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Simon Maloy

Author ››› Simon Maloy
  • Decades of Trump family tax fraud doesn’t bother conservatives who demanded Obama be “vetted”

    The tax swindler president gets a pass from the right

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    One of the dominant narratives about Barack Obama in conservative media and Republican politics hinged on the idea that no one knew who America’s first black president really was. This notion that Obama was hiding his true self found countless avenues of expression -- obsessions over his college transcripts; fine-toothed parsing of personal anecdotes related in his books; sinister insinuations about the childhood years he spent in Indonesia; dimwitted conspiracies about who actually wrote his autobiography; equally stupid conspiracies about his biological father; still dumber conspiracies about the famous black men who could be his “real” father; and bad-faith efforts to impute to Obama the politics of every controversial figure he encountered in his public life. The current president’s ascent in Republican politics began with a bigoted smear campaign to demonstrate that Obama had covered up his true place of birth.

    The unstated political intent behind all this aggressive and frequently deranged probing into Obama’s past was to leverage racial anxiety and portray Obama as foreign, un-American, and dangerous. The stated justification was that America needed to break through the political persona Obama had created and understand who the “real” Barack Obama was.

    “All people want to know is: What has this man ever actually accomplished in government? What does he plan for America? In short: Who is the real Barack Obama?” then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain said in a 2008 campaign speech.  “He’s been elected president,” Fox News’ Sean Hannity said shortly before Obama’s inauguration. “My question is: Do we really know the real Barack Obama?” Conservatives were singularly obsessed with debunking Obama’s self-told origin story and exposing the true “radical” they already had convinced themselves was hiding behind it.

    Now here we are in 2018 and Donald Trump, who benefited more than any other Republican politician from telling grotesque lies about Obama’s background, is president of the United States, having successfully campaigned on his own mythology as a business genius and self-made billionaire. That mythology was always based on grandiose lies and relied heavily on intense secrecy and media credulity. This week it was ripped to shreds by a New York Times investigation into the Trump family’s wealth which found that Donald Trump was heavily dependent on dubious -- and often fraudulent -- financial support from his real-estate developer father, Fred Trump.

    The true Donald Trump is a child of privilege whose wealth was always secure. He was disastrous as a businessman, but he was singularly effective in devising schemes (in collaboration with his dad) to conceal those failures with complex and inventive forms of tax fraud. The Donald Trump who markets himself as a business phenom is actually a spectacular failure who so values personal wealth and the outward appearance of success that he would commit fraud and even attempt to railroad his ailing father into altering his own will.

    This is precisely what conservatives were warning would happen with Obama: A president’s facade was shorn away to reveal something far more sinister, with dire implications for our political system. And early indications are that the right couldn't care less.

    Fox News has spent the day since the Times story dropped spinning it as positive for Trump, arguing that the illegal behavior described in the story actually shows that Trump is -- in the words of Neil Cavuto -- “pretty clever.”

    Sean Hannity, who aired a series of programs in the run-up to the 2008 election purporting to expose “The Real Barack Obama,” brushed off the Times’ deconstruction of Trump as a “slander” cooked up by Democrats who “think they're losing the vote on Judge Kavanaugh.” Breitbart News, which committed itself to a much-publicized (and often hilariously inept) “vetting” of Obama in 2012, limited its coverage of the Times story to publicizing Trump’s attacks on it.

    Such hypocrisy is to be expected, I suppose, but it’s still wild given all the dire warnings conservatives sounded about what a secret radical president would mean for U.S. policy. The situation we now face is that a sitting president with a long-standing record of fraud and tax evasion is responsible for overseeing the IRS and directing tax policy. The Times article describes the intricate, intra-familial schemes the Trumps devised so Fred Trump could line the pockets of his children without paying taxes. Are we just going to assume that similarly fraudulent arrangements do not exist between Donald Trump and his children, one of whom is a senior official in his White House?

    The potential for corruption is staggering, and it hovers menacingly above all the acts of official corruption we already know about. And yet, few on the right seem invested in loudly asking “who is the real Donald Trump?” I guess it would be pointless anyway; we know the real Donald Trump is a fraud and a tax cheat, but they just don’t give a damn.

  • Brett Kavanaugh went full Hannity

    To save his nomination, Kavanaugh unleashed his inner wing nut

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Brett Kavanaugh came into yesterday’s Senate hearing on his nomination to the Supreme Court in dire trouble. Prior to his appearance, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard wrenching, agonizing, and manifestly credible testimony from Christine Blasey Ford as she described the sexual assault she says Kavanaugh inflicted upon her over three decades ago when they were both still in high school. Committee Republicans, likely sensitive to the optics of a sexual assault survivor being interrogated by their all-male roster, outsourced their questioning to sex-crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, who didn’t manage to undercut Ford’s credibility but did poke a few holes in Kavanaugh’s.

    Cornered, threatened, and facing the abrupt termination of what was supposed to be a painless ascension to the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh went feral. His opening statement kicked off with an acerbic screed aimed at the committee Democrats. Yelling into his microphone and flushed with anger, Kavanaugh denied every allegation against him. He snapped at the Democratic senators on the committee, talked over them, and petulantly threw their questions back in their faces. And all throughout the hearing, he lied about matters large and small.

