Yesterday, in damning testimony before the Senate intelligence committee, former FBI director James Comey alleged that President Donald Trump had grossly abused his power. According to Comey, the president tried to get him to declare himself loyal, pushed him to end an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and then fired him after the director refused to comply in an effort to terminate the FBI’s investigation into whether Trump’s associates colluded with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election. After each of his seven one-on-one meetings and phone calls with the president, Comey said, he detailed the interaction in a memo because he believed that Trump might lie about what had happened.
But if you turned on Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite morning news program, this morning, these crucial issues of whether Trump is undermining the rule of law were all but unmentioned. Instead, the program’s hosts dedicated their efforts to undermining Comey’s reputation by directing their audience’s attention toward a series of shiny objects of limited relevance. For their efforts, they were praised and thanked by Trump himself.
The president is in trouble, and Fox knows it. Immediately following Comey’s testimony, several network personalities expressed concern about the political damage the former FBI director had done to the president and raised questions about whether he would still be able to rally the Republican Party to accomplish his legislative goals. Andrew Napolitano, the network’s senior judicial analyst, warned that it is now all but certain that special counsel Bob Mueller would be interrogating Trump under oath and that Trump’s actions could rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
“The most damning thing was when Jim Comey suggested a quid pro quo,” Napolitano said at one point. “He suggested that the president basically gave him the impression, ‘Here’s the quid pro quo, Jim: You want to keep your job as director of FBI? Lay off Flynn.’ That to me was new and was extremely damning and quite frankly was not addressed by Marc Kasowitz, the president’s lawyer.”
But Comey’s “extremely damning” allegations were absent from Fox’s coverage this morning. And Napolitano, who regularly appears on the program to discuss legal issues, was not invited to join the hosts on the show’s curvy couch.
Instead, a series of Trump lackeys rotated through the program to focus attention on two issues of only tangential relevance: whether Comey had behaved properly in sharing his memos with a college professor and asking him to share them with the media, and a conversation Comey detailed in which then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch asked him to describe the FBI’s review of Hillary Clinton’s email server as a “matter” rather than an “investigation.”
For the president -- and for Fox & Friends -- Comey’s disclosures around the memos are incredibly damaging to his credibility because they show that he is a “leaker.” In reality, as Politico Magazine Editor-in-Chief Blake Hounshell noted, “It's not a ‘leak’ if you are a private citizen sharing unclassified recollections,” and legal experts -- including Napolitano -- quickly shot down the notion that Comey had behaved improperly. Nonetheless, Fox & Friends was captivated by the statement to Fox from an anonymous “source close to the president” that “they are considering their options and whether Comey’s leak to the media violated his FBI employment agreement.”
The Lynch incident is similarly being portrayed as critical. But Lynch reportedly wanted “matter” used “to neither confirm nor deny that the investigation existed — as was standard Justice Department and F.B.I. practice,” and she ultimately said she would accept the FBI’s recommendations for the case, leaving Comey to make his own decision to close the investigation without pressing charges.
Ultimately, these issues are distractions when weighed against the central question in play: Is the president of the United States abusing his power? The president’s media allies are making a conscious decision to avoid engaging with this question. Instead, they are using these sideshows to again bolster a parallel narrative for their audience in which the president is beset on all sides by lying enemies. Only by ignoring what is actually happening can they hope to stem the president’s sinking poll numbers. But the bubble is starting to collapse.
Here are some screenshots from this morning’s Fox & Friends detailing what the program focused on -- and what it did not: