Last September, The New York Times published a stunning unsigned op-ed written by an anonymous senior official in President Donald Trump’s administration. The author claimed to be one of “many” such senior officials “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.” Highlighting Trump’s “amorality,” ignorance, and “instability,” the official wrote that this effort was crucial in order to “preserve our democratic institutions.”
The so-called “resistance inside the Trump administration” appears to have failed. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that administration officials, fearing reprisals or fading influence, have all but given up trying to temper his authoritarian impulses. The result is “a presidency of one” in which Trump's personal grievances, political desires, and conspiracy-minded obsessions “have become priorities of departments that traditionally have operated with some degree of political independence from the White House.”
In practice, a country governed by Trump’s whims is one that is ruled by Fox News. Trump spends hours each day watching the network’s propaganda, and he privately seeks advice and feedback from its hosts. Fox stokes his ire, and he responds by demanding that members of his administration assuage his grievances, regardless of the validity of his concerns or the legality of his proposed response.
In the spheres of law enforcement and domestic and foreign affairs, federal policy is quickly aligning with presidential desires that have been driven by Fox’s obsessions. At the same time, Trump is responding to an impeachment inquiry into his conduct by taking cues from the network’s most inflammatory programming, with potentially dangerous consequences.
The Justice Department is investigating Sean Hannity’s conspiracy theories
Fox News personalities -- led by star host Sean Hannity, a personal Trump friend and adviser -- have spent the last few years laying out a sprawling conspiracy theory intended to discredit the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, while claiming that Democrats were the “real” foreign colluders. The theory posits that the initial FBI probe of contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russians was part of a “deep state” plot to prevent Trump’s election.
This makes no sense -- the FBI’s Trump probe was largely kept under wraps through the election, even as public disclosures about its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state damaged her campaign. Moreover, the twisted hypothesis requires that U.S. and foreign right-wingers were secretly working to ensure Clinton’s ascension. But Trump is enamored of the theory, which clears him and his associates of any wrongdoing related to Russia while putting his political enemies on the hook for supposedly framing him.
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first attorney general, largely refused to use the power of the Justice Department to pursue Trump’s perceived political foes. That drew the ire of Trump’s avid Fox supporters and of Trump himself. Following their recommendation, Trump forced Sessions to resign after the 2018 midterms. Sessions’ replacement, William Barr, had experience using the DOJ to protect the personal interests of previous Republican presidents, and he quickly proved he was willing to do the same on Trump’s behalf.
Within months, Barr had assigned John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, to investigate the origins of the Russia probe. Hannity and his guests were ecstatic, cheering Barr for trying to get to the bottom of the conspiracy theory the show had been promoting for years. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Bill Barr,” Hannity exulted.
Notably, Trump’s reelection campaign explicitly credited Hannity with launching the investigation. “The work that you do every night, Sean, is going to go a long way,” Trump campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told him in August. “It already has. We now have the Justice Department looking into the misdeeds of the Obama administration.”
Over the last few days, it has become clear that both Barr and Trump are personally deeply involved in that probe. Barr has reportedly asked top government officials in both the United Kingdom and Italy to provide information for the investigation, even traveling to the latter country to meet with intelligence officials and personally review evidence. At his urging, Trump asked the prime minister of Australia to assist the investigation as well. And in a damning July phone call, Trump asked the president of Ukraine to provide help to Barr. (The Justice Department has denied Barr was aware of that call.)
All four countries feature in various threads of the conspiracy theory that Fox has spooled out to undermine the Russia probe, which suggests that, given Trump’s fixation on the network’s programming, the Justice Department is running down leads generated by Sean Hannity’s program.
U.S. domestic and foreign policy is increasingly driven by Fox
Here are four recent cases:
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Trump’s scorn for former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who at times sought to temper his zeal to break the law in order to build a wall on the southern border, had been inflamed by Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, whose show the president adores. “Lou Dobbs hates you, Ann Coulter hates you, you’re making me look bad,” he reportedly told her.
The Post reported Saturday that up to 130 State Department officials had been contacted by State investigators in recent weeks as part of a new effort by the department to probe the culpability of State officials who sent messages to Clinton’s private email server. Fox hosts, particularly Hannity, have remained fixated on Clinton’s email use.
In September, the Post reported that Trump “has ordered White House officials to conduct a sweeping crackdown on homelessness in California,” with possible policy responses including “razing existing tent camps for the homeless.” Fox hosts had spent the previous months relentlessly demonizing the issue, attacking Democratic officials for allowing the state’s cities to become “almost Third World in their decay.”
That same week, John Bolton, previously a long-standing Fox contributor, either resigned or was fired as Trump’s national security adviser. Fox host Tucker Carlson had reportedly been lobbying for Bolton’s removal. A few months earlier, Carlson played a key role in the president’s decision to call off a military strike against Iran that Bolton had supported, and he had traveled with the president to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea in Bolton’s stead.
Trump’s response to impeachment inquiry mirrors the network’s most incendiary rhetoric
On Tuesday night, Trump tweeted, “As I learn more and more each day, I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the … People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of The United States of America!”
Impeachment, by definition, is not a “coup.” Impeachment is the legal process laid out in the Constitution for removing a president; coups, by contrast, are explicitly extraconstitutional.
The president effectively blessed an insane talking point that had filtered up through the right-wing information ecosystem in recent days to Fox. Key network figures close to Trump, including Carlson, Mark Levin, and Newt Gingrich had all previously described the impeachment inquiry using the same inflammatory language.
Moreover, Trump's comment wasn't an errant tweet. Two of his top aides had made similar remarks earlier that day, and on Wednesday, his presidential campaign released an ad declaring that impeachment is “nothing short of a coup.”
Nor was it the first time he had adopted Fox's extreme language about impeachment. On Sunday, Trump selectively quoted Fox contributor Robert Jeffress’ statement earlier that day on Fox & Friends that Trump’s removal could trigger “a Civil War like fracture in this Nation.” Warnings of impending civil war have circulated on Fox News and throughout the right-wing media for years.
This is incredibly dangerous. As the historian Nicole Hemmer noted, “When the President invokes violence -- as in a civil war -- he sends encouragement to supporters already primed to perceive a coming apocalypse.” That’s not an idle warning -- in August, Cesar Sayoc, a Trump superfan, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for mailing pipe bombs to the president’s critics. That has not given Trump pause as he continues to amp up his rhetoric, nor has it led Fox to reflect on the influence its programming has on the most powerful person in the world.