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Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • Sean Hannity’s effort to tie Robert Mueller to Whitey Bulger was bullshit

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and adviser to President Donald Trump who has turned his broadcast into a nightly attack on special counsel Robert Mueller, smeared the head of the Russia probe by referencing one of the darkest chapters in the FBI’s history on four consecutive broadcasts last week. “During Mueller’s time as a federal prosecutor in Boston, four -- four men wrongfully imprisoned for decades framed by an F.B.I. informant and notorious gangster, Whitey Bulger, all while Mueller’s office looked the other way,” Hannity said in one such report last Wednesday.

    That’s nonsense, according to Nancy Gertner, the retired federal judge who presided over the wrongful imprisonment trial of the four men and ordered the government to pay them and their families $101.7 million. As Gertner explains in a Wednesday op-ed in The New York Times, there is “no evidence” linking Mueller to the case -- and in fact, the case didn’t even involve Bulger, the infamous head of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang.

    The swift unraveling of Hannity’s latest shoddy effort to discredit Mueller points to Fox’s inability or unwillingness to restrain its top-rated host as he barrels through journalistic ethics rules and ignores basic fact-checking standards.

    The Bulger story has its roots in an apparently coordinated right-wing effort that kicked off last month after Trump lashed out at Mueller for the first time by name on Twitter. Those tweets, which followed reports that the special counsel had issued a subpoena for Trump Organization records, triggered a series of reports from pro-Trump sources about Mueller’s record that reportedly bore “the hallmarks of professional opposition research.”

    In one such missive, headlined “Questions Still Surround Robert Mueller’s Boston Past,” Fox News contributor and Hannity fixture Sara Carter wrote on her personal website that the special counsel’s tenure as an assistant U.S. attorney and acting U.S. attorney in the 1980s “raised questions about his role in one of the FBI’s most controversial cases involving the FBI’s use of a confidential informant” -- whom she identified as Bulger -- “that led to the convictions of four innocent men, who were sentenced to death for murders they did not commit.”

    The story heavily drew on criticism from David Schoen, a civil rights and defense attorney who had previously linked Mueller to Bulger while appearing alongside Carter in a February Hannity segment. Carter’s report quoted Schoen claiming Mueller had been “neck deep” in the case.

    As Gertner explained in her Times op-ed, there’s no reason to believe any of this is true:

    Based on the voluminous evidence submitted in the trial, and having written a 105-page decision awarding them $101.8 million, I can say without equivocation that Mr. Mueller, who worked in the United States attorney’s office in Boston from 1982 to 1988, including a brief stint as the acting head of the office, had no involvement in that case. He was never even mentioned.

    The case wasn’t about Whitey Bulger but another mobster the F.B.I. was also protecting, the hit man Joseph Barboza, who lied when he testified that the four men had killed Edward Deegan, a low-level mobster, in 1965. Mr. Barboza was covering for the real killers, and the F.B.I. went along because of his importance as an informant.

    [...]

    Mr. Mueller is mentioned nowhere in my opinion; nor in the submissions of the plaintiffs’ lead trial counsel, Juliane Balliro; nor in “Black Mass,” the book about Mr. Bulger and the F.B.I. written by former reporters for The Boston Globe.

    Carter, a former reporter for the Sinclair Broadcast Group website Circa, regularly produces shoddy reports that appear to channel the talking points of Trump’s lawyers and Republican congressional investigators. But while she now writes only for her personal blog, she is a key player in the right wing’s anti-Mueller effort because she regularly appears on Hannity and other pro-Trump Fox programs to discuss her stories.

    In this case, Hannity hosted Carter and Schoen to discuss her “brand new report” on March 20, the night after she published it. Hannity termed Mueller’s purported connection to the wrongful imprisonment of the four men “one of the worst stains” on the special counsel’s record. He returned to the story on the next two editions of his show.

    Hannity did not mention the case again until last Monday, when he responded to the FBI’s raid of Michael D. Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer (who, as would later be revealed, had also done legal work for Hannity himself).

    During his unhinged performance that night -- promoted by the president on Twitter -- Hannity mapped out the “Mueller crime family,” which he said included Bulger. He trumpeted Mueller’s purported malfeasance in the case that night and during his next three broadcasts.

    Meanwhile, other players in the pro-Trump media, including radio host Rush Limbaugh and Boston Herald columnist and radio host Howie Carr, picked up the story. These conservative commentators, desperate to damage Mueller’s credibility in order to forestall his investigation and set the stage for his firing, don’t much care if these stories are true.

    “When Mr. Hannity and others say Mr. Mueller was responsible for the continued imprisonment of those four men, they are simply wrong — unless they have information that I, Balliro, the House investigators and the ‘Black Mass’ authors did not and do not have,” Gertner concluded, referring to a book by Boston Globe reporters about Bulger and the FBI. “If they do, they should produce it. If they don’t, they should stop this campaign to discredit Mr. Mueller.”

    Hannity doesn’t have any additional information, but don’t count on him to stop running with the talking point now that it’s been debunked -- or issuing a correction, as would happen at any other network. At Fox, there are no rules for Hannity.

  • The Fox News pardon pipeline

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Hours after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s plea to overturn his 2010 criminal conviction and 14-year prison sentence on charges related to political corruption, his wife Patti Blagojevich appealed to a higher authority: Fox News.

    “If you could speak to the president, what would you say?” Fox host Tucker Carlson asked at the top of a sympathetic Monday night interview with her. “What would be your pitch to pardoning your husband?” As she explained why she thought the former governor deserved clemency for charges that he tried to sell off President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat, the caption "Will Trump intervene in Blagojevich case?" flashed across the screen.

