Right-wing media work to scandalize report about Rep. Eric Swalwell and China

This week, right-wing media have latched onto an Axios report detailing the efforts that a suspected Chinese spy made to get close to U.S. politicians including Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA). According to the report, Swalwell “immediately cut off all ties” when alerted by officials and “has not been accused of any wrongdoing.” Still, conservative media are breathlessly hyping up the story, using the report to call for retribution and investigations against Swalwell and to complain about the lack of mainstream media hype around the story. Right-wing media are also fearmongering about China’s influence in the United States, pushing anti-communist tropes, and warning that U.S. colleges are “easy targets” for foreign intelligence agencies because they are “rife with anti-Americanism.”

On December 8, Axios reported that “a suspected Chinese intelligence operative developed extensive ties with local and national politicians.” The operation involved a Chinese national named Christine Fang, or Fang Fang, who allegedly attempted to gather information about American politicians from 2011-2015 while enrolled as a college student in California. Though U.S. intelligence officials emphasize that the case was still a “big deal,” they reportedly “do not believe Fang received or passed on classified information.” Axios reported that Swalwell was “among the most significant targets,” and “federal investigators became so alarmed by Fang's behavior and activities that around 2015 they alerted Swalwell to their concerns — giving him what is known as a defensive briefing. Swalwell immediately cut off all ties to Fang, according to a current U.S. intelligence official, and he has not been accused of any wrongdoing.”

While the report does provide an insight into the efforts that China has made to infiltrate U.S. politics, right-wing media have turned the report into an indictment of Swalwell and the Democratic Party, despite the fact that foreign spying incidents are relatively common (in 2018, a woman was accused of seeking to infiltrate GOP politics through similar tactics targeting prominent Republicans on behalf of Russia).

Still, many in conservative media are working to spin the story to suggest nefarious wrongdoing on the part of Swalwell and to spread fear about China’s influence on the U.S. Since the story broke on December 8, Fox News has aired over 80 segments discussing Swalwell and China, according to Media Matters’ internal database.

In addition to scandalizing the story, some in conservative media are demanding retribution against Swalwell -- whether in the form of forcing him to resign from Congress, subjecting him to various investigations, or removing him from his position on the House Intelligence Committee -- while others are accusing the mainstream media of insufficiently covering the story. Some right-wing media figures are also using the story to fearmonger about China’s role in the U.S., including sowing suspicions about Chinese students studying at universities. 

Scandalizing the report and calling for retribution against Swalwell