Call it the Fox News Caucus.
Rather than having their staffers compile questions about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the GOP members of the judiciary and intelligence committees took their cues and, at times, their very words from Fox News figures like Sean Hannity as they questioned former special counsel Robert Mueller last month about the results of his probe.
The result was a stew of references to bit players like the intelligence firm Fusion GPS and its founder, Glenn Simpson, that were largely opaque to those unfamiliar with the network’s efforts to portray President Donald Trump as the victim of a baroque partisan witch hunt. And a few days later, Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe, one of the Republican congressmen pushing the conspiracy theory, had been named by Trump as the next director of national intelligence. (Ratcliffe withdrew from consideration following media reports that he had inflated his terrorism bona fides and was “disengaged” from the intelligence committee's work.)
The episode -- already fading from memory given the breakneck pace of the news cycle -- serves as a startling case study of how a cable news network essentially runs a large portion of the U.S. government.
The president himself is famously Fox’s biggest fan. But the Mueller testimony was a vivid illustration for a national audience of just how intently congressional Republicans have also fallen under the network’s sway. At best, their focus on Fox's coverage renders these GOP members unmoored from the issues of the day, leaving them unable to participate in crucial debates about past and future Russian attacks on our elections. At worst, their obsession with their propagandists’ ephemera sidetracks these debates and drags the rest of the country into their fever swamps.
While Fox has influenced GOP politics since the network’s inception, Trump’s unprecedented relationship with the network has drastically increased its power. The president is a rapacious consumer of Fox programming, which he uses as a source of political cues and policy ideas. In response to Fox segments, Trump has triggered a weeks-long partial shutdown of the federal government; set off international incidents from North Korea to South Africa to Sweden; and incited a feud with racist tweets about progressive Democratic congresswomen.
Republican politicians have taken an important lesson from this feedback loop: They can use Fox to gain power in their party.
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) reportedly struggled because he did not share the president’s obsession with the network’s insipid morning show, Fox & Friends. By contrast, Ryan’s replacement, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), auditioned for the gig by fawning over the president on the program, and he is a regular guest on Trump’s favorite hours of Fox. Republican members of Congress talk up their ideas for bills on the network’s shows in hopes of capturing the president’s attention. Sometimes, they even privately take the temperature of Trump’s favorite Fox hosts prior to going public with their proposals.
But Mueller’s probe provides the clearest evidence of just how deeply Fox has shaped the thinking of congressional Republicans.
Hannity and his colleagues spent the last two years advancing an all-encompassing conspiracy theory that Trump was being persecuted by sinister “deep state” operatives intent on a “soft coup.” And a handful of House Republicans, including now-Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Reps. Mark Meadows (NC), Matt Gaetz (FL), Jim Jordan (OH), Devin Nunes (CA), and Ratcliffe, played key roles in helping the network’s stars make that case. At the time of Mueller’s appointment, Nunes was chair of the House intelligence committee, but the rest were back-bench members with little power.
That soon changed.
Between January 2018 and the July hearings, that group combined to make a staggering 594 appearances on Fox weekday programming, according to Media Matters’ internal archive (Jordan led with 150 interviews; Ratcliffe had the fewest with 46).
The congressmen were sought after on Fox’s prime-time shows because they were eager to play into the network’s Mueller narrative of defending the president and insisting that his investigators were the real criminals. But they didn’t simply parrot Fox’s conspiracy theories -- they used their legislative powers to help build them. They obtained innocuous documents and released them with sinister spin and incited congressional demands to remove top Justice Department officials and initiate a federal investigation into the investigators. By doing so, the congressmen created both new news hooks for Fox segments on the conspiracy theories and new opportunities for themselves to go on the network to discuss them. At times, these antics drastically shifted the news cycle as confused reporters at legacy media outlets rewarded the conspiracy-mongering with national news coverage.
The incentives for these members of Congress were straightforward: By regularly appearing on Fox to defend Trump from Mueller, they could capture the Fox-obsessed president’s attention and garner his favor.
That strategy worked.
Meadows has converted his Fox stardom into national political stature and a position as one of Trump’s closest advisers. Gaetz’s fervent on-air advocacy of the president has triggered numerous profiles from major news outlets and rumors he might seek U.S. Senate seats in Alabama or Florida. DeSantis is now governor of Florida, having won his primary on the strength of regular Fox appearances and the approving tweets from the president those segments earned him. Jordan, thanks to a boost from Trump, became ranking member of the House oversight committee. And Ratcliffe, despite a palpable lack of intelligence experience, was briefly Trump’s pick as the next DNI; Nunes was reportedly Trump’s first choice, but he turned down the position and would prefer to head the CIA if Trump is reelected.
Nunes, Jordan, Gaetz, and Ratcliffe each had the opportunity to question Mueller, and they used their time to pursue Hannity’s conspiracy theory. It was a strategy intended to wed the Republican Party to Trump’s base: not just Republicans, but Republican Fox viewers who embrace the network’s most paranoid programming. Unlike the two-thirds of Americans who think Mueller's probe was fair -- among them six in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents -- almost four out of five Republicans who regularly watch Fox say that Trump has been the victim of deep-state sabotage.
The strategy will likely continue to bolster their careers. The night of the hearings, Hannity praised Jordan, Gaetz, and Nunes on the air, painting them as his comrades in a conspiratorial struggle: “Any one of you, and maybe even me, we could have had a predawn raid because that is how corrupt this got,” he fantasized.
Meanwhile, Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) announced August 1 that he would not seek reelection. A former CIA officer and a member of the House intelligence committee, Hurd was one of the few Republicans to ignore the Fox conspiracies in questioning Mueller, instead devoting most of his time to the need to prevent Russian interference in future elections. That behavior isn’t rewarded in the modern Republican Party.
But far more than the stature of individual congressmen is at stake. The members who followed Fox helped clear the way for William Barr, an apparent believer in Fox’s conspiracy theory, to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general and initiate a probe into the origins of the Russia investigation. Soon we may all be down the rabbit hole.