Fox News is defending and cheering on President Donald Trump after he had peaceful protesters outside the White House cleared with tear gas so that he could hold a photo-op on Monday, with some network personalities blaming the protesters themselves and offering nonsensical semantic quibbles over whether gas that caused tears was actually tear gas.
There is no line the network will not cross and no limit whatsoever on Fox’s willingness to serve as eager propagandists for the president.
The world watched in horror on Monday evening as federal law enforcement officials fired tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets into peaceful crowds protesting police brutality and racism, violently removing hundreds of people from Lafayette Square. The attack began at roughly 6:30 p.m., well before a 7 p.m. curfew that Washington, D.C., authorities had established for the city. Numerous journalists were in the crowd and the abhorrent footage was immediately shown on CNN and MSNBC. Minutes later, Trump addressed the protests in a Rose Garden speech. He then walked through the park and held up a Bible on the grounds of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been vandalized the night before -- and where law enforcement had just used tear gas to forcefully remove people from the premises, including an Episcopal priest. The White House quickly published a campaign-style video of the president’s photo-op.
The events were shocking and disgusting, and they have been condemned as such by Democratic leaders, a small handful of Republicans, the Episcopal bishop of D.C., and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, among others.
But Fox has a direct stake in Trump’s political success, and so the network’s personalities -- from the “news” and “opinion” side alike -- have spent the last two days using a series of shifting defenses to furiously spin what happened in his favor.
In the immediate wake of the federal police attack on peaceful protesters, Fox simply downplayed what had happened to them in favor of triumphantly glorifying Trump's photo-op. On Monday evening and Tuesday morning, Trump was described as “retaking this territory” in an “iconic moment” that was “a sign of courageous leadership.”
By midday, Fox personalities were spending more time addressing what had happened to the protesters -- by blaming them for getting tear-gassed by police. The hundreds of peaceful protesters, these Fox figures suggested, had it coming because they were collectively guilty for St. John’s being vandalized on Sunday night.
“You hear a lot of criticism of the president and the attorney general, for the fact that — people are saying in the media and various places, that quote-unquote, ‘peaceful protesters’ were cleared out with tear gas and munitions in Lafayette Park, so the president could go to St. John's Church,” offered purported “straight news” anchor Ed Henry said on America’s Newsroom.
He then asked former George W. Bush speechwriter and Fox contributor Marc Thiessen, “Left out in some of that, is the fact that these quote-unquote, ‘peaceful protesters’ set that church on fire the night before, didn't they?”
Thiessen acknowledged that “it might be different protesters,” before adding, “But look, yes, that's exactly right.” He repeatedly alleged that the fact that federal authorities used tear gas meant that by definition, the protesters had not been peaceful. “If they were peaceful protesters, there would be no need to use tear gas,” he said. “It means they resisted.”
Fox host Jesse Watters offered a similar defense later that day on The Five. “The media is sour now because they were forced to shoot a photo-op of the president of the United States demonstrating that he is not going to be intimidated by criminals,” he said. “It was a very powerful moment for the country. And they are bitter that they had to film it, because it deals a big blow to their lawless side.”
“Now, you are saying these were peaceful protesters,” he later added. “You mean the same protesters that lit the church on fire the last night?”
He went on to claim that some protesters had thrown bottles and that federal law enforcement had simply responded. “So they threw some smoke bombs out and pushed them back -- wow, Armageddon, really?” he said. “This is what we are talking about.”
By Tuesday evening, the Trump campaign was falsely claiming that tear gas had not in fact been used in the park, pressuring media outlets -- including Media Matters -- to issue retractions and corrections.
This was a sick and twisted attempt to gaslight the country based on a bullshit semantic effort by the U.S. Park Police, which issued a statement claiming that it had deployed “pepper balls” and “smoke canisters” to clear the square but that “no tear gas was used.” But “tear gas” isn’t a specific chemical compound. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, it’s a blanket term for chemical agents used for riot control that cause temporary respiratory distress, which encapsulates a variety of compounds including Mace and pepper spray.
The Park Police also claimed that they only responded after “violent protestors” had thrown “projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids.” Reporters who were there say that didn’t happen, there doesn’t seem to be any video evidence of it, it contradicts the Justice Department’s explanation that the park was cleared as part of a previous decision to expand the White House perimeter -- and even if it was true, it still wouldn’t justify tear-gassing the entire crowd.
To defend the Trump administration on these grounds -- including by farcically arguing a distinction between “tear gas” and “gas that causes tears” -- requires either mind-numbing stupidity or fervent and unyielding pro-Trump zeal.
Fox has risen to the occasion.
Fox contributor Mollie Hemingway, who frequently appears on the network offering bad-faith claims of liberal media bias, authored a post at The Federalist Tuesday night in which she adopted the Park Police’s response as gospel. She lashed out at the press -- including journalists who were in the park at the time and had been gassed themselves -- for pushing the “tear gas lie” and the supposedly false claim that protesters had been peaceful out of anti-Trump animus.
Trump repeatedly shared Hemingway’s post, calling it a “must read”:
On her Fox show, Laura Ingraham likewise denounced reporting from other media outlets and claimed that tear gas had not been used and that the protesters had become violent.
By the next morning, the Trump campaign’s nonsensical spin had infested Fox’s “news” side.
“There is clarity,” Fox correspondent Griff Jenkins claimed on Fox & Friends, that “tear gas was not used” and that the park was cleared “after projectiles were thrown.”
Let’s grant every wrong Fox premise for a moment. The conduct the network’s personalities are defending is federal law enforcement using “pepper balls” and “smoke canisters” to violently clear an entire crowd of peaceful protesters in a public park -- and then at a church -- to get at a handful of ones throwing projectiles so the president could do a photo-op. That’s their best-case scenario.
There is no daylight at all between Fox’s “news side,” its “opinion side,” the Trump campaign, and the president. That’s because, as Trump himself has acknowledged, Fox is a propaganda outlet for the president. And now we know that they are willing to act in defense of violent attacks by his administration against peaceful Americans.