On September 1, The New York Times reported on an unsuccessful years-long FBI program to flip roughly six Russian oligarchs, seeking to turn them into informants for the United States in investigations against Russian organized crime. Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and former British spy Christopher Steele, who authored a dossier of information on President Donald Trump, started communicating about this effort long before Trump announced his run for president, documents released by the Justice Department show.
And yet, Fox News has been citing, out of context, the documents reported on in the Times as further evidence supporting Trump’s conspiracy theory that there is a “witch hunt” against him.
While the program began in 2014, eventually -- after evidence of a possible conspiracy was established -- questions about Russian interference in the 2016 elections and Trump campaign collusion were raised with at least one of the program's targets. The Times’ sources told the paper that they revealed the program’s existence to avoid the president and his media allies “us[ing] the program’s secrecy as a screen with which they could cherry-pick facts and present them, sheared of context, to undermine the special counsel’s investigation.”
But cherry-picked facts taken out of context perfectly describes Fox’s reporting, including its coverage of messages Ohr and Steele exchanged. Fox spun those communiques to suggest under-the-table conspiring by Ohr, Steele, and others at the FBI to maliciously target Trump. Nothing in the Times article suggests that contacts between Ohr and Steele were part of illegitimate DOJ and FBI activity, but Fox stuck to its misleading claim. When the Times article was mentioned, here's how network personalities and guests reacted:
In one of Fox’s earliest on-air mentions of the story, the host claimed that Ohr “was working with a man in Deripaska who's known as Putin's oligarch,” and suggested that it validated Trump’s claim that the FBI was colluding with Russia. After discussing the article, guest anchor Ed Henry said, “You hear the president say there's collusion on the other side, and yet it doesn't seem to get any traction,” suggesting that in attempting to get Russian oligarchs to inform about organized crime in Russia, Ohr was actually trying to collude with said oligarchs to stop Trump. The Daily Caller’s Amber Athey also claimed details in the report “seem to confirm the president’s tweets that this is a witch hunt against him.”
Daily Caller White House correspondent Saagar Enjeti told a Fox host that the story shows Steele “used his years-long connection with Ohr in order to push his dossier to the highest levels of the DOJ and the FBI.” In fact, a source in the Times article described Steele telling Ohr about the dossier as “more of a friendly heads-up” and said that “Steele had separately been in touch with an F.B.I. agent” to get his dossier to the bureau. Enjeti also falsely claimed that the dossier “really was the genesis for much of the investigation into President Trump” as well as “all of the other [Trump] associates” targeted. The investigation actually began after the Australian government alerted the FBI to Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos’ drunken bragging.
Fox host Jeanine Pirro cut off a guest who mentioned that “Ohr is there to go after the Russian mob -- that is why the president is probably against Ohr.”
Fox News guest points out that Bruce Ohr was going after the Russian mob and that's why Trump is targeting him, he gets immediately cut off (and then they changed the topic) pic.twitter.com/2WzVH23B3m
— Anonymous Whitehouse Source (@existentialfish) September 2, 2018
Fox host Pete Hegseth speculated that “maybe it was Bruce Ohr who was actually flipped by the Russians.”
Guest anchor Ed Henry misleadingly described the Times article as saying “Ohr was trying to flip a Russian oligarch against the president.” And when a panel guest accused right-wing media of cherry-picking facts to create a misleading narrative, Henry interrupted him to make another decontextualized and misleading allegation.
Fox News contributor Gianno Caldwell claimed that, with the Times report out, “it does appear that it is a witch hunt.”
Fox’s reaction to the latest development in the Trump/Russia investigations closely mirrors its reaction to many previous news reports that reflected poorly on Trump. The network regularly asserts that negative reports are actually good news for Trump and minimizes bad news.
When the Times reported in May that a confidential FBI informant contacted at least two of Trump’s advisers as part of the counterintelligence investigation into his campaign, Fox said it proved only that there was “surveillance of the Trump campaign by the Obama administration.”
When the congressional hearing for former FBI agent Peter Strzok revealed no evidence that his political beliefs affected his work on the investigation, Fox News simply kept stoking rage over texts that revealed his opposition to the president and included rude comments about Trump supporters.
When The Washington Post reported that Trump campaign associate Carter Page was the target of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant after he left the Trump campaign, Fox personalities lied about the warrant and falsely claimed it showed “Donald Trump was right” to accuse former President Barack Obama of spying on him.
When the Department of Justice inspector general released a report showing “no evidence” for allegations that former FBI Director James Comey and others allowed their “bias” to affect the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Fox used the report -- which had nothing to do with the Trump-Russia probe -- to call for an end to the special counsel investigation.