President Donald Trump’s interview this morning on Fox News throws into sharp contrast the manner in which he is absorbing and regurgitating the arguments of his sycophantic defenders at the network. In this feedback loop, Trump gets faulty information from Fox and then repeats it on its airwaves, reinforcing the loyalty of his core supporters and pushing the network’s misinformation out into the broader media.
On Tuesday, Michael Cohen, who served as Trump’s personal lawyer for years, pleaded guilty in federal court to eight counts of tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign finance violations. Notably, Cohen implicated the president in unlawful corporate and campaign donations made during the 2016 presidential campaign in order to keep two women who said they had affairs with Trump from speaking out publicly. The same day, a jury convicted former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort on eight counts of tax and bank fraud.
Trump made his first extensive comments about his associates-turned-felons in an interview with Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt that was taped Wednesday and aired Thursday. Trump regularly watches the program, praises its hosts for providing positive coverage of his administration, and rewards them with exclusive interviews in which they offer up softball questions. Using a technique of offering very general queries and few follow-ups, Earhardt provided a platform for the president to say whatever was on his mind. And as usual, what was on his mind was what he had recently seen on Fox News.
Asked whether he had directed Cohen to negotiate “the payments,” a reference to hush money paid to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film actress Stormy Daniels, the president denied it, adding that Cohen had “pled to two counts that aren't a crime, which nobody understands.” He continued, “I watched a number of shows -- sometimes you get some pretty good information by watching shows -- those two counts aren't even a crime. They weren't campaign finance.” A couple minutes later he returned to the point, saying that federal prosecutors “put the two counts of campaign violations in there, but a lot of lawyers on television and also lawyers that I have seen [say] that they are not even crimes.”
The president didn’t get “pretty good information from watching shows”; his argument is false and nonsensical. But it is one that pro-Trump lawyers had been making on Fox in the day between Cohen’s plea and Trump’s interview.
Mark Levin, who hosts Fox News and radio shows and served in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration, argued on Tuesday’s night’s Hannity that Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, “had his client pleaded two counts of criminality that don't exist,” claiming that all the payments in question had been legal but that Davis “had his client plead guilty to two offenses that aren't offenses that the prosecutor insisted were offenses.”
The next morning, Gregg Jarrett, a Fox legal analyst notorious for concocting absurd legal theories in which the president and his associates did nothing wrong, similarly claimed that “this is not an illegal campaign contribution.” (Trump was apparently watching that edition of Fox & Friends and subsequently tweeted that Cohen “plead (sic) guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime.”)
Trump also referenced an argument from Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer who regularly defends the president on television, saying of Cohen, “You get 10 years in jail, but if you say bad things about somebody, in other words, make up stories if you don't know, make up stories, they just make up lies. Alan Dershowitz said ‘compose,’ right? They make up lies, I’ve seen it many times.” Trump was referring to Dershowitz’s claim on Monday’s Hannity that the special counsel is “not interested in Manafort's alleged crimes. They are only interested in squeezing him in order to get him to flip and to either sing or compose.” Sean Hannity, a close presidential adviser whose Fox show Trump regularly watches and who has also employed Cohen as a lawyer, has made a similar argument, saying Monday that he believes Cohen “changed his story” and implicated the president because he was “forced by prosecutors.”
These were the only times during the interview where Trump directly cited the people he’s seen defending him on television, but several of his other claims also seem to have been ripped directly from Fox segments:
Trump downplayed the incidents by saying that President Barack Obama “had a massive campaign violation” but “he settled his very easily.” Both Jarrett and Hannity had made similar arguments in recent days; in fact, these cases aren’t remotely comparable.
Trump said that “almost everyone that runs for office has campaign violations,” echoing Dershowitz’s statement on Tuesday’s edition of Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight that “every candidate violates the election laws when they run for president.”
Trump claimed that special counsel Robert Mueller is “so conflicted” because former FBI Director James Comey is “his best friend.” Trump allies like Hannity frequently highlight this purported conflict, even using it to call for Mueller’s removal. Comey and Mueller reportedly aren’t actually close.
Asked whether he is considering pardoning Manafort, Trump turned the discussion to “the crimes that [Hillary] Clinton did, with the emails and she deletes 33,000 emails after she gets a subpoena from Congress, and this Justice Department does nothing about it?” The president’s media allies regularly claim that Clinton’s case is evidence of a double standard and that she should be tried and imprisoned
Trump highlighted “horrible texts” between former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, arguing they constituted “subversion” and complaining that “our Justice Department doesn’t do anything about it.” Strzok and Page were hounded out of government thanks in part to conspiracy theories promoted by Fox.
With the help of a sympathetic interviewer, Trump is able to take these Fox talking points, and, by repeating them on the network, push them into the mainstream, as journalists from other outlets try to grapple with the nonsensical or outright false claims. It’s another way in which the president’s Fox fixation has real implications for the rest of the media, and for the country.
This should seem completely absurd; instead, it’s a regular Thursday in Trump’s America.