How Fox hosts are reacting to the collapse of their FBI “informant” story

The right’s flagging effort to impeach President Joe Biden took another blow last week when the Justice Department said that Alexander Smirnov, an FBI informant, had made up his accusation that Biden and his son Hunter had each taken $5 million bribes from a Ukrainian oligarch, and charged him with lying to the bureau. 

Smirnov’s tale, chronicled in a much-ballyhooed FBI FD-1023 report released last year, was described by House Republicans as the “heart” of their case against the president. “The most corroborating evidence we have is the 1023 form from this highly credible confidential human source,” House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-OH) said in a January interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

Right-wing Fox propagandists like Hannity had relentlessly promoted the informant’s claims, touting his purported credibility while ignoring the flimsy, sensational nature of his Biden bribery allegations. But they aren’t responding to his arrest by leveling with their viewers or reflecting on why they were taken in by unverified claims that “proved” what they desperately wanted to believe. Here’s what they’re doing with the news instead.

1. Ignoring it

Fox provided a mere 31 minutes of coverage of Smirnov’s indictment from Thursday through Monday. That total is noticeably scant given how loudly the network previously trumpeted the informant’s allegations; Fox mentioned “Biden in the context of ‘bribe’ or ‘bribery’ more than 2,600 times” in the year before his arrest, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump reported. 

Several shows that typically provide robust coverage of the Hunter Biden probe ignored it; Fox & Friends provided only a single headline read, while The Ingraham Angle did not address the story at all (the latter featured interviews with a “body-language expert” as well as purported comedian Jimmy Failla on Thursday).

2. Claiming this actually makes Republicans look good

Hannity has been pilloried by the press for his credulous treatment of the informant’s claims; he promoted them on his Fox show in at least 85 segments last year, touting them as evidence of “public corruption” and “bribery.” 

When the host finally addressed the informant’s arrest on Friday, rather than acknowledging that he had served as the willing tool of the Republican politicians who sought to inject the informant’s story into the public discourse, Hannity claimed that the new developments actually make those Republicans look good.

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Citation From the February 16, 2024, edition of Fox News' Hannity.

The Fox host acknowledged that he had “talked a lot about” the 1023, but presented it as “very damning, but a very, very small part of what is the large body of evidence in the Biden impeachment inquiry.” After rattling off a string of falsehoods familiar to his show’s regular viewers but inscrutable to normal people, Hannity claimed that Smirnov’s arrest “raises a lot of questions” — but for the FBI, not Republicans like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who released the 1023 form, or right-wing media figures like himself who promoted it. 

“When presented with information from a source that the agency so trusted for what, now 14 years, the FBI, as exposed by Sen. Grassley, they sat on that 1023 document and they did so for years,” Hannity claimed. “He was still working for the FBI and without any performance of any due diligence, they never looked into it.”

“So it's clear that only after Sen. Grassley made the 1023 public that the FBI then investigate the allegations of the document,” he added. 

Hannity was somewhat more candid on his radio show Friday. “I'm mad that the FBI informant, the 1023 form in this case, that now this guy has been charged,” he said. “It appears that Alexander Smirnov was not to be trusted.”

“I guess I was stupid,” he concluded.

3. Layering on more conspiracy theories

The right-wing media have spent the last several years constructing a ludicrous, overarching conspiracy theory that federal law enforcement agencies are left-wing institutions which persecute conservatives. Some of Fox’s biggest conspiracy theorists are leaning on that to explain Smirnov’s arrest, alleging that the informant’s story is true and he’s only being charged with a crime because the deep state is trying to help Biden.

Prime-time host Jesse Watters — who has promoted a lengthy list of conspiracy theories, including spreading doubt about the brutal assault of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) husband during a home invasion — claimed on Friday that Smirnov had been arrested because “he was too credible.” He attributed the charges to the president directly, alleging that “this is the second informant Biden has arrested for blowing the whistle about his bribes” (it is true that this is the second indictment of a supposed “whistleblower” whose unverified, dramatic claims were previously touted by Republicans and right-wing media).

Watters went on to claim that “everyone who blows the whistle on the Biden syndicate or is connected to it has been arrested.” He then brought on former FBI agent Stuart Kaplan, who claimed that the Bidens “took out a hit on this informant, Smirnov. They have now disabled him, and now the public is going to believe, well, this guy is a liar.”

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Maria Bartiromo, whose treatment of purported election fraud during the 2020 election helped put Fox on the hook for a record defamation settlement, offered a similar reaction to Smirnov’s indictment on her Fox Business show on Friday.

4. Diverting viewers to a different, similarly dubious Biden scandal

Some Fox hosts are following the right's typical cycle by moving on to a new MacGuffin after the failure of the old one.

Fox host Brian Kilmeade, for instance, presented Smirnov’s arrest as part of a “rollercoaster week” for “the Biden family business drama.” He briefly noted that Smirnov had been charged with fabricating the Biden bribery story, adding that it “turns out not to be true, but keep in mind that is an FBI informant, nothing to do with Republicans.”

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Citation From the February 17, 2024, edition of Fox News' One Nation with Brian Kilmeade.

Having relieved Republicans and their media allies of any responsibility for endlessly promoting Smirnov’s tale, Kilmeade moved on to the new shiny object: the deposition of Tony Bobulinski, a disgruntled former business partner of Hunter Biden. 

“He knows it all,” Kilmeade raved. “He testified that he has got receipts. He's got emails. He has got text messages showing that this business existed and thrived.”

“I cannot wait to see this publicly,” he concluded. “I can't wait to read the transcripts. That's all coming your way, he is going to testify.”

Sure, Bobulinski told his story on Fox’s own airwaves nearly four years ago and it dissolved under scrutiny. But this time … this time is going to be different.