As Donald Trump finds himself at the center of an impeachment inquiry, his backers in right-wing media have been working overtime to play defense for the embattled president. From Fox & Friends in the morning to Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight in the evening, Fox News has remained (mostly) unwavering in its defense of Trump. Breitbart, The Daily Wire, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and so many other constants of conservative commentary have dutifully deflected and defended their political champion.
However, it wasn’t so long ago that conservative media sang a different tune on impeachment. Barack Obama’s time in office marked a period of rapid-fire demands from right-wing media for the president’s removal from office. It’s instructive to see how much the bar for “high crimes and misdemeanors” has shifted since then, helping gauge how seriously we should take the words of conservative pundits when the president is a member of their own party.
Let’s take a look back at some of the scandals that set right-wing media off.
Executive actions, a hatred of America, and of course, supposedly being born outside the U.S.
Less than two months after Obama took office, right-wing radio host Michael Savage declared, “I think it is time to start talking about impeachment.” He was angry about Obama’s use of executive actions, and he called the American people “a bunch of schmucks” for sitting idly as they were “watching a dictatorship emerge in front of their eyes.” Despite occasional criticism, Savage has been largely supportive of Trump and recently accused Nancy Pelosi of being an “illegitimate speaker” of the House intent on destroying the Constitution by opening a Trump impeachment inquiry.
In October 2009, conservative radio host Tammy Bruce denounced Obama on Fox News because, she said, “he seems to have, it seems to me, some malevolence toward this country, which is unabated,” and World Net Daily quoted her to argue for impeachment. Around that time, the “Impeach Obama” movement started gaining momentum in conservative circles, never quite tethered to a specific or verifiable accusation. For instance, Republican strategist Floyd Brown campaigned to impeach Obama on account of “fascism, socialism, Obamaism… take your pick?” (along with his supposed birthplace).
In September 2011, Fox Business promoted conspiracy theorist and former Rep. Tom Tancredo’s list of “12 impeachable offenses” Obama committed, including his supposed failure to secure the borders and his “contempt for the Constitution.” In 2012, Fox Business host Neil Cavuto asked whether making recess appointments could be an impeachable offense. While many of these claims from the right were unstructured and unfocused, there were others that carried specific charges.
Job offer to Joe Sestak
By May 2010, Fox News had begun pushing a bogus claim that the Obama administration had committed a crime by offering then-Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) a job if he didn’t run in the Democratic primary for a Senate seat. Then-Fox contributor Dick Morris claimed that the offer was “clearly a violation of law” and that it was like “Valerie Plame, only 10 times bigger because it's illegal,” referencing the Bush administration’s leak of the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Of course, it wasn’t illegal. Meanwhile, Trump defender Morris’ most recent blog post is titled “Impeachment? Over What?” And Morris wasn't alone. Sean Hannity declared the Sestak offer an “impeachable offense,” while Glenn Beck told listeners of his radio program, “If this guy from Pennsylvania is telling the truth, then someone has just committed an impeachable offense, a felony. There is prison time.”
Advancement of LGBTQ rights
In February 2011, the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in court. This came at a time when marriage equality cases were making their way through the courts, setting up an eventual Supreme Court decision on the law, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
In an interview with Newsmax, Fox contributor Newt Gingrich called Obama’s decision “a violation of his constitutional oath,” saying, “Clearly it is not something that can be allowed to stand.” He later backtracked on this position, but it was promoted by Fox Nation.
The Arab Spring as well as U.S. involvement in Libya and Syria
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was removed from office in February 2011 during what became known as the “Arab Spring.” Mubarak’s removal triggered a new fight for power as the country went through continued political turmoil. After Mubarak said he would not seek another term in office, Obama -- who had till then avoided taking a position on the situation in Egypt -- welcomed the announcement.
Tammy Bruce used this statement as an opportunity to call for Obama’s impeachment, tweeting, “If it is found that Obama secretly facilitated or *encouraged* an Islamist takeover of Egypt, an ally, he should be impeached.” In another tweet, she wrote, “Impeachment? We have a President in up to his elbows in an Islamist takeover of Egypt while he ignores a Fed Judge order to void ObamaCare.”