    President Donald Trump himself, who spends hours each day consuming his favorite news network, may have been watching -- a spokesperson for Patti Blagojevich said she hopes he saw the segment. Even if he hasn’t personally seen it, the appeal may find favor with one of the network hosts or regulars whom Trump regularly consults.

    Appealing for presidential relief on Fox is a sound strategy, and one that more lawyers will likely attempt in the years to come. At this point in his presidency, all three of Trump’s pardons have had a Fox connection, and each avoided the standard, complex Justice Department procedures.

    With Trump largely ignoring the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the best path to clemency is getting the president’s attention. And no one has the president’s attention quite like the programs and staffers at Fox.

    Trump’s first pardon went to Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff notorious to most for the brutal, humiliating treatment undocumented immigrants suffered under his authority and his refusal to stop racially profiling the Latino community.

    But on Fox, Arpaio was a folk hero, the lawman who took undocumented immigration and the border seriously. The president likely had that image in mind when he issued the pardon with a statement praising Arpaio’s “life's work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.”

    A Fox regular may have given Trump the idea in the first place. It was Gregg Jarrett, a Fox legal analyst and Trump sycophant, who broke the news that Trump was thinking about pardoning Arpaio, saying they discussed it at the president’s Bedminster, NJ, golf club. Jarrett, who clearly supported an Arpaio pardon, didn’t say who first raised the idea. For his part, Arpaio credits the work of pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for the pardon; Jones, in turn, has said Fox host Sean Hannity was involved.

    Kristian Saucier, a former Navy sailor who pleaded guilty to one count of unauthorized possession and retention of national defense information, was the second recipient of a Trump pardon.

    Saucier’s lawyer specifically attributed the pardon to a Fox-centric strategy that included getting Saucier on Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite program and one he frequently live-tweets.

    I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a former White House aide, recently received the third pardon, which was widely perceived as a way for Trump to signal that pardons might be available to witnesses who don’t cooperate with the Russia probe.

    Here, too, Fox appears to have played a key role. Libby’s lawyer is Victoria Toensing, the Republican attorney who uses frequent Fox appearances to defend Trump from the Russia investigation and had been in talks earlier in the year to join the president’s legal team. She “declined to say what conversations she had with the White House about Libby in recent days and weeks” in a Washington Post interview after the pardon was announced.

    A president’s tenure typically includes a few controversial pardons that critics say were political. But under Trump, every single pardon has been of that sort, without the usual mix of ordinary citizens who served their time and appealed to the Justice Department.

    Criminal defendants and prisoners who lack resources and who don’t count professional political operatives among their friends -- like the nonviolent drug offenders who received pardons from President Barack Obama -- may be out of luck.

    Attorneys and applicants will likely draw lessons from the unusual way Trump has wielded the pardon power.

    Pardon seekers are more likely to be successful if they have some sort of connection to conservative politics, either as a politician like Arpaio, a cause célèbre like Saucier, or an operative like Libby.

    Trump has loudly proclaimed himself the victim of a political prosecution, and he seems more likely to respond to people making the same case.

    Hiring a lawyer with connections to the president has always been good advice. But under this administration, those connections may well be driven by the lawyer’s willingness and ability to shill for the president on television.

    And, of course, get on Fox if you can, and have your spouse or lawyer do it if you can’t. Thanks to the president’s obsession with the network’s programming, he may be watching.

    Even if Trump doesn’t see your segment, someone who has the president’s ear may.

    “On a show just before we were talking about the former governor of Illinois,” the lawyer Alan Dershowitz said on Hannity Monday, just minutes after Patti Blagojevich’s interview. “Gets 14 years in prison for what people do every single day in state legislatures all over the country, and yet we prosecute him and throw the book at him.”

    Last week, Dershowitz had dinner at the White House with Trump, a reward for making the president’s case on television. Next time he has that opportunity, perhaps he’ll suggest that the president fix a miscarriage of justice and offer Rod Blagojevich a pardon.

    The Fox pardon pipeline will be back in action.

    UPDATE: In addition to the three Trump pardons, the sole person to receive a Trump commutation also has a Fox tie.

    On December 20, Trump granted clemency to Sholom Rubashkin and ordered his release. Rubashkin had so far served eight years of his 27-year sentence on dozens of charges of financial fraud. Observers were puzzled by Trump’s decision to free him, noting that leniency for the owner of a meatpacking plant that had been the target of a huge immigration raid was at odds with Trump’s generally harsh stance on undocumented immigration.

    Rubashkin had one advantage, though -- his lawyer was Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz had been working on the case for five years and told The New York Times that he had personally asked Trump to consider commutation.

    According to Forward, Dershowitz brought up Rubashkin during a meeting with the president to discuss the Middle East peace process in fall 2017. August of that year saw the publication of Dershowitz’s latest book, which argues that the Russia probe is the result of the “criminalization of political differences” and highlights his Fox & Friends appearances in publicity materials. He regularly made the same arguments on Fox in the months and weeks leading up to the pardon.

    On December 4, a few weeks before Trump issued the commutation, the president flagged one such Dershowitz appearance on his Twitter account:

  • Fox News on Hannity’s Cohen conflict: We don’t care

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    If anything good came from Monday’s revelation that Sean Hannity had concealed a massive conflict of interest from Fox News’ viewers, it was that his conduct was so egregious, and his network’s lack of interest in journalistic ethics so obvious, that it may have cleared things up for any mainstream reporter who still considers Fox a real news outlet.

    As part of Hannity’s campaign against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Donald Trump, the Fox host last week repeatedly denounced the FBI’s raid of the office of Trump personal lawyer Michael D. Cohen on the network’s airwaves. Only yesterday did the public learn of a secret tie between Hannity and Cohen -- Hannity had been Cohen’s legal client.

