While Donald Trump’s top aides were telling him that his claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election were false, the then-president was busy promoting deranged conspiracy theories to his Twitter followers that he was seeing on Fox News and its far-right competitors.
Monday’s hearing of the House select committee probing the January 6 insurrection featured videotaped testimony from a series of senior Trump campaign and administration officials who said they had informed the then-president that there was no credible evidence the election had been rigged, but that they had been ignored or sidelined. Notably, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said the president had been briefed before the election on the “red mirage” phenomenon he would cite as evidence of voter fraud; that he had told the president he had no basis to declare victory, as Trump did hours after polls closed; and that he later advised the president that his odds were “very, very, very bleak,” to no avail. And former Attorney General Bill Barr recounted that he had repeatedly explained to Trump that his claims of fraud were “bullshit” and that he concluded the then-president had been “detached from reality” if he believed the “bogus and silly” claims.
But while people like Stepien and Barr were telling Trump his election fraud claims were false, the then-president’s trusted TV propagandists were telling him what he wanted to hear: Fraud had been rampant and the election was rigged against him by malevolent forces. Trump chose to amplify that fraudulent and reckless message to his supporters, stoking the fury that ultimately targeted the peaceful transition of power on January 6, 2021.
Trump sent at least 76 tweets in response to right-wing TV programming about purported fraud in the 2020 election in the weeks between Election Day and the January 6 riot spurred by his incitement. Of those live-tweets, 47 responded to Fox News and an additional 9 to its sister network, Fox Business, with One America News (18) and Newsmax (2) generating the remainder. These counts don’t include Trump’s standard practice of tweeting out raw video clips from the networks, including their bogus coverage of election fraud.
Fox’s programming shapes Trump’s worldview. He watched hours of the network’s coverage daily and used it as prompts for his public statements on Twitter throughout his presidency. Trump sent at least 1,373 tweets in response to things he saw on his television between September 1, 2018, and his permanent suspension from the service on January 8, 2021, according to data I compiled. Roughly 94% of those live-tweets were driven by Fox News or Fox Business.
Trump’s TV-and-Twitter obsession generated unhinged conspiracy theories, authoritarian attacks on his Democratic opponents and the press, diplomatic incidents, and even threats of war – but few of his fixations were as dangerous as the seditious attacks on democracy he amplified to his supporters about the 2020 presidential election in response to programming he watched on Fox and its rivals.
In the months before the election, Trump and his allies floated a dark alternate path to victory, in which Republican-appointed judges would throw out enough legally cast ballots for him to carry key swing states. That strategy was aided by the Trump-Fox feedback loop: Fox would fearmonger about the prospect of widespread election fraud, and then Trump would promote those segments to undermine confidence in the results. This happened at least 18 times before Election Day, with Trump declaring in response to various Fox segments that vote-by-mail had “tremendous potential for voter fraud” and would lead to “the most CORRUPT ELECTION in our Nation’s History.”
Hours after the polls closed on Election Day, Trump followed through with his plan and falsely declared that he had been the victim of massive voter fraud and had actually won the election. His campaign staff had told him that he had no basis to declare victory, several of his allies publicly rebuked his actions at the time, his path to victory quickly evaporated, and by that Saturday, several major media outlets had called the race for Joe Biden – including Fox.
But rather than bending to reality, Trump lashed out at the democratic system – and his Fox propagandists quickly got in line and began touting false and nonsensical fraud accusations to bolster his position. That coverage, in turn, both seemed to harden Trump’s intransigence and provided him with ammunition he could cite to his followers. Over that weekend, Trump sent at least 16 tweets highlighting Fox coverage that used misinformation to undermine the results of the election. Notably, that Sunday morning, Trump live-tweeted Fox contributor Newt Gingrich’s claim that the Democrats were “thieves” and “this was a stolen election.”
That weekend set the tone for the following months.
Fox’s official position was that Biden had been elected president – but that didn’t stop the network’s most powerful figures from using their platforms to fuel conspiracy theories about the election, spread misinformation about the vote, and subvert democracy to keep Trump in office. The network cast doubt on the results of the election nearly 800 times in just the two weeks after it called the race for Biden. And Trump kept watching and tweeting along with what he saw.
Channeling Fox’s coverage, Trump told his followers that Biden benefited from “millions of Fake Votes” and that he had actually won “a landslide”; denounced the results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; and concluded that “those responsible for the safeguarding of our Constitution cannot allow the Fake results of the 2020 Mail-In Election to stand. The World is watching!” He highlighted the network’s stars as validators, promoting Pete Hegseth’s call for “every vote counted, and ferociously,” Tucker Carlson’s claim that “they RIGGED it,” and Laura Ingraham’s demand that “the American people deserve answers.”
While Trump continued watching and tweeting about Fox’s coverage, at times he soured on programs that he considered insufficiently supportive of his effort to steal the election and would tell his followers to switch to its more-consistently sycophantic competitors, One America News and Newsmax. Based on his Twitter feed, Trump added those networks to his own rotation to a greater extent than before the election: 22 of the 35 live-tweets Trump sent about those networks between September 2018 and January 2021 came after Election Day.
Since OAN functions as a garbage factory that seems to lack any standard for what appears on its airwaves, Trump’s live-tweets of the network parroted some of the most incendiary conspiracy theories of the genre. Based on OAN programming, for example, the president of the United States claimed that voting machines had deleted “2.7 MILLION TRUMP VOTES” and “shifted 2-3% of Trump votes to Biden,” and accused the Postal Service of “tampering with hundreds of thousands of ballots.”
Trump’s live-tweets also frequently touted OAN and Newsmax for covering events his legal team participated in – such as press conferences and sham “hearings” some GOP state legislators put on to support the president’s election fraud claims – and complained that Fox wasn’t covering them.
As 2021 dawned, Trump had exhausted his legal options and settled on a strategy of trying to get Vice President Mike Pence and congressional Republicans to throw out the electoral votes of states he baselessly alleged had been decided by election fraud during the joint session to count those votes on January 6, 2021. He used Fox to whip votes, triumphantly live-tweeting segments in which Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) expressed support for the plan and denouncing Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and other members of what he termed the GOP’s “Surrender Caucus” for refusing to play along.
On the morning of January 6, 2021, as thousands of his supporters assembled in Washington, D.C., to show their support for his “rigged election” lies, Trump was watching Fox. At one point, he live-tweeted a clip of his son Eric Trump warning that Republicans who did not support Trump’s attempt to subvert the election and remain in power would face retribution.
A few hours later, Trump supporters seeking to end U.S. democracy sacked the U.S. Capitol. And two days after that, Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account after determining that his final tweets had glorified violence. One was, of course, a Fox live-tweet.