    Much of the coverage focused on Kavanaugh’s anger and his tone, and many conservatives were quick to argue that his rage was understandable as that of a man falsely accused. But the most revealing moment of Kavanaugh’s testimony came early on when he said this:

    This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election. Fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record. Revenge on behalf of the Clintons. and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.

    If you’ve spent any time watching Fox News or listening to conservative talk radio, rhetoric like this should be instantly recognizable: conspiratorial, steeped in grievance, and swaddled in anger. Watch Sean Hannity’s program on literally any night of the week and you’ll be bombarded with near-identical harangues about shadowy left-wing conspiracies driven by resentment over President Donald Trump’s election and invariably connected somehow to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

    “The entire basis of Robert Mueller’s so-called investigation is based on a lie and a conspiracy theory that was cooked up by the Obama administration, by Democrats, and by the liberal news media as an excuse for why Hillary Clinton lost the election,” Hannity complained this past January. “Mueller’s investigation has now morphed into a Democratic political hit job.” Compare that to the Supreme Court nominee’s accusation of a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” fueled by “anger about President Trump and the 2016 election” and Clintonite vengeance. Brett Kavanaugh was not a judge in that moment; he was a pro-Trump cable news pundit.

    To no one’s surprise, Kavanaugh’s testimony was loudly celebrated by the Republican establishment and conservative media. GOP senators who were content to let their proxy counsel speak for them to Dr. Ford abruptly abandoned her to join and echo Kavanaugh’s aggrieved complaint.

    During and after the hearing, the general reaction was that Kavanaugh was putting on a performance for an audience of one -- specifically, Donald Trump, who values this sort of aggressive combativeness (particularly from powerful allies who are facing sexual misconduct allegations). And that’s true insofar as Kavanaugh needed to reassure the man who nominated him, and he succeeded in that effort. But it would be incorrect to view Kavanaugh’s testimony yesterday as some sort of act or contrivance.

    This is who Brett Kavanaugh is. This is the Brett Kavanaugh who worked as a deputy to former independent counsel Ken Starr and harbored a singular obsession with long-debunked conspiracy theories about Clinton White House official Vince Foster’s suicide. This is the Brett Kavanaugh who, as a staffer in George W. Bush’s White House, was linked to a scandal surrounding emails stolen from Democratic senators (Kavanaugh’s blanket denials of having knowingly received those stolen documents were convincingly debunked by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats).

    The Kavanaugh that we saw at the confirmation hearings earlier this month who talked about the virtues of an independent and nonpartisan judiciary, who said “a good judge must be an umpire -- a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy,” who warned that the “the Supreme Court must never be viewed as a partisan institution” -- that was the fake Kavanaugh. That Brett Kavanaugh was putting on a show and playing the part of an impartial jurist. Maintaining that fiction yesterday would not have helped his cause, so he cast it aside and let his inner Hannity take control.

    Now it seems likely that Kavanaugh will be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate and ascend to the Supreme Court. Chances are pretty good that, at some point, the high court will be forced to weigh in on the Russia investigation conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller: an investigation that Trump has attacked as a Democratic conspiracy linked to Hillary Clinton that is driven by lingering anger over his election.

    Hey … where have we heard that before?

  • Ben Shapiro's Fox News elections show doesn't cover elections

    The Ben Shapiro Election Special is long on culture war, short on campaign coverage

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    To kick off the first episode of his limited-run weekly series on Fox News, Ben Shapiro observed that “we are in the midst of the one of the most important election cycles of our lifetime.” This is true insofar that every federal election cycle is important and the current election cycle is indeed happening while we are alive. But this election cycle is so important that Fox News created a special show for Ben Shapiro to talk about the upcoming elections: a show it calls The Ben Shapiro Election Special.

    Some of you might have questions, like: “Why is Ben Shapiro hosting a show about elections?” and “What the hell does Ben Shapiro know about elections?” and “What can I possibly learn about elections from a guy who ‘doesn’t seem to care very much about facts’?”

    These are all reasonable questions. They’re also completely moot, given that The Ben Shapiro Election Special neither covers nor cares about the election cycle that supposedly justifies its existence. As I wrote when the show was first announced, it’s all just a flimsy pretense cooked up by Fox to audition Shapiro as a replacement Sean Hannity. The network wants to capitalize on Shapiro’s hilariously inapt reputation as (in the words of The New York Times) “the cool kid’s philosopher.” The end product is functionally indistinct from the rest of Fox News’ prime-time programming -- hyperbolic attacks on liberals, factual errors, rigid ideological conformity -- with just enough lip service paid to its gimmicky “elections” premise to emphasize how absurd it is.

    Six minutes and fourteen seconds: That is the total amount of time Shapiro’s first hour-long program devoted to what could be generously described as election-specific coverage. Those six minutes and fourteen seconds were divided between two segments: a one-on-one interview with pollster Scott Rasmussen that was devoted to an inch-deep discussion of the national generic ballot and Democrats’ chances to take over Congress, and a two-minute panel discussion featuring sports journalist Jason Whitlock, crime novelist (and podcaster for Shapiro’s website The Daily Wire) Andrew Klavan, and “conservative millennial” pundit Allie Stuckey.

