the debate at Jones' Infowars.com, Jones and Stone told viewers that Clinton suffered a series of medical incidents before, during, and after the debate, even as the footage of the debate belied their claims.
Jones, one of the founders of the 9/11 truther movement and America’s leading conspiracy theorist, has been at the forefront of pushing conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health that have spread to conservative media and in some cases been legitimized by mainstream outlets. Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, has claimed that Clinton suffers from amnesia and other serious medical conditions.
Following the September 26 debate, political observers, focus groups, and scientific polls all concluded that with her confident performance, Clinton won a decisive victory over Republican nominee Donald Trump.
But Stone, Jones, and other members of the Infowars.com broadcast team claimed that Clinton, suffering from an “advanced form of epilespy,” arrived in a “medical van,” that the debate started several minutes late because Clinton was having a “diaper change,” that Clinton was “hopped up” on “anti-seizure medication” causing her to “barely keep her eyes open” during the debate, and that after the debate Clinton could “barely walk” so she “immediately” left the stage to go on an “oxygen tank.” Infowars’ own live-stream of the debate contradicted these descriptions. For example, instead of leaving “immediately” following the debate, Clinton was seen on the Infowars stream talking and shaking hands on the stage.
Clinton’s performance in the debate has left Clinton health conspiracy theorists scrambling. The morning after the debate, the Drudge Report published a video titled “HILLARY MORNING AFTER: Both hands on rail…” In the video, a smiling Clinton is seen briefly placing both of her hands on the railing of an airstair before removing her hands to gesture toward a member of the press as she ascends the stairs:
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Fox News has continuously hyped Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s debate performance by citing online polls that have “Trump winning this debate,” but some Fox hosts, contributors, and online political editors have trashed the talking point, saying the online surveys that have been referenced “are worthless” and that “the idea that you win because your supporters come out and click on the computer more than others tells you nothing.”
Politico perpetuated a false equivalency between claims from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump of a “rigged” election, which are grounded in conspiracy theories and right-wing myths, and worries from Democrats, including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, that Russia is attempting to interfere with the election, which are based on recent precedent and intelligence.
In a September 28 article claiming both Clinton and Trump are engaging in a “conspiracy theory” and “feed[ing] the rigged-election charge,” Politico explained that Trump and his allies have been “sounding the alarm since summer that the results in battleground states – from Ohio to Florida – will be fixed so he’ll lose.” The report went on to erroneously equate Trump’s claim with worries from Democrats, including Clinton, that Russia could be “‘attempting to influence the outcome of the election,’” writing:
But Trump isn’t the only one who warns the election is being tampered with.
Clinton’s campaign contends that the Republican’s shadowy connections to Russia may be tied to the slow release of hacked emails meant to embarrass the Democrat to the point that she loses in November. While Obama said in an NBC interview in July that “anything’s possible” when it comes to Russia’s attempts to influence the presidential election, the U.S. government still hasn’t officially named a culprit in the hackings.
“It’s a fascinating question, and an important question, and an alarming question when the Russian government appears to be attempting to influence the outcome of the election,” Clinton spokesman Glen Caplin said in a recent interview.
At an August 1 rally, Trump baselessly asserted that he’s “afraid the election’s going to be rigged.” Trump went on to double down on his claim, adding that without voter ID laws, people “are going to vote 10 times.” Trump was widely denounced by journalists for his claims. The New York Times editorial board called his comments “not just ludicrous, but dangerous.” And Talking Points Memo editor John Marshall wrote that Trump used “this canard to lay the groundwork for rejecting the result of a national election.”
Trump’s claims are grounded in conspiracy theories and misinformation. Trump ally and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones asserted on August 1 that Clinton “stole the primary” and is “going to try to steal the general election.” Fellow conspiracy theorist and Trump ally Roger Stone urged Trump to raise the issue of a “rigged” election on the July 29 edition of The Milo Yiannopoulos Show, saying, “I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly.” Fox News hosts and contributors helped mainstream these conspiracy theories, arguing that talking about the possibility of rigged elections is “an important discussion to have going into the election.”
Trump’s claims are linked to conservative myths used to push for discriminatory voter ID laws. Right-wing media have repeatedly pushed myths about in-person voter fraud, arguing that denying voter fraud exists “is to frankly deny reality.” Academic studies, however, have found that “voter fraud is vanishingly rare” and that voter ID laws largely disenfranchise minority voters.
Concerns that Democrats, including Clinton, have raised about Russian interference in the election, however, are grounded in recent precedent and government intelligence. The New York Times reported that intelligence officials “have ‘high confidence’ that the Russian government was behind the theft of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee” this summer. Russia is also suspected of having hacked into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s computer system.
The FBI also said there is evidence that Russian hackers “targeted voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona.” In addition, on September 22, the Democratic ranking members on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees warned, “Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the US election.” Given Trump’s reported ties to Russia, including the connections of some of his current and former senior campaign staff, the idea that Russia would want to sway the election is not unrealistic.
Politico’s false equivalence of these two accusations is made more incredulous by the article’s acknowledgment that “Clinton and many other election watchers are not flying blind in making this allegation” about Russian interference, and the article detailed some of the evidence behind the concern.
