Fox hosts downplay Trump’s culpability for the insurrection -- and their own

Fox News logo over the January 6 mob at the Capitol

Citation Molly Butler/Media Matters

Fox News doesn’t want its viewers to know what Donald Trump did. The network abruptly cut away from the House impeachment managers’ presentation at the start of the 5 p.m. hour for its regular programming on Wednesday. In lieu of the devastating footage of a pro-Trump mob attacking law enforcement during the January 6 Capitol insurrection, the network aired the panel show The Five, which featured four conservatives who argued against impeachment and dogpiled the broadcast’s lone liberal, Juan Williams. “You guys are all ignoring” the trial because “you don’t want to deal with the news,” Williams said during the ensuing shoutfest. 

Williams' comment, while directed at his co-hosts, applies equally to the rest of the network’s Trumpist propagandists, who spent the ensuing hours dodging the story and downplaying the former president’s culpability. To do otherwise would be to implicitly acknowledge the role they themselves played in the brutal attack. “Fox helped sell Trump’s lie about a stolen election, propelling true believers like Ashli Babbitt -- a fan of Fox personalities like Tucker Carlson -- to storm the Capitol,” as The New York Times’ Nick Kristof noted in his latest column.

The House managers explained on Wednesday that Trump bore responsibility for the riot because he spent months -- before Election Day and after it, up until his rally speech that very afternoon -- inflaming his supporters with false conspiracy theories that Democrats had used widespread voter fraud to steal the presidency, and trying to leverage their rage to overturn the results. New video evidence aired during the presentation showed the results of Trump’s rhetoric, with rally-goers responding to his speech with shouts of “take the Capitol” -- and demonstrated how close Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress came to a confrontation with the rioters inside the building.

Even the editorial board of the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal admitted that the “visceral case” laid out by the managers proved that Trump “bears responsibility” for the insurrection. “Mr. Trump told an apocalyptic fable in which American democracy might end on Jan. 6, and some people who believed him acted like it,” the editors wrote.

But Fox’s propagandists can’t acknowledge this because they were telling their viewers the same fable leading up to the insurrection. Like Trump, they laid the groundwork for post-election violence by baselessly warning of the prospect of widespread voter fraud. And like Trump, they seized on conspiracy theories and ephemera to denounce the election as rigged and suggest that it should be somehow overturned. If Trump’s plot had succeeded, it would have been the end of American democracy. If his actions made him responsible for the insurrection, then theirs were as well.

And so Fox hosts responded to Wednesday's impeachment presentation by minimizing both the events of January 6 and Trump’s culpability for them.

Tucker Carlson told his audience in late November that “the 2020 presidential election was not fair” because “the system was rigged against” Trump. On Wednesday night, he said that there’s “no question” that the impeachment managers are “flat-out lying” about the insurrection. Carlson claimed their behavior echoed his unhinged conspiracy theory about “Democratic partisans” using “a carefully concocted myth” about the police killing of George Floyd “to bum-rush America into overturning the old order and handing them much more power.” He suggested that elected Democrats were lying about being in danger during the Capitol riot, as purportedly evidenced by how “the only recorded casualties on January 6 were people who voted for Donald Trump.”

Sean Hannity said in December that “there’s no doubt this was stolen” and that “if we don’t fix it, … you’re never going to have an honest election” again, using his show as a clearinghouse for election fraud conspiracy theories and endorsing a legal effort to subvert the results. On Wednesday, he described the trial as a “sham” and engaged in extended whataboutism regarding the rhetoric of Democrats.

Jeanine Pirro said in late November that she supported legal efforts to overturn the election because “the risk of not looking at what is staring us in the face is too great to not stop us.” (She was named in a $2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox due to her false claims that voting machine software had been used to alter “millions of votes.”) On Wednesday night, she called the impeachment trial a “nothing burger” because there was “no incitement to insurrection.”

Brian Kilmeade hyped a lawsuit that asked the Supreme Court to throw out the results in states Trump lost, and as recently as mid-December described President Joe Biden as “the former vice president who is, according to some, president-elect.” He sneered at the House impeachment presentation on Thursday morning’s Fox & Friends, calling it “almost like the cold open to [MSNBC’s] The Rachel Maddow Show,” and he defended Trump on the grounds that “I don’t think he ever intended” for the situation to get “out of control.”

Kilmeade and his colleagues probably didn’t expect their commentary to help usher in the storming of the Capitol either. But they are still culpable as well -- and, like Trump, they must be held accountable