    Again, you’re probably asking yourself what electoral insights could have been gleaned from this panel. Whitlock provided the answer when Shapiro solicited his 2018 election predictions, and he demurred because he -- like everyone else involved -- is not an elections analyst.

    The vast bulk of the first episode of The Ben Shapiro Election Special was instead devoted to stuff that falls more into Shapiro’s comfort zone: attacking liberals. The first half of the show was just an extended monologue lashing out at “the left” for the handling of reports that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh committed sexual assault; accusing Democrats of dirty tricks; and attacking the credibility of professor Christine Blasey Ford, who reported that Kavanaugh assaulted her.

    “Ford’s lawyers are now demanding that for her to testify, Republicans should make Kavanaugh testify before she does,” Shapiro said. “That’s insane. It’s obviously a poison pill. There is no legal proceeding in America or any other civilized country where the defendant testifies before the plaintiff.” That’s a sound rejoinder but for the facts that a Senate hearing is not a legal proceeding, Kavanaugh and Ford are neither defendant nor plaintiff, and back in 1991, Clarence Thomas testified before Anita Hill.

    “The real agenda here obviously has nothing to do with whether Brett Kavanaugh actually attempted to sexually assault a girl 36 years ago,” Shapiro said of the Democrats’ handling of the Kavanaugh allegations. “It has everything to do with painting a picture, a picture of evil Republican sexists who don’t care about women who are sexually abused.” Amusingly, a couple of minutes later Shapiro stepped on his own point by noting that President Donald Trump “didn’t help things” by attacking Ford’s credibility, which “makes Republicans look insensitive.”

    From there, The Ben Shapiro Election Special veered off into a harangue about the evils of “social justice” and one-sided relitigations of the Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork nominations. Shapiro deployed some harsh broadsides against columnist Ana Marie Cox, comedian Chelsea Handler, former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, and several other people whose shared characteristic is that they are not running for any elected office in 2018.

    The panel discussion featured more of the same, with Shapiro and his guests giving their takes on Google’s alleged bias against conservatives and mocking a transgender woman who, per Vice, “has undergone extreme body modification to become a dragon.” Zero insight -- electoral or otherwise -- was gleaned from the discussion, though Whitlock’s joke that he self-identifies as Denzel Washington did elicit some fantastic awkwardness from Shapiro:

    I could go into more detail, but there isn’t actually any point. If you’ve seen anything Fox News has aired in prime time over the last 20 years, then you’ve already seen The Ben Shapiro Election Special.

  • Trump's war on the Lester Holt interview

    A presidential media assault on the president’s self-incriminating words

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The president and his attorneys are not subtle. Caught up in the grinding gears of the Russia investigation, they’ve apparently decided that whatever legal strategy they’ve adopted (if they have one) must be complemented by a loud, clanking, and incessant media blitz to exonerate the president in the court of public opinion. And so they go on TV -- constantly -- to proclaim Trump’s innocence and endlessly litigate the evidence that suggests otherwise.

    By watching how they communicate, you can suss out clues to which issues are causing the president and his lawyers the most grief. At the moment, for whatever reason, Trump and his team seem preoccupied with the idea that the president might have admitted to obstruction of justice when he told NBC’s Lester Holt last year that “this Russia thing” was on his mind when he fired former FBI Director James Comey. And so they’re trying to rewrite recent history by lying about the Holt interview and brazenly retconning Trump’s relationship with Comey.

    Earlier this week, Trump gave an interview to The Hill that touched on the Justice Department’s Russia investigation and Trump’s controversial May 2017 firing of Comey. Trump spun a nonsensical story about how he wished he had fired Comey before he became president:

    "If I did one mistake with Comey, I should have fired him before I got here. I should have fired him the day I won the primaries," Trump said. "I should have fired him right after the convention, say I don't want that guy. Or at least fired him the first day on the job. ... I would have been better off firing him or putting out a statement that I don't want him there when I get there.”

    Trump obviously could not have fired Comey while Barack Obama was still in office. And while Trump did attack Comey during the 2016 campaign over the decision not to recommend charges against Hillary Clinton over her email server, he revised his opinion of the FBI director after Comey reinitiated the email investigation just days before the election. “It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution,” Trump said at the time. “What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back.”

    This week’s preposterous revisionism seems like an effort to establish a motive for Trump’s firing of Comey: specifically, that he always wanted to fire Comey, even before the FBI began investigating the Trump campaign’s Russia connections in July 2016. It probably hasn’t occurred to Trump that the fact that he didn’t fire Comey immediately is sufficient proof that this new story is bullshit. But logical inconsistency isn’t the problem he’s trying to solve -- he’s trying to unring the obstruction-of-justice bell he rang during his interview with Holt shortly after the Comey firing.