    For many, including myself, this was simply confirmation of the obvious: Fox has no rules for the likes of Hannity. The network prioritizes keeping its top ratings star happy over its responsibility to the public.

    But for others, this was an opportunity for the network to prove itself:

    Fox has now released a statement on the issue that demonstrates just “what kind of org” the network is:

    The statement’s message is simple: Fox doesn’t care about ethics.

    The network isn’t interested in whether Hannity has a conflict of interest. It will take Hannity’s claims at face value without delving into his relationship with Cohen.

    Fox’s executives don’t feel that they owe it to their audience to apologize.

    There’s no indication that the host will be restricted from discussing Cohen going forward.

    There’s no signal that the network believes Hannity did anything wrong. He certainly won’t be disciplined.

    There’s not even a name attached to the statement taking responsibility for the comments.

    Fox has, through word and deed, consistently shown that the network doesn’t operate like a normal news organization. 

    Journalists should pay attention.

  • There are no rules for Sean Hannity at Fox News

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    “It seems that there’s no limit at all into the fishing expedition that [special counsel Robert] Mueller is now engaged in,” Sean Hannity claimed last Monday, after FBI investigators raided the home, office, and hotel room of Michael D. Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer. “And if he has access to everything that his personal attorney has, I can only imagine where that’s going to lead.”

    Seven days later, it led to Hannity himself, as an attorney for Cohen revealed that the Fox News host was Cohen’s mystery legal client, whose identity the lawyer had tried to keep concealed.

    That association raises many questions, not least of which is how Fox could have allowed Hannity to vigorously defend Cohen on the network’s airwaves without disclosing that he had been Cohen’s client.

    That is a serious breach of journalistic ethics that, in any normal newsroom, would lead to a suspension or even firing. “Going to find out what kind of org Fox is today,” NBC News’ Chuck Todd tweeted this morning. “No serious news org would allow someone this conflicted to cover this story.”

    It’s unclear what we could learn from Fox today that we didn’t already know several years ago.

    The rules are different at Fox News -- indeed, it often appears that there are no rules at all governing the behavior of the network’s top talent. This is, after all, a network that was happy for years to pay off employees who reported host Bill O’Reilly for sexual harassment in order to keep them quiet. Because Fox does not hold its stars to the most basic codes of ethical behavior, let alone the standard principles of journalistic conduct, critics hoping for accountability have little recourse but to appeal directly to the network’s advertisers.

    The Hannity-Cohen story is a classic case study. Reporters and experts agree that Hannity’s actions are a drastic violation of journalistic norms that demand a severe response. But network executives aren’t answering questions about whether they were aware of Hannity’s conflict of interest or whether he will be subject to any disciplinary action. Fox’s hosts have filled that void: Hannity used last night’s program to say that he hadn’t done anything wrong. And his Fox colleagues have largely rallied behind him.

    None of this is new. Hannity’s unwillingness to hew to journalistic ethics conventions has been causing the network problems for years.

    At times, Fox has tried to rein him in: Hannity’s plan to broadcast from a tea party fundraiser was canceled, and after Hannity appeared in an ad for Trump’s presidential campaign, a network spokesperson said it would not happen again. But Fox executives never formally reprimanded Hannity for his actions, much less suspended him.

    The last two years have only strengthened Hannity’s hand within the network. Trump’s election gave him direct access to the president of the United States. With O’Reilly gone, Hannity has the network’s most popular show and is the only remaining prime-time link to Fox’s founding. And the firings of Fox founder Roger Ailes, who hired Hannity, and Bill Shine, who was Hannity’s producer before climbing the network’s corporate ladder, removed two Fox executives to whom Hannity might have listened.

    Meanwhile, increasing competition from conservative cable network Newsmax and Sinclair Broadcast Group means that Hannity would have options if he and Fox were to cut ties.

    As a largely unrestrained power at Fox who has flipped back and forth on the question of whether he is a journalist who must abide by basic ethics rules, Hannity has been getting into trouble. The network’s response has been damage control, alternatively covering for him or even encouraging his actions.

    Last May, Hannity spent several programs championing the conspiracy theory that a Democratic National Committee staffer had been murdered for leaking emails to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. But as advertisers fled his program, Fox stood behind Hannity. The network subsequently announced an internal investigation into its reporting on the story, but that review has yet to be made public, suggesting that the probe was a public relations tactic.

    In the fall, Hannity hosted O’Reilly for a series of interviews in which the former host attacked the women who reported him for sexual harassment. Fox responded by heavily promoting O’Reilly’s appearance on Hannity’s Fox program.

    And the network appears blissfully unconcerned about the biggest ongoing Hannity ethical disaster of all: his simultaneous status as a personal adviser to Trump and the host of a nightly program on which he worships the president and condemns his perceived foes.

    In fact, Fox has rewarded Hannity for his actions, apparently hiring several conservative commentators specifically to regularly appear on Hannity’s program and those of a small circle of Hannity’s fellow travelers.

    The network’s decision to prioritize Hannity over maintaining basic standards hasn’t sat well with the Fox employees who consider themselves serious journalists instead of Trump propagandists. Fox staffers have privately told reporters at other outlets that they are embarrassed and disgusted by Hannity’s antics. Fox’s Shep Smith has even publicly feuded with Hannity; he also has repeatedly run segments that appear to directly rebut arguments made on Hannity’s program.

    “They don’t really have rules on the opinion side,” Smith told Time magazine last month. “They can say whatever they want.” Fox’s handling of Hannity’s Cohen conflict of interest demonstrates that they can apparently do whatever they want as well.

