Fox’s alternate reality after Wednesday's devastating impeachment testimony

Gordon Sondland

Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Fox News’ firewall is holding even in the face of devastating new revelations about President Donald Trump’s abuse of power, as the network’s hosts continue to shield their audience from damning revelations and instead tell them that he has been vindicated. 

The broad contours of Trump’s abuse of power were clear from the earliest days of the scandal: Trump used the levers of government for his personal interest by pressuring Ukraine’s government to open investigations into one of his political rivals. The House’s impeachment inquiry into Trump’s misconduct has been filling in the details since its initiation in late September, shocking revelation by shocking revelation. And Wednesday’s hearings were particularly devastating for the president. 

In the morning, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who as Trump’s envoy to the European Union played a key role in the scheme, testified that he had, at the president’s behest and with the knowledge of senior members of his administration, pressured the Ukrainians to publicly commit to investigating former Vice President Joe Biden as well as the conspiracy theory that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 presidential election. Sondland said this had been a “quid pro quo” in which linking the announcement of these investigations would be exchanged for a proposed Oval Office meeting between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and that he later came to believe that $400 billion in U.S. military aid to Ukraine that had been withheld by the Trump administration had been conditioned as well.

That evening, Laura Cooper, a Defense Department expert on Russia and Ukraine, testified that Ukrainian officials had inquired about the hold on the aid as early as July 25 -- the day Trump asked Zelensky during a phone call for “a favor,” to investigate the 2016 election conspiracy theory and Biden. This debunked a Republican talking point that no quid pro quo could have been proposed with regard to the aid because the Ukrainians were unaware it had been frozen. She also said that putting a hold on the aid may have been illegal. Meanwhile, the State Department’s David Hale testified that he had been told during an interagency meeting by a representative from the Office of Management and Budget that Trump had ordered that the aid be withheld. 

That testimony amounts to an incredibly damning portrait of events, in which the president illegally withheld military aid to a country embroiled in a war with Russia so he could dangle it in exchange for the announcement of an investigation into a political foe. “I think you can divide the Trump presidency into two periods, before November 20th, 2019, and after, because now we know,” Jeffrey Toobin exclaimed on CNN. But that’s not what Fox’s audience is hearing. The network’s pro-Trump propagandists are serving up an alternate reality in which Wednesday was a great day for the president.

“It is over! It’s done! This is the end of this!” Fox host Sean Hannity bellowed in a triumphant kick-off to his radio show Wednesday afternoon. “This couldn’t be a better day for President Trump,” he later added. “It just could not get any better.” 

Hannity’s radio show prefaced the network’s evening programming, which Trump himself urged his Twitter followers to watch:

Star host Tucker Carlson kicked off Fox’s prime-time block by apologizing for covering the “tiresome” impeachment inquiry. Carlson went on to attack Sondland for hiring lawyers who have donated to Democrats, suggesting that his testimony might have been the result of his attorney’s desire to impeach “public enemy number one.” 

This is absurd -- Sondland is a major Republican donor and a bundler for Trump’s 2016 campaign who subsequently gave $1 million to support his inauguration. But that didn’t keep Trump himself -- apparently taking his own advice and tuning in to Fox -- from highlighting the attack.

Calson passed the baton to Hannity, who opened his show in triumph. “The charade on Capitol Hill is effectively over, it’s done, it is finished,” Hannity said, with a graphic reading “END IT” projected behind his left shoulder. “This was the day the Democrats’ Trump-Ukraine quid pro quo coup impeachment attempt and hoax officially died. Their phony, their weak narrative was just ripped to shreds. The gigantic, self-serving political stunt is now blowing up in their faces as we all knew it would.” 

Video file

Citation From the November 20 edition of Fox News' Hannity.

Things devolved from there. 

Hannity and Carlson were particularly aggressive in using their shows to argue that Sondland had testified there had been no “quid pro quo.” That’s literally the opposite of what Sondland said, the result of the hosts adopting Trump’s own spin by seizing upon Sondland’s statement that when he had asked the president what he wanted from Ukraine during a September phone call, Trump had responded, “I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.” That language is particularly jarring as the call happened the same day the House Intelligence Committee learned of a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”

Laura Ingraham, meanwhile, used her program to turn the story on its head, mocking the rest of the media and the Democrats for supposedly creating the “fiction” that Trump had done something wrong. “We’re going to impeach a president on someone's opinion in the absence of cold, hard facts?” she said of Sondland’s firsthand testimony. “There were a lot of opinions and beliefs today but zero evidence.” Ingraham concluded her monologue over the caption “Americans Know Inquiry Is A Huge Waste Of Time.” In the nonfiction world, polls show a plurality of Americans want Trump impeached.

By the next morning’s Fox & Friends, the talking points were well-worn. Network senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano was briefly able to cut through the propaganda and point out that Wednesday’s testimony had likely written a few articles of impeachment. But that was an aberration from the norm in which the inquiry is a fruitless coup attempt against a beloved president who had done nothing wrong.

This is what Fox was made for, constructing a parallel, completely false version of events to placate Republicans in order to prevent the removal of a Republican president. The network shows no signs that it plans to stop lying to its audience, no matter how bad the facts get for Trump.