    In that May 2017 interview, Trump told Holt that he had decided to fire Comey regardless of whatever recommendation he got from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. “He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it,” Trump said. “And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.’”

    Trump and his legal team have long been aware of the problem this interview presents and have employed various strategies to defuse it. The president has accused Holt of “fudging my tape” -- an incendiary and false allegation that the tape itself disproves. Trump’s lawyers have opted for a subtler, though still dishonest, strategy of arguing that Trump’s comments and the interview have been broadly misunderstood.

    Jay Sekulow, who hosts a radio program when he’s not legally representing the president, argued on CNN on Wednesday evening that it is “not correct” to say Trump fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. “You know that when there are interviews, there are edits and there is a longer transcript,” he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “And I will just tell you without disclosing any detail, that when you review the entire transcript, it is very clear as to what happened and I'm not going to give you information on how we provided it, but in our professional discussions with the office of special counsel, we have addressed that on multiple occasions appropriately. And the evidence, when you look at the entire evidence, you don't see it.”

    Sekulow was alluding to the Trump legal team’s communications with special counsel Robert Mueller, which specifically address the Holt interview. Trump’s lawyers argue that once you consider the entire interview transcript, “a fair reading of the president’s remarks” is that he fired Comey for incompetence and fully expected the Russia investigation to continue, perhaps even drag on longer.

    The problem with this explanation is that it is strained to begin with, and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Trump would not have had to derail the entire investigation in order to obstruct it. Recall that Comey testified Trump asked for his loyalty in the months before he was fired, and Comey declined. Trump could have corrupted the probe by getting rid of Comey and installing someone friendlier who would investigate Russian election interference without investigating Trump.

    This avenue was briefly open to the president until he sabotaged it by threatening Comey over Twitter with allegedly incriminating “tapes” of their conversations. That prompted Comey to leak personal memos describing his interactions with Trump in the hope that a special counsel would be appointed -- which is exactly what happened. Since then, Trump has been threatening the Justice Department, raging about the “witch hunt” special counsel probe, and lashing out at his hand-picked attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the investigation. The president has been unambiguously clear in his view that senior Justice Department officials should be protecting him.

    Viewed in that context, the Lester Holt interview is incredibly damning of the president, which is why Trump and his attorneys are filling the airwaves with elaborate lies and misinterpretations about it. They recognize the danger of the president’s own words.

  • Fox News auditions Ben Shapiro as an elections expert

    With a short run and lame gimmick, Shapiro gets his shot at a cable sinecure

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Earlier today, Fox News announced that it will be launching a weekly show hosted by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro that will have a limited, four-week run ahead of the midterm elections. “Ben is a rising star in conservative political commentary and we are excited to add his signature style and well thought out viewpoint to our pre-election weekend lineup,” Fox News says in the statement, which came hot on the heels of news that Shapiro was a conduit for pro-Russian propaganda cooked up by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

    This is clearly Fox giving a test-run to Shapiro, who the network likely sees as capable of expanding its audience beyond its senior-citizen core. For Shapiro, a part-time Fox News hosting gig is the next step in the life cycle of right-wing punditry: He’s already a columnist and radio host, and he has side hustles hawking gold, dodgy supplements, and doomsday prepper foods, so the obvious next step is “cable news sinecure.”

    What’s weird and funny about Shapiro’s Fox News audition is its transparently phony gimmick. The show is called “The Ben Shapiro Election Special,” and apparently will tap into Shapiro’s supposed expertise in elections analysis. “I am honored to partner with Fox News where we can provide in-depth analysis on the voting trends that will be leading the polls this November,” Shapiro says in the Fox News statement.

    So Ben Shapiro is a hard-right Nate Silver now, I guess. It’s a strange framing to force upon a pundit whose oeuvre is mainly culture-war howling and sensationalized confrontation with ideological adversaries. Shapiro’s chief talent is getting booked for speeches at liberal arts colleges to provoke protests from left-wing student groups and then venerating himself as a warrior for free speech. The meat of his commentary encompasses fairly standard right-wing themes -- rote American exceptionalism, downplaying racial bias in American society, etc. -- dressed up with over-the-top aggressive attacks on “The Left.”

    Shapiro's most significant contribution to our understanding of electoral politics is to offer some variation of “this is why Trump won” whenever a Democrat or media figure does something that annoys him. And, speaking just for myself, I don’t know that I’m quite prepared to trust the electoral analysis of someone who tries to goad candidates for federal office into debating him with bad-faith offers of campaign and/or charitable donations.

    But that’s what Fox News is giving us because … well, I guess they needed something, and the election is coming up, and so sure, why not, let’s have Ben Shapiro be an elections guy now. Whatever.

    It doesn’t actually matter because this is all just a pretext to test out Shapiro as a replacement Sean Hannity for a younger demographic: someone who can theoretically appeal to the youth while giving Fox News’ existing audience the angry, ideologically acceptable opinions it craves.