    UPDATE: A Fox News statement on Hannity claims that the network was unaware of Hannity's conflict of interest, and now that they know, they don't particularly care. 

  • Sean Hannity is Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s secret client

    And Hannity reportedly hired him to go after us

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The mystery client that President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, fought in court to keep secret is Fox News host Sean Hannity, Cohen’s lawyer divulged on Monday.

    Cohen’s lawyers had acknowledged that Cohen had three legal clients since 2017 in a filing in federal court related to legal issues surrounding documents the FBI obtained by raiding his office, home, and hotel room last week. Two clients  -- Trump and GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy -- were publicly known. Attorneys for Cohen had argued that the identity of the third should remain secret. But Judge Kimba Wood rejected that argument, forcing Cohen’s lawyer to reveal his work for Hannity.

    Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reported on MSNBC soon after that Hannity hired Cohen “to help defend him against left-wing groups that were calling for boycotts,” an apparent reference to Media Matterswell-publicized campaign to get advertisers to stop supporting Hannity’s program. Sherman added that Hannity may have hired “other lawyers and/or private investigators” as part of the effort.

    Hannity has not previously divulged employing Cohen as a lawyer, even as he extensively denounced the FBI’s raid on his Fox broadcast last week.

    On his show last Monday, for example, Hannity devoted his opening monologue (and much of the rest of the show) to arguing that the Cohen raid points to an “all-hands-on-deck effort to totally malign and, if possible, impeach the president of the United States” and the declaration of “a legal war on the president.” The next night, he said the raid was “an unprecedented abuse of power.”

    Cohen is at least the third lawyer tied to Trump whom Hannity has recently employed. In April last year, after a far-right troll suggested that the CIA had targeted Hannity for surveillance, Hannity claimed that he had hired lawyers Jay Sekulow and Joseph diGenova to investigate and pursue a civil action. Trump would later hire Sekulow as a personal lawyer with regard to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. In March, Sekulow announced that diGenova had been added to that team, only to state a few days later that “conflicts prevent” that from occuring.  

    UPDATE:  Hannity has responded on Twitter, claiming that Cohen provided him with legal advice for free:

    He also said on his radio show that he might have given Cohen $10 in order to ensure the conversation was covered by attorney-client privilege. As Business Insider's Josh Barro points out, this arrangement raises additional ethical questions for Hannity and Fox:

  • Fox hasn't stopped helping Diamond and Silk lie about Facebook

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    In a series of Fox News interviews this week, the pro-Trump YouTubers who go by the stage names “Diamond and Silk” declared themselves the victims of politically motivated censorship by Facebook.

    The network’s hosts have all but applauded the pair’s repeated claims that the social media giant deliberately kept their content from reaching their audience because the company is biased against conservatives, and that the company had not reached out to them to fix the purported problem. Fox trumpeting the story encouraged press-hungry Republican lawmakers to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the allegations when he testified on Capitol Hill, which in turn generated newsy clips for the network to highlight in its reports on the hearings.

    There’s just one problem: Diamond and Silk’s allegations don’t appear to be true. But that hasn’t stopped Fox from continuing to host them to attack Facebook, even after their story was debunked.

    The vloggers, sisters whose real names are Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, developed a fervent following during the 2016 presidential campaign because of their unyielding devotion to Donald Trump and their willingness to barnstorm the country on his behalf. The duo rose with Trump, and they currently have an audience of more than 144,000 YouTube subscribers and roughly 1.5 million followers on Facebook.

    But that rise, they claim, has been stymied by Facebook. Beginning with a Friday night post on their Facebook page and continuing in six subsequent Fox News interviews, Diamond and Silk have alleged that the company has been deliberately keeping those followers from seeing and interacting with their content since September 2017. After months of getting “the runaround,” they say, the company sent them an email stating that “they deemed our content and our brand unsafe to the community” (in a statement, Facebook said the message had been “inaccurate”). And that, in their telling, was their last communication with Facebook. They say that the company is biased against them because they are black women who support Trump.

    Facebook’s opacity and power leaves the company unusually vulnerable to criticism that it is choking off public debate. A change in Facebook’s algorithm can make or break news outlets and content providers, causing drastic changes in web traffic and thus ad revenue. But its willingness to bend over backward in response to conservative pressure campaigns also leaves it vulnerable to liars and grifters. And that appears to be what happened here.

    On Thursday, after Zuckerberg was battered by Republican legislators obsessed with the Diamond and Silk story and following several days of credulous Fox coverage, The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson and The Daily Beast’s Andrew Kirell reported that contrary to the pair’s claims on Wednesday that Facebook had not contacted them beyond the “unsafe” email, the company had reached out to them by email as early as Monday and by phone on Tuesday.

    The root of Diamond and Silk’s issue, Erickson wrote, appeared to be new Facebook monetization guidelines the company had released in September 2017 that applied across Facebook, not a narrow effort to censor them. “I think Facebook made some mistakes, but that it was not intentional, not malicious, and not nearly as bad as it seemed,” he concluded.

    The same afternoon, ThinkProgress’ Judd Legum reviewed Facebook data about Diamond and Silk’s page and concluded that their claim that the company is deliberately ensuring they reach fewer people due to political bias “is totally without merit.” He determined that their Facebook page interactions actually grew from March 2017 to 2018 -- as liberal-leaning pages similarly focused on posting videos saw sharp declines -- and that while the reach of their videos has declined, it was to a lesser extent than those of liberal pages.

    “Any changes to their page performance over the last few months were not targeted at them, but the result of broader shifts across Facebook,” Legum concluded. “Indeed, many pages, including liberal pages, have suffered large declines because Facebook has reduced the distribution of videos and other content published by pages in favor of content from ‘friends and family.’”