But this is hardly the first time media outlets have applied false equivalency during this election. For example, numerous reports claimed that Trump and Clinton were “exchang[ing] racially charged attacks” after Trump claimed that Clinton is a “bigot.” But Trump’s remarks consisted only of outlandish, evidence-free insults while Clinton reasonably and accurately described Trump’s racist rhetoric and very real ties to white nationalists and the "alt-right."
False equivalency is a dangerous practice journalists use to give both sides equal weight, even when there is a clear right and wrong. By perpetuating in this false dichotomy, media outlets are doing disservice to their audiences.
Trump Expands on Romney’s Failed Strategy
Looking to make the media rounds on Tuesday morning in an attempt to clean up his Monday night debate mess, Republican nominee Donald Trump actually had only one destination on his schedule: Fox News, of course.
Calling into his allies and supporters on Fox & Friends, Trump promptly made things worse for his campaign. First, he suggested there might have been a debate conspiracy afoot to fit him with a faulty microphone, as a way to explain his shaky performance. (“My microphone was terrible.”) Then Trump got even further sidetracked from campaign messaging by fat-shaming a former winner of his Miss Universe pageant: “She was the winner, and she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.”
For a candidate who was nearly unanimously crowned the loser of the first presidential debate (except for in unscientific online polls he and Fox News have been desperately promoting), Trump’s attempt at damage control via Fox News was like the captain of the Titanic circling around the iceberg for a second look.
But of course, they loved Trump on Fox News, even after his debate loss. “A very good night for Donald Trump,” announced Sean Hannity. And from news anchor Bret Baier: “I do think he gets credit for just being on the stage.” They also tried to spin away his debate lies and conjure up reasons for his lopsided loss.
And that’s why Trump’s campaign now resembles a Fox News cocoon, or a hermetically sealed bubble. Since the summer, Trump has basically only spoken to Fox News. Gone is the much-touted Trump media accessibility from the Republican primary. It’s been replaced with the Trump bunker strategy, where only friendly questioners are allowed and the Republican candidate is able to expound in a fact-free Fox zone.
It’s a bubble where Trump doesn’t have to explain his long-running birther pursuit, nobody cares about his tax returns, where Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is admired for his strong leadership, and where bigotry is celebrated.
The Fox News bubble is a welcoming, comforting place for Trump, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of American politics today. And this week, that Fox-friendly strategy caught up with Trump. Reportedly uninterested in debate prep, Trump was confronted by a skilled opponent who accessed facts at will and spoke in complete paragraphs.
Meanwhile, “Trump was scattered, swaggering and stumbling,” wrote TPM’s Josh Marshall. “Just a mix of easily demonstrable lies and nonsensical statements.”
Doesn’t that sound like another morning with Fox & Friends? Trump represents a presidential nominee who exhibits no intellectual curiosity, nor any commitment to facts. He’s the Fox News id.
Not only did Ailes reportedly play a role in Trump’s disastrous debate preparation, but Ailes, of course, provided the nominee with a Fox News platform to launch into American politics back in 2011. Since then, Ailes and Trump have been inexorably linked.
Today, Fox News gifts Trump with so many softball interviews you’d think Rupert Murdoch himself were the nominee. Even Republican Sen. Ted Cruz lamented that Ailes had “turned Fox News into the Donald Trump network, 24/7” during the primary season.
What’s so astonishing today is knowing that four years ago, all the warning flags for the GOP were whipping in the wind when Mitt Romney tried to run a Fox News campaign to the White House. Romney veered hard to right and adopted the right-wing media’s contempt for the lazy “47 percent” of Americans who supposedly live off government handouts. Romney even embraced reality TV show host-turned Fox News favorite Donald Trump, who was fresh off his bogus investigation into whether the first African-American president was allowed to sit in the Oval Office.
Following the second debate in 2012, when the GOP nominee adopted Fox spin and bungled the facts of the previous month’s Benghazi terror attack, I wrote that, “Married to the conservative media and all their bogus claims and conspiracies, Romney runs the risk of coming across as badly out of touch with the truth, the way he did last night.”
Then, following the GOP’s defeat in November, which the Fox bubble never saw coming:
This grand experiment of marrying a political movement around a cable TV channel was a grand failure in 2012. But there's little indication that enough Republicans will have the courage, or even the desire, to break free from Fox's firm grip on branding the party.
In the wake of Romney’s defeat, some Republican operatives did vow to venture beyond the friendly confines of Fox News. And the Republican National Committee’s post-election autopsy even stressed the need for the Republican Party to “stop talking to itself.” (That’s what Fox News is very good at.)
While I knew Fox News had a vice-like grip on the GOP, and the GOP was in love with the angry rhetoric and the free media the cable channel provided, in 2012 I couldn’t have imagined four years later the party would not only embrace their failed Fox News strategy, but they’d inject it with steroids and nominate Trump. Or that the GOP nominee would then effectively barricade himself behind Fox News interviews during the general election campaign.
The punchline today? Reports suggest that in the wake of Trump’s failed debate performance, Ailes’ campaign role may be expanding. The Republican Party now appears to be trapped in a Fox News cycle that chews up GOP nominees.
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