  • There is no bottom

    Free of oversight and enabled by toadies, the president disappears Puerto Rico’s dead

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico almost a year ago and created a humanitarian catastrophe that continues to this day. The storm obliterated the U.S. territory’s already dilapidated infrastructure, causing an islandwide blackout that still isn’t completely fixed. With many residents denied access to electricity, fresh water, medical care, and other basic services, the death toll from the storm climbed. The official toll stood at 64 until early August, when the Puerto Rican government acknowledged that it was far, far higher -- at least 1,400. A few weeks later, Puerto Rico raised the official death toll to 2,975, based on estimates from an independent study commissioned by the commonwealth government.

    That death toll makes Hurricane Maria one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history. To President Donald Trump, however, reports that nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens perished on his watch are a personal insult and a conspiracy to undermine him.

    You can read the president’s tweets on the subject if you like, but the gist is that the updated death toll is fake and was invented by unnamed Democrats who manufactured it solely to make Trump look bad. Earlier in the week, the president had been bragging about his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria. “I actually think it is one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” Trump said. He also tweeted about the “unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico.”

    This depraved egotism is untouched by any sort of factual merit: To the president, the federal response to Maria was terrific because it was his response, and any suggestion of calamity or incompetence is obviously fake because it can’t be true. “I love Puerto Rico!” Trump declared in the same tweet in which he vanished the island’s thousands of hurricane casualties.

    Just as despicable as the president’s conspiracy theory about dead U.S. citizens was the determined effort by his toadies in conservative politics and right-wing media to defend Trump’s self-serving lies.

    The pro-Trump mercenaries at insisted that Trump was “correct” to argue that Democrats had created a fake death count to smear him, pointing out that earlier estimates put the death toll at around 1,000 (it’s not clear how that helps the president, who tweeted that the death toll wasn’t much higher than 18). Breitbart complained that “the media reported the new estimate as if it were an actual confirmed death toll,” even though the Puerto Rican government revised the official death toll to align with that estimate. (Breitbart’s explanation for why the governor raised the death toll is that he was “under heavy political pressure due to the slow pace of the island’s recovery,” which makes absolutely no sense.)

    Lou Dobbs, whose Fox Business program functions as a self-debasing exaltation of the gloriously infallible Donald Trump, heaped praise on the president for having “the guts to call out the Dems and national left wing media types, who have blindly accepted an amazing tortured inflation of the death toll.” Dobbs’ explanation for how the death toll rose from 64 to nearly 3,000 was this: “It involves as many academicians as humanly possible in the effort, and then you watch the entire exercise become a farce.” Dobbs later tweeted out a video of the segment, which earned a retweet from the president.

    What Breitbart, Dobbs, and the rest of the president’s sycophants leave deliberately unmentioned is that the federal government’s inadequate response to the hurricane is well-documented. Puerto Rico did not receive the same federal attention or assets other less heavily damaged areas of the country received. A recent Government Accountability Office report identified numerous problems with the federal response, including personnel shortages, insufficient resources, and a lack of proper equipment. A PBS and NPR investigation into the federal storm response characterized the Federal Emergency Management Agency as “a government relief agency in chaos struggling with key contracts, basic supplies and its own workforce.” That chaos is in evidence as the crisis continues and “eighty percent of Puerto Ricans rate Trump’s response to Maria negatively.”

    There is no official reckoning of what happened in Puerto Rico because the people in power are more concerned with maintaining power than they are with figuring out exactly how many people died and why. Congressional Democrats are accusing Republicans of stymieing any real federal inquiry into Puerto Rico’s humanitarian nightmare, and there likely won’t be any real accountability so long as Republicans control both houses of Congress. This ugly truth props up Trump’s conspiracymongering and his supporters’ bad-faith defenses -- absent any sort of definitive federal investigation into the administration’s hurricane response, Trump and his enablers are free to hurl outlandish accusations and claim that the president’s critics are smearing him with fake numbers because no one knows precisely how many people died.

    They want to make sure that no one ever really knows what happened in Puerto Rico. Their most important consideration is that the president not be blamed for the catastrophe, and if that means dismissing a couple of thousand dead Americans as a fiction invented by the Democrats, then that’s what they’ll do.

  • I, fraud-ius: Conservatives go back to counting Obama’s pronouns

    Hannity and Dobbs preview the bad-faith attacks they’ll revive for a Democratic president

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The right-wing barkers who populate Fox News have rediscovered one of their favorite narratives: The president is an incurable and undignified narcissist. Not the current president, mind you. Not the one who made a business of slapping his name on gaudily appointed buildings, who used to call reporters pretending to be his own publicist and boast about his romantic life, who pursues illicit extramarital affairs and then pays his mistresses hush money, who gets a twice-daily briefing on positive cable news chyrons about himself, and who kicked off his presidency by lying extravagantly about the crowd size at his inauguration.

    No, the allegedly bloated and unseemly ego they can’t abide is that of former President Barack Obama, who just returned to the political stage with a critical speech aimed at Republicans generally and Donald Trump specifically. During Obama’s presidency, it was standard practice among conservative pundits to obsessively tally the number of first-person pronouns he used during public remarks and present those numbers as scientific proof of his potentially calamitous narcissism. Now that Obama has reemerged and given a political speech, they’re falling back into old habit.

