Fox spins reporting that Chinese surveillance balloons flew over the U.S. during the Trump administration
Fox News personalities are covering for former President Donald Trump’s failure to act on previous suspected Chinese surveillance balloons that entered U.S. airspace during his administration, claiming that the U.S. military hid the previous incursions from him and his national security team — contrary to Fox News’ own reporting that those balloon flights simply went “undetected” at the time — or suggesting that they never existed.
The flight of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the U.S. before it was shot down off the Atlantic coast at President Joe Biden’s order has been widely covered in the news media since last week, some of which spread conservative hysteria about the incident. But more recently, senior U.S. defense officials have explained that there were several other Chinese balloons that entered the U.S. in previous years, including several during the Trump administration.
On February 2, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement that “instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years.” On February 4, a senior defense official went into more detail during a background press briefing, adding that Chinese “government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration.”
This, of course, deflated Fox’s preferred narrative that China wouldn’t dare do such a thing when Trump was in office.
The morning of February 5, Fox correspondent Lucas Tomlison wrote on Twitter: “Fox News has also learned at least one Chinese spy balloon flew over portions of Texas and Florida during the Trump administration.” (It is unknown at this time whether Mar-a-Lago was graced by a Chinese balloon’s presence.)
But not even 20 minutes after Tomlison’s tweet, FoxNews.com published a report which quoted Trump and many of his senior defense, national security, and intelligence officials denying that these surveillance balloon flights happened during their tenure. The Fox reporter for that piece, Brooke Singman, baselessly speculated that military officials knew of these incidents and didn’t inform the Trump administration — even as she quoted an official source explaining the balloon overflights “went undetected” at the time:
“It never happened with us under the Trump administration, and if it did, we would have shot it down immediately,” Trump said. “It's disinformation.”
It is unclear, at this point, if these activities did take place and if it was military leadership that chose not to brief civilian leadership on the matter.
But a senior administration official told Fox News Digital on Sunday that “U.S. intelligence, not the Biden administration, but U.S. intel assesses PRC government surveillance balloons transited the continental U.S. briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time.”
“They went undetected. And this is part of a larger pattern. These balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries,” the official said. “These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army.”
“Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia and Europe,” the official said.
The official added, “Two things can be true at once: this happened, and it wasn’t detected.”
A second February 5 report by Singman included an additional quote from a senior Biden administration official that “this information” about the previous balloon flights “was discovered after the [Trump] administration left.” On February 6, NORAD commander Gen. Glen VanHerck told reporters on record that “we did not detect those” balloons at the time.
This morning, Fox & Friends’ spin to defend Trump from this information pivoted from acknowledging the reporting that the previous surveillance balloon flights went undetected, to playing a clip of Trump’s former director of national intelligence claiming there were no balloon flights during that administration, to apparently seizing on Singman’s baseless line of speculation that “it is unclear, at this point, if these activities did take place and if it was military leadership that chose not to brief civilian leadership on the matter.”
Co-host Ainsley Earhardt, clearly reading from a paper script rather than a teleprompter, contradicted Fox’s own reporting to claim the U.S. military withheld information about the previous balloon incursions into the U.S., saying: “They said the balloon incidents were logged during the Trump administration, but never reported to the chair of the Joint Chiefs, never reported to the defense secretary or President Trump because they were, quote: ‘Relatively minor territorial incursions.’”
However, the quote Earhardt read to accuse the U.S. military of withholding information about previous Chinese surveillance balloon flights in the U.S. does not appear in FoxNews.com’s own reporting or apparently anywhere else easily found, raising questions about the source Fox & Friends seems to be quoting to make Trump look better.
Later, Fox anchor John Roberts joined in the pro-Trump spin by denying Fox’s own reporting during a segment with right-wing pundit Art Laffer, proclaiming that “there doesn’t seem to be any proof” that the three suspected surveillance balloons that flew over the U.S. during the Trump administration “actually existed.”