Various foreign policy maneuvers led to impeachment talk, as well. In 2011, after the administration bombed Libya, John Walsh wrote in The American Conservative, “The time has come to begin impeachment proceedings against President Barack H. Obama for high crimes and misdemeanors.” As the White House mulled a decision over whether to support Syrian rebels in 2013, Glenn Beck and Pat Buchanan sounded the alarm. Buchanan called for then-Speaker John Boehner to reconvene the House to threaten Obama with impeachment should he take action in Syria in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack on his own people.
Opposing voter ID laws
In June 2012, right-wing radio host Mark Levin accused Obama of a litany of “impeachable offenses” during an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity, bizarrely including the administration’s opposition to voter suppression efforts like so-called voter ID laws. That March, the Obama administration had blocked a Texas law that would require voters to display a photo ID before voting on the grounds that it could disenfranchise citizens who didn’t have such documents.
The September 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, provided more fodder for right-wing media figures in their quest to take down Obama. Conservative lawyer Jay Sekulow, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, and Fox News Radio’s Todd Starnes all called on Congress to impeach Obama over the attack. Pirro called Benghazi the “biggest cover-up since Watergate” and said that Obama’s “dereliction of duty as commander-in-chief demands [his] impeachment.” Right-wing commentator Michelle Malkin demanded impeachment for his Benghazi “jihadi-coddling.”
The IRS scandal
In 2013, Glenn Beck said, “It is time to appoint a special counsel to explore impeachment of this president.” Beck was referencing a since-debunked scandal about the IRS withholding tax-exempt status from tea party organizations. In 2014, Rush Limbaugh said he wanted Obama impeached for “using the IRS to damage his political opponents.”
The prisoner trade to retrieve Bowe Bergdahl
Another push to impeach Obama floated through conservative media following the trade of five Taliban figures for then-Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. National Review writer Andrew McCarthy, one of the most prominent voices in this push, wrote a book titled Faithless Execution: Building The Political Case For Obama's Impeachment. It pointed to so-called issues like Benghazi, the Affordable Health Care Act, and, bizarrely, the Justice Department’s treatment of the New Black Panther Party to call for impeachment. McCarthy’s actions seem ironic considering his latest book is a defense of Trump against people trying to unfairly “destroy” his presidency, titled Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. And of course he appeared on Fox News on Wednesday to assure viewers that Trump's reported actions around Ukraine don't hit the bar for impeachment.
In 2011, Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett mentioned Obama’s immigration policy and said Andrew Johnson “was impeached for a very similar reason.” In 2013, Limbaugh said Obama had committed “an impeachable offense” by releasing and monitoring immigration detainees before making budget cuts. Right-wing media again clamored for impeachment following Obama’s 2014 executive order deferring deportation proceedings for some undocumented immigrants. Current and former Fox News hosts Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace, Andrea Tantaros, and Bill O’Reilly all suggested that the action could lead to calls of impeachment. Months earlier, former Fox News contributor Sarah Palin had compared America to a “battered wife” who needed to say “no mas” to Obama because of his immigration policies. Fox News anchor Bret Baier and hosts Brian Kilmeade and Jedediah Bila also offered warnings about impeachment prior to Obama’s executive action.
Many of the same people who were willing to demand Obama’s head on a pike over a bad investment in green energy don’t seem all that bothered by Trump’s end-run around Congress to funnel money to failing coal plants. The same people who thought the auto bailouts were grounds for Obama’s removal don’t have anything to say about Trump’s decision to spend more than twice as much bailing out farmers over a trade war he started. Those who relied on massive amounts of inference to convince themselves and others that Obama was engaging in unconstitutional shakedowns will undoubtedly insist that there was no “quid pro quo” in Trump’s mafia-style discussion with the Ukranian president.
Right-wing media outlets have always been a place where unprincipled arguments and double standards thrive, but through the corruption and scandal of the Trump administration, they’ve only gotten worse. These contradictions and hypocrisy make one thing abundantly clear: These are not good-faith actors.