    So Fox was used as a pathway to promote Diamond and Silk’s lies. And the network doesn’t appear to care. On Thursday afternoon, after Erickson, Kirell, and Legum had demolished their story, the pair was back on Fox. The host who interviewed them, Neil Cavuto, was nonplussed by their statements that the network had tried to contact them only via Twitter, or their claim that they had been targeted because they support the president. “Do you think Mark Zuckerberg does have a bias against conservative sites -- conservative participants?” he asked at one point. “Yes, we do,” Diamond replied. Indeed, while Fox had championed their tale in numerous reports, the network has yet to report on the new information debunking it.

    Why is Fox unwilling to set the record straight? Probably for the same reason the network first reported on Diamond and Skil’s claims: Their narrative fits cozily into Fox’s broad conceit that, in spite of controlling all three branches of government, conservatives in America are constantly being censored and stigmatized.

    The network appears particularly enamored of Diamond and Silk’s claim that they have been “silenced” because of their race. Here’s how Laura Ingraham -- currently trying to escape an advertiser boycott apocalypse by rebranding herself as a First Amendment crusader -- discussed the story Monday night:

    LAURA INGRAHAM: Silk, isn't it the case that the reason -- I mean, we all know the reason that Facebook didn't want your post to reach your followers is because you’re black, you’re conservative, you support Trump, and you tell it like it is and you call it as you see it. That's offensive to the left because they want to silence people like you, both you, Diamond and Silk -- doesn't matter if it was just Silk or Diamond or Diamond and Silk -- they do not want you to reach people. I'm sorry and I'm going to say it until I'm blue in the face.

    SILK: Say it.

    INGRAHAM: They are afraid of both of you. They don't want your views out.

    Perhaps the revelation that Fox was used to promote a lie will lead the network to be more reticent in giving Diamond and Silk airtime. But I rather doubt it -- I think it’s much more likely that the pair will end up on Fox’s payroll. They’re pro-Trump conservatives with a victim narrative, and at Fox, that’s probably enough.

  • Why Trump's legal advisers think he can get away with firing Rosenstein

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The FBI’s Monday raid of the residence and office of Michael D. Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, has created a new urgency in the president’s frequent threats to curtail special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

    Trump is reportedly considering firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who approved the raid and oversees Mueller’s probe in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the case. Following the raid, the president also left open the idea of firing Mueller, and the White House confirmed that he believes he has the power to do so directly. Democrats and some Republicans have warned that any effort by the president to stop Mueller’s investigation would be calamitous. But according to CNN, the president’s legal advisers think that he could weather the storm, believing that “they have successfully argued to the American public that the FBI is tainted and think they can make the same case against Rosenstein.” They own that past success in undermining the FBI -- and any future success in firing Rosenstein without a major backlash -- in no small part to the efforts by Fox News and the president’s other allies in the right-wing media to run down law enforcement agencies on Trump’s behalf.

    While the president has claimed that the FBI’s reputation "is in tatters -- worst in history," the American public is broadly unconvinced. But the effort has succeeded in convincing the president’s base. A February poll found that 73 percent of Republicans agreed that “members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations.”

    The president’s pitch is a fundamentally radical, authoritarian one. He claims that the purpose of law enforcement is to protect him and punish his enemies and if it fails to do this job, he can remove whomever he wants to fix that problem. House and Senate Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated that they are willing to bolster, or at least not hinder, that push, perceiving that their political standing depends on that of the president. And that effort has been relentlessly supported by -- and, indeed, is impossible to imagine succeeding without the help of -- Trump’s supporters at Fox News and in the conservative press more broadly. When the president’s allies tell his base that the FBI’s actions are comparable to those of Stalin or the Gestapo, the base comes to believe, as Trump’s legal advisers suggested in the CNN article, that the “FBI is tainted.”

    Since the Mueller investigation began 11 months ago, Fox’s audience has been tuning in daily to an alternative narrative in which Trump and his associates are being unfairly pursued for crimes that never occurred, the victims of a vast conspiracy by Justice Department and FBI officials, Democrats, and the mainstream press. The entire network is responsible for turning its audience against the rule of law, and nearly every program has to some degree engaged in this activity. But a relative handful of players has been the dominating force in the effort, employing apocalyptic rhetoric that constantly finds new heights.

    Sean Hannity, whose program is the network’s most popular, has done more than anyone else at Fox to prepare Trump’s base to cheer if he moves toward autocracy, devoting dozens of broadcasts to the supposed perfidy of the Russia investigation. He said this week that Mueller and Rosenstein have “declared what is a legal war” on Trump and argued that the “country is hanging by a thread.”

    Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro, both vocal propagandists who have called for a purge of federal law enforcement agencies including the arrests of officials central to the Russia probe, are also important figures in the effort. Trump himself reportedly loves the programs of Hannity, Dobbs, and Pirro and consults them privately for advice about the Mueller probe and other issues. At times the president seems to have advance notice of what they will be talking about on their shows -- last night on Twitter, he promoted Hannity's broadcast, which kicked off with a "conspitatorial" monologue in which the Fox host described the "Deep State crime families" of Mueller, former FBI director James Comey, and Hillary Clinton.

    The network’s morning show Fox & Friends is a ready platform for smears of the probe that often result in the president chiming in in real time (while in recent days the program’s hosts have warned that Trump taking action against the investigation could backfire on him, it's difficult to imagine them not stepping up to defend whatever he does, if anything).