    Sean Hannity smarmily observed that Obama “was so proud of himself that during his recent hour-long speech he talked a lot about himself, 102 times in one hour.”

    Lou Dobbs -- a tart critic of unseemly vanity who also sports an unnaturally radiant helmet of auburn hair atop his septuagenarian scalp -- complained that Obama “lovingly referred to himself 102 times during his unprecedented attack against his successor in the Oval Office.”

    The news here isn’t that pundits like Hannity and Dobbs are hypocrites -- they obviously are and they don’t give a shit. Moments like these are instructive, however, in that they show how conservative media will react once a Democrat returns to the presidency.

    Donald Trump’s narcissism and intensely fragile ego are more or less his defining qualities. His enablers and apologists in the conservative media who spent eight years howling that Barack Obama was fatally compromised by overriding self-regard either choose to simply ignore Trump’s actual crippling egotism or twist it into a positive. But the second Obama pops his head up, those same pundits momentarily revert to their old ways and start counting Obama’s “I’s” again. This is all being done in transparent bad faith.

    It’s important to recognize this nonsense ahead of time because these liars and propagandists have huge megaphones that they will use to slander and deride whoever challenges Trump for the presidency in 2020. They will energetically attempt to hold those Democrats to standards of moral and ethical behavior that they will never impose upon the current president. When there is no actual scandal to be found, they’ll invent one.

    All of this will be done with the goal of influencing the broader media coverage of those candidates. You can draw a straight line between shallow antics like conservatives counting Obama’s first-person pronouns and mainstream political analysts describing Obama as “aloof,” “professorial,” and the like.

    The key to thwarting this behavior is to recognize early on that it is all rooted in aggressive dishonesty. Hannity, Dobbs, and their ilk will make every excuse for Donald Trump’s scandalous behavior and moral failings and, in literally the next breath, hold Democrats to standards reserved for saints.

    (Video by John Kerr)

  • Donald Trump and conservative media corruption

    A fragile, scandal-plagued president trades access for obsequious coverage

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Last week was a tough one for President Donald Trump. It featured a scandal-churning Bob Woodward book, a New York Times op-ed from an anonymous Trump official who is apparently undermining his boss, and an unexpectedly rough nomination hearing for Brett Kavanaugh.

    When the president’s personal or political tumult exceeds its already frighteningly high baseline, he tends to lash out and seek reaffirmation -- as last week’s troubles accumulated, he wallowed in some praise from North Korea’s dictator and vented his frustrations at “the Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media.” And whenever Trump feels politically embattled or one of his scandals has mushroomed beyond the capabilities of his inept communications team, the president can be counted on to call on his conservative media lickspittles for an ass-kissing farce of an interview. This happened twice last week: He gave a ridiculous interview to Fox News’ Pete Hegseth ahead of a political rally in Montana, and an equally absurd one-on-one with The Daily Caller.

    These interviews demonstrate the corrupt nature of Trump's relationship with conservative media. The president’s overriding need for unqualified praise and affirmation, especially when he’s beset by crises, creates a clear incentive structure for right-wing media outlets: Disgustingly obsequious and adulatory behavior will be rewarded with access to the president.

    This dynamic has been a running feature of the Trump presidency as afterthought pundits who would otherwise be coasting toward the ends of their careers -- Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs -- have seen their influence explode thanks to their personal relationships with Trump and their eagerness to bathe the president with reflexive and self-debasing praise. Pete Hegseth, a confidant of Trump’s and wanna-be member of the Trump administration, is similarly committed to using his quasi-journalistic perch to glorify the president.

    “Folks, you may have seen an anonymous column written in The New York Times,” Hegseth said during last week’s interview ahead of Trump’s rally in Montana, eliciting a predictable round of boos from the pro-Trump crowd. “And I think this audience would say that an attack on you is an attack on the people that voted for you,” he said to the president, drawing a countervailing round of cheers. This emotional push and pull was the setup for Hegseth’s question to Trump: “Are you any closer to knowing who did it, and what should be done if you find out who did it?” Hegseth then passed his microphone to Trump, ceding the floor to his interviewee, who rambled on about “treason” and the supposed perfidy of the Times.

    My colleague Matt Gertz characterized Hegseth as a “hype man” for his performance, which is accurate, but I think behavior like this merits something a bit more insulting. Hegseth’s role was more or less that of a human golf tee. He was jammed into the president’s turf, holding aloft gleaming, lovingly dimpled “questions” for Trump to club at his leisure as spectators clapped and hooted. At all other times, he rests comfortably inside the president’s pocket, waiting to be plucked out when needed. Hegseth plays this role because he knows that is the treatment Trump craves and demands from the media.

    The Daily Caller’s interview with Trump in the Oval Office was only slightly less unseemly, if only because it wasn’t conducted at an actual campaign event. “So you have been batting almost 1000 on primary endorsements. You have to be pretty proud of that,” was the Daily Caller’s first question for Trump, though it wasn’t technically a “question” but rather an invitation for Trump to brag. Trump took advantage of the opportunity while also hilariously blaming his son for his endorsement of failed Wyoming gubernatorial candidate (and Daily Caller funder) Foster Friess.