    Then there are the guests who regularly appear on these programs to slam Mueller and company: Gregg Jarrett, the Fox legal analyst who carved out a role explaining how the president and his associates didn’t commit crimes and all the investigators have; Jay Sekulow, who is a member of the president’s legal team, and Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova, who tried to join it, all of whom use their appearances to promote conspiracy theories; and John Solomon of The Hill and Fox News contributor Sara Carter, who produce reports that are largely indistinguishable from the talking points of the president’s legal team or Republican congressional investigators and then appear on the network to discuss them.

    All of these players exist in an ecosystem with virulently pro-Trump Republican members of Congress, who have been using their oversight powers to try to undermine Mueller’s investigation and then appearing on Fox to promote those efforts. We’ve seen legislative efforts to demand Mueller’s removal, calls for the appointments of other special counsels to investigate aspects of his probe, and congressional Republicans painting newly released Justice Department and FBI documents in the worst possible light.

    Fox and other pro-Trump media, Republican congressional investigators, the president, and the president’s lawyers are all playing off each other’s efforts, constantly trying to convince their base that the FBI and DOJ are just trying to destroy Trump. When their individual conspiracy theories collapse -- and they often do, in spectacular fashion -- the parties involved simply move on to the next one. And nothing -- not the series of guilty pleas and indictments Mueller’s investigation has racked up, nor the fact that he and every other senior person involved in the probe is a Republican -- will stop them.

    The Rosenstein attacks are simply the latest case in which these Trump allies are moving as one to try to achieve their ends.

    Trump’s legal advisers told CNN on Tuesday that the deputy attorney general has “crossed the line in what he can and cannot pursue” and claimed that he has conflicts of interest with regard to Mueller’s investigation. On their shows the same night, Hannity said Rosenstein is “out of control himself and conflicted out of this case,” while Dobbs hosted Jarrett to make a similar argument, then argued that Rosenstein himself should be under investigation.

    Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes threatened during a Fox News appearance to move to impeach Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray if they don’t turn over certain documents to his committee. His comments came just a day after diGenova suggested that strategy as a “no-brainer” during an appearance on Dobbs’ show.

    Then Wednesday morning, apparently reacting to a Fox & Friends segment critical of Rosenstein, Trump tweeted this:

    The president and his allies have decided that there’s no way for them to go too far, that ensuring that Trump and his closest associates escape the investigation unscathed justifies anything they might do along the way. Firing Rosenstein in order to curtail Mueller's investigation would be a dangerous step down an authoritarian path. But Trump and his legal advisers know that at least they'll still have Fox's propaganda apparatus behind them. And that might be enough.

  • Steve Scalise auditions to succeed Paul Ryan in interview praising Trump on the president's favorite show

    Update: The next day, Kevin McCarthy does the same thing

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Within an hour after Axios broke the news that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) will not seek re-election, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the third-ranking Republican in the House and a likely candidate to succeed Ryan, repeatedly praised President Donald Trump in an interview on the president’s favorite program, Fox & Friends.

    Axios reported at 8:10 a.m. EST that Ryan “has told confidants that he will announce soon that he won't run for re-election in November,” that Scalise and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) are the “two most likely to replace him,” and that Ryan would tell his Republican colleagues his plans at a meeting today. (Politico previously reported that Scalise was “angling” for the post but that he said he would not challenge McCarthy if he ran.)

    Fewer than 40 minutes after the Axios story was published, Scalise appeared on Fox & Friends, introduced as a possible “likely replacement” for Ryan. Asked by host Steve Doocy if he was interested in the position, Scalise demurred, suggesting that he wouldn’t comment on the issue before Ryan’s address later today.

    But Scalise also repeatedly praised the president during the interview, commenting that "we need to make sure we keep working with President Trump to get this economy back on track" and stressing, “I’ve enjoyed working with President Trump and we’ve gotten a lot done, but there’s more we need to get done.”

    Scalise’s comments appeared directed to an audience of one: the president himself, who dominates his party and can make or break a would-be GOP leader’s campaign, regularly watches the program, and apparently was doing so this morning. If Scalise does seek to replace Ryan as the top Republican in the House, he would benefit from the support of the president, who reportedly has a “tight relationship” with McCarthy.

    UPDATE: On Thursday, McCarthy had his own Fox & Friends audition, and similarly applauded the president.

     

  • There's a sharp divide in how Trump's staunchest allies are covering the Cohen raid

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump’s most avid defenders have split over how to respond to the FBI raid of his lawyer Michael D. Cohen's office and residence. Last night, Fox hosts Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity used their shows to call for action against the investigators while this morning, the hosts and guests of Fox & Friends warned that any such action could have severe consequences for Trump’s administration.

    In an extraordinary move, the FBI yesterday seized business records, emails, and documents from Cohen’s New York office, acting on a warrant obtained by the U.S. attorney’s office for the southern district of New York in coordination with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Cohen played a key role in both the potentially illegal payoff of adult film actress Stormy Daniels as well as the Trump Organization’s shady international business dealings.

    The unusual divide among Fox’s pro-Trump propagandists over how to treat a major new development in the series of federal criminal investigations into the president and his associates comes as Trump has been reportedly watching cable news coverage of the surprise raid and fuming.

    Speaking to reporters before a meeting with senior military leadership, Trump described the action by law enforcement as “an attack on our country, in a true sense. It's an attack on what we all stand for." Asked about whether he might respond by firing Mueller, he said “We’ll see what happens,” adding that “many people have said” that he should do so.

    Trump also blamed the day’s stock market decline on the raid. This parroted an argument made on Fox News a few hours earlier, unsurprisingly suggesting that Fox was the network he was tuning in to for Cohen coverage.

    If the president watched Fox News’ Hannity or Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight -- both among his favorite programs, each hosted by a conservative commentator Trump frequently consults for advice -- he would have seen an extensive attack on the investigations. Highlights include:

    • Dobbs said of Mueller, “I would fire the SOB in three seconds if it were me.”
    • Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett responded, “I know you would and he certainly deserves it.”
    • Dobbs described the investigation as “a historic assault on the very idea of American government, a constitutional republic.”
    • Fox contributor and former Trump White House aide Sebastian Gorka told Dobbs, “Mueller has to be dealt with. He has to be fired or he has to be asked, ‘What are you investigating that has anything to do with Russia?’”
    • Joe diGenova, a Fox regular who was briefly part of Trump’s legal team, argued that Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general overseeing Mueller’s investigation, and FBI Director Christopher Wray should be held “in contempt of Congress” for failing to provide documents on the Trump investigation quickly enough, and “if they don't produce the documents, they should move to impeach both of them.”
    • Hannity opened his show by saying, “This is now officially an all-hands-on-deck effort to totally malign and, if possible, impeach the president of the United States. Now, Mueller and Rosenstein have declared what is a legal war on the president.”
    • Hannity added, “My message tonight to Mueller is simple: If you have evidence of collusion, any at all, show it to us or end this partisan investigation. The country is hanging by a thread tonight and you don’t seem to care.”

    The hosts of Fox & Friends handled the story very differently. To be sure, they were also quite critical of the raid. Brian Kilmeade argued that it was intended "to get to the documents that many people thought violated attorney-client privilege." Ainsley Earhardt portrayed it as a conspiracy on the part of Mueller, his team of Democratic attorneys, and Rosenstein, whom she described as “Mueller’s BFF.” And the whole gang criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself that paved the way for Mueller’s appointment.

    But contrary to the evening lineup, the morning show’s hosts and guests largely argued that any effort the president might take to curtail the investigation would only make things worse. Kilmeade and co-host Steve Doocy pointed out that there would be a “firestorm” if Sessions were to step down because the argument that he had done so without being pressured would not be credible. And Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor and Fox regular, argued that if Trump were to fire Mueller, he would “magnify the dangers for himself and his presidency.”

    Moreover, the program devoted surprisingly little time to what seems like an earthquake for the Trump administration. Fox & Friends spent only a handful of segments on the story over the course of the broadcast, hardly the sort of all-systems-go defense we’ve come to expect from the president’s favorite show.

    It’s unclear which message is getting through to Trump. But it appears that his tweets this morning saying “Attorney–client privilege is dead!” and calling the probe “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!” were motivated by criticism of the investigation on Fox & Friends.

    We may find out shortly whether Trump will take Dobbs’ advice to fire Mueller immediately or be convinced by Turley’s comments that that would be a crucial mistake.

  • Kevin Williamson’s real enemy wasn’t the left. It was Kevin Williamson.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On Thursday, Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg announced that the publication had cut ties with conservative columnist Kevin Williamson just a couple weeks after hiring him. Williamson’s move from the conservative National Review to The Atlantic -- a magazine whose commentators typically straddle the center-left and center-right -- was controversial from the first. Critics highlighted Williamson’s disparaging remarks about people of color and transgender people. But the debate quickly focused on 2014 tweets in which the writer argued that women who have abortions should be punished as murderers, with penalties that could include death by hanging. In a March 27 memo, Goldberg defended his decision to hire Williamson, suggesting that the writer’s tweets about abortion were an example of impulsive, bad behavior on Twitter, rather than an expression of a carefully considered worldview. But after Media Matters on Wednesday resurfaced audio in which Williamson reiterated and defended that abortion position, Goldberg issued a second memo stating that the magazine had cut ties with Williamson.

    Goldberg’s announcement triggered a wave of enraged reactions from other conservative commentators, with some describing the decision as an unfair silencing of Williamson’s views and part of a broader effort to ban conservatives in general and those with pro-life views in particular from mainstream publications.

    This position ignores a number of key points: the right of editors to determine what views they want represented by their staff, the difference between Williamson's views and the majority of those held by pro-life commentators, and what appear to be the specific facts surrounding Williamson's brief tenure at The Atlantic. And most importantly, it inaccurately inflates a highly specific hiring controversy at a single publication into a larger campaign to purge mainstream opinion writing of conservative thinkers.

    The Atlantic’s editor has the right to decide which views are represented by its writers.

    The editor of every magazine or newspaper opinions section makes decisions about which views are acceptable for its writers, making determinations about how to draw those lines based on the particular intellectual project of the outlet.

    Williamson’s former National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg argues for a distinction. “Editors or owners should have absolute authority to control what appears in the pages of their magazines,” he writes, but what “editors should not have any control over is what their writers are allowed to think.” The Atlantic’s editors would have been within their rights to turn down a pitch from Williamson calling for harsh punishments for women who have abortions, under this rule, but not to fire him for making the argument in other venues.

    This is not how that principle is generally applied, including at National Review. In April 2012, Rich Lowry, the magazine’s editor, dropped longtime columnist John Derbyshire and contributor Robert Weissberg over racist commentary they issued in other venues. Lowry fired Derbyshire after he wrote an essay for another magazine in which he recommended that parents tell their children to be wary of black people, and said he would no longer publish Weissberg after he gave a speech at a white nationalist convention in which he explained how zoning laws and other methods could be used to create "Whitopias" in the United States.

    In both cases, Lowry specifically stated that he was dropping the commentator for his comments in other venues. In announcing he was cutting ties with Derbyshire, Lowry said that while the columnist was “a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer,” his essay had been “so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation.” Lowry concluded: “It's a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.” He likewise stated that he would no longer publish Weissberg due to his “noxious talk.”