    The interview continued in that vein, with the Daily Caller offering praise of the president lightly disguised as “questions.” This excerpt from the transcript captures the flavor perfectly:

    THE DAILY CALLER: It seems like the theme here is that in Washington it’s not often somebody comes along and sort of rethinks what everybody already believes. In Washington, despite the bipartisan differences, everyone has the same momentum, they’re all headed in the same direction. And you feel like you’re coming in —

    POTUS: Well, your question was so good because nobody has ever asked me that. It’s almost like you sort of understood the situation better, does everyone agree with you on that? Because you guys are probably sitting there saying, but then you’re saying but you have to go through this incredible layer of people.

    THE DAILY CALLER: You’re challenging the conventional wisdom.

    At one point, White House deputy chief of staff (and disgraced former Fox News executive) Bill Shine tried to wrap things up, but Trump overruled him because of how much he was enjoying the Daily Caller’s bootlicking flattery. “Let them have it, these guys have been great. Let them have a few more,” Trump said.

    Again, that sort of relentless adulation is how Trump expects to be treated, and conservative media outlets are happy to give him what he wants. And since the president spends a frankly shocking amount of his immensely valuable time melting his brain with cable news, he can immerse himself in the hosannas of his most sycophantic enablers and also let them know when they’re falling short of the high standard for adulation he demands. “Do we love Sean Hannity, by the way? I love him,” Trump remarked at last week’s rally in Montana. “But here's the only part. He puts up all these losers that say horrible things. I've got to talk to him. One after another. ‘Donald Trump, he's lost it up here.’ You know, it is pretty tough.”

    It’s not tough. If “tough” were a spot on the globe, Sean Hannity’s show would be its antipode. But some fleeting criticism featured on an intensely pro-Trump program still irked the president to the point that he groused about it during a campaign rally.

    The proper way to view Trump’s cultivation of relationships with the conservative press is as an act of corruption. It’s hard to deny that all parties are going into these interviews with a clear understanding of their transactional nature: Trump gets the good press and affirmation that he intensely craves, while Fox News, the Daily Caller, and all the other sycophants get to hype their “exclusives” with the president. There is no good-faith effort to inform the public; they’re just grubbing access for the sake of access, which Trump metes out as a reward for immensely flattering coverage. When Trump is hounded by scandal, conservative media serve as part of his PR and self-care strategy.

    If the way to get access to Trump is to be as over-the-top obsequious as possible, then it’s easy to see how that becomes the dominant incentive behind conservative media coverage of the White House. The corruption spreads as right-wing media figures look to boost their own profiles by advertising their slavish deference to a fragile president who is driven by an infinitely deep desire for praise. Everyone wants to be Trump’s human golf tee.

  • Blame Fox News for Joe Arpaio

    The baleful legacy of America’s most corrupt, racist ex-sheriff and his media enablers

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Joe Arpaio lost his bid for the Republican Senate nomination in Arizona this week, earning just under 19 percent of the statewide vote and finishing third behind Kelli Ward and primary winner Rep. Martha McSally. In Maricopa County, where he served as sheriff for over 20 years until he was voted out in 2016, Arpaio got crushed, pulling in just 17.5 percent of the vote. The fact that Joe Arpaio is no longer even a distant threat to win election to the Senate is an unalloyed good, given that he is a pernicious racist, persistently corrupt, an inveterate conspiracy theorist, and an authoritarian cretin.

    But while he lost badly, Arpaio was still the first choice of nearly 95,000 Arizona Republicans, including a slim plurality of GOP voters in Yuma County, which he won by about 250 votes. That Arpaio was even considered a remotely plausible threat to win the nomination is a fact that must be reckoned with, given that he was convicted on criminal contempt charges in 2017 stemming from his defiance of a federal court order to stop profiling Latinos as sheriff.

    A good measure of blame for Arpaio’s continued relevance lies with President Donald Trump and his administration. Arpaio dodged jail time because Trump pardoned him in a flagrant act of cronyism, and just a few months ago Vice President Mike Pence celebrated this many-times-disgraced former lawman as a “tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law.” Arpaio is useful to Trump both as a symbol of grievance (his indictment came during the Obama administration, which implicitly makes him a martyr of “political correctness”) and a champion of draconian immigration policy (the suspected undocumented immigrants Arpaio detained were forced to wear pink underwear in a sweltering tent prison that he himself described as a “concentration camp.”) Arpaio, for his part, says Trump is his hero.

    At its core, however, the Joe Arpaio phenomenon is a creation of conservative media generally, and Fox News specifically. Arpaio first became a national figure during his tenure as sheriff of Maricopa County -- an office whose powers he grossly abused in order to illegally target minority populations. He was able to spin his own flamboyant lawlessness and racism into an image of “toughness” thanks to an accomplice right-wing media apparatus that celebrated his degrading and criminal mistreatment of immigrants and Latinos.