    Lowry decided that he did not want Derbyshire’s or Weissberg’s racist commentary associated with the magazine he edited, even though they had not made those arguments at National Review. Jeffrey Goldberg has the same right to say that Williamson’s views fall outside the bounds of The Atlantic’s intellectual project and bring discredit to the magazine. We can argue about whether that magazine is making a wise decision in which views are permissible, but it’s simply inaccurate to suggest that the editor’s behavior is unusual -- even on the right.

    Williamson’s abortion comments were extreme and outside the bounds of current debate.

    Williamson was “Fired From The Atlantic For Opposing Abortion,” according to a headline at the right-wing website The Federalist. Nonsense. Several conservative writers in mainstream opinion sections oppose abortion (The New York Times’ Ross Douthat and The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, to name two). They represent the sizable minority of Americans who share that view.

    But Williamson argued not merely against abortion, but in favor of punishment up to death for women who have abortions. How far outside the bounds of typical debate is that view? Douthat and the conservative orthodox Christian commentator Rod Dreher -- both pro-life writers who oppose Williamson’s firing -- each describe it as “extreme,” with Dreher adding that “Kevin is the only pro-lifer I know who believes this — and I didn’t know he believed it until it came out after his hiring was announced.”

    Most anti-abortion groups and politicians also reject Williamson’s position. After Trump floated the idea of “some form of punishment" for women who have abortions, March for Life issued a statement calling the comment "completely out of touch with the pro-life movement and even more with women who have chosen such a sad thing as abortion." There are a few rare and disturbing cases in which conservative candidates have suggested punishing women for having abortions. But those proposals are outliers and have made little headway, suggesting that they're of limited value even in conservative political spaces.

    We can argue about whether the current bounds of debate should have been stretched to allow oxygen to the notion of hanging women who have abortions. But that’s what the debate is about, not whether “opposing abortion” is suddenly a position that is verboten at mainstream publications.

    Williamson appears to have been fired for misleading Goldberg about his abortion position. If he hadn’t done so, it’s unlikely he would have been hired.

    Williamson’s supporters want to portray him as a free speech martyr, the victim of a cowardly editor who refused to stand up to the anti-abortion mob. “Williamson's views are not a surprise to anyone and he was hired despite those views until they became inconvenient for Goldberg,” writes The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson.

    It’s impossible to reconcile that claim with Goldberg’s two memos, in which The Atlantic editor-in-chief strongly suggests that he always considered the belief that women should receive punishment that could include the death penalty unacceptable for a writer for his publication.

    In his first memo, Goldberg suggested that Williamson had been hired in spite of the “most horrible” abortion tweet, which he described as indefensible and unacceptable but aberrant. In the second, we get a sense of why Goldberg was so willing to overlook the tweet. In his telling, Williamson had misled him, explaining the tweet as “an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post,” not as representative of “his carefully considered views.” The public resurfacing of audio in which Williamson defended the tweet, along with comments Goldberg said Williamson had made to him after being hired, convinced Goldberg that Williamson did actually hold the position indicated by his tweet. This destroyed the argument Goldberg made in support of hiring him despite the tweet, leading to Williamson’s firing.

    Goldberg deserves no credit for this affair -- he failed to properly vet Williamson’s work. If Goldberg believes that writers at The Atlantic should not hold a particular view, it is his responsibility to ensure that they don’t before he hires them.

    Goldberg represented himself in his first memo as an authority on Williamson’s work, in contrast to those who were arguing against his hiring. “I have read most, or much, of what he has written; some of his critics have not done the same,” he wrote.

    If Goldberg had done his due diligence on Williamson, then based on his own standards for the magazine he never would have hired him. But his effort apparently amounted to taking Williamson’s word that his tweet was an anomaly; it was Media Matters that found the podcast proving otherwise, leading to the termination.

    Liberals are not trying to ban all conservatives from mainstream opinion sections.

    Many on the right are sounding the alarm following Williamson’s firing. “Conservative thought is more and more relegated to a ghetto and should any prominent conservative try to leave the ghetto, the leftwing mob will take action to destroy them,” warned Erickson in a piece representative of this sentiment.

    The concern that liberals seek to indiscriminately “destroy” any conservative commentator who dares land a job at a mainstream outlet is dramatically overblown.

    By my count, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic have hired eight conservative or libertarian commentators to contribute opinion pieces since the 2016 election. If the theory Erickson espouses were true, each would have been greeted with denunciations from across the liberal commentariat and calls for the firings of the newly minted columnists. But if you consider the reaction to each hire individually (acknowledging that on the Internet, you can always find someone making any argument), that did not happen.

    The only recently hired columnist whose backlash approached Williamson’s was Bret Stephens at the Times -- and the loudest voices against them came from different factions of the left: women’s rights groups in Williamson’s case and climate activists in Stephens’ case. The hirings of four -- Hugh Hewitt, Gary Abernathy, and Max Boot at the Post and Reihan Salam at The Atlantic -- were almost entirely ignored by progressives. And the treatment of the Post’s Megan McArdle and the TimesBari Weiss fell somewhere between these poles (with criticism of the latter largely coming in response to particular things she wrote after joining that paper). None of these other columnists have faced any serious threat to their employment.

    So no, there isn’t a liberal conspiracy to ban every conservative writer from the public sphere: There are a series of cases in which different liberal activists have responded differently to the hirings of different conservative writers based on their work. The conservative media’s incentive structures do encourage bigoted and extreme commentary that is not acceptable in more mainstream venues, but the record of the last few years demonstrates that right-wing thinkers who eschew or avoid the worst tendencies of their colleagues can escape that fate.

    Williamson should be a cautionary tale to other writers on the right -- but not for the reasons many of them think. Kevin Williamson’s problem wasn’t a climate of censorship in mainstream publications. In the end, it was Kevin Williamson.