    Arpaio was a constant presence on Fox News for years and he was frequently celebrated on the network with his preferred moniker of “America’s toughest sheriff.” Back in July 2000, Arpaio swung by Hannity & Colmes to defend his new policy of installing publicly accessible webcams in his jail. Hannity loved the idea and introduced Arpaio as “my favorite sheriff,” telling him: “No bigger fan than me right here.” (Arpaio’s webcams showed female inmates using the bathroom and were found to be degrading by a federal court.)

    Whenever Arpaio came up with a new gimmick -- forcing inmates to listen to patriotic songs, installing a hotline so county residents could report suspected undocumented immigrants, having the public vote online on inmates’ mugshots -- you could expect to see him on Fox posturing as an immigration tough guy who was happy to incarcerate as many immigrants as space would allow. When the Obama administration launched its investigation into Arpaio’s racial profiling and mistreatment of prisoners, Fox heralded him as a victim of federal persecution. “There is another case of bullying -- this time, the government bullying the police, or, in this case, the sheriff,” Glenn Beck told his viewers in June 2009.

    When Arpaio glommed onto the racist conspiracy theorizing about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and formed a “Cold Case Posse” to investigate, it did nothing to diminish his credibility or popularity at the network -- the “results” of his inquiry were featured on Fox News’ flagship “straight news” program, Special Report, as were Arpaio’s ensuing gripes that his ludicrous investigation wasn’t being taken seriously by the press.

    In 2016, as Arpaio’s scandals multiplied and his political standing eroded, he was still enjoying softball interviews on Fox, where he’d advocate for then-candidate Trump’s immigration policies. Arpaio appeared on the May 30, 2016, edition of Hannity -- just two weeks after a federal judge found that Arpaio had “engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty, and bad faith with respect to the plaintiff class (Latinos) and the protection of its rights” -- where he was introduced by Hannity as “Mr. Pink Underwear himself, Joe Arpaio, our favorite sheriff.”

    Even Arpaio’s pardon by Trump flowed through Fox News; a Fox legal analyst discussed the idea with Trump and then reported that the president was “seriously considering” issuing a pardon. When the pardon came down, the network celebrated and defended the action. And after Arpaio declared his intention to run for the Senate, Fox treated him to still more soft-coverage publicity.

    While Arpaio himself looks to be through as a political figure, the legacy he crafted will endure. He forged the template for low-rent authoritarian public officials who use conservative media as a path to national stardom (this strategy was emulated by former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a Fox regular who promoted his brand on TV while inmates died in his jail). The popularity among conservatives that Arpaio built up through his years of punditry helped to spare him from accountability for the manifold crimes and abuses he committed while in office.

    Joe Arpaio figured out how to break the law, violate the public trust, abuse minorities, spout off racist conspiracy theories, and get off scot-free while also enjoying venerated status as a martyr and quasi-folk hero. All he had to do was go on Fox News.

  • Stop interviewing Steve Bannon

    How many “exclusives” can one discredited crank give?

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    In late February, six months after he was unceremoniously fired from the White House, Steve Bannon sat down for a “wide-ranging and challenging conversation” with GQ, which wrote up the interview under the headline “Steve Bannon is hatching his comeback.” In early March, Bannon gave a “sprawling interview” to the New York Times about his “international mission” to “demolish [Europe’s] political establishment.” That same month he was a featured interviewee at a Financial Times Future of News conference.

    On April 4, Bannon gave an interview to Reuters about tariffs. Less than a week later, he gave another interview to the New York Times, also about tariffs. A couple of days after that, Bannon talked to The Washington Post about the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. On May 22, Bannon talked to the Post again ahead of a debate in Prague. The next day, Bannon gave an “exclusive” interview to the BBC about the Russia investigation.

    On June 1, he “spoke exclusively” to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria for a program the network hyped as “The Steve Bannon Interview.” Two weeks later, ABC’s Jon Karl went “one-on-one exclusively” with Bannon in what was billed as “his first Sunday morning show interview since leaving the White House.” Three days later, Bannon gave an interview to The National Interest. On July 8, he was interviewed by The Sunday Times. Ten days later, CNBC snagged an “exclusive interview” with Bannon. Two days after that, Bannon talked to The Daily Beast. A few days later, he talked to Reuters (again). Less than a week later, Politico interviewed Bannon about the Koch brothers.

    August 10: New York magazine. August 12: “a wide-ranging interview” with The Sunday Times (again). August 15: The New York Times (again). August 15: Politico (again). August 16: Axios.

    And tonight, Steve Bannon “will join anchor Ari Melber one-on-one for an exclusive television interview on MSNBC.”

    That’s at least 22 interviews over the course of six months (it’s entirely possible that I missed a few Bannon interviews while compiling this list, since he will talk to literally anyone). By now it seems reasonable to ask what, if anything, we stand to learn from this many-times discredited former White House official who is hanging out with far-right European extremists and whose most recent foray into U.S. politics was his failed attempt to elevate an accused child molester to the U.S. Senate.

    Back in March, I wrote that Bannon “is looking to prove once and for all that a whack job extremist -- no matter how disgraced or putrefied by white supremacist politics -- can still command the attention and respect of America’s elite.” Congrats, Steve: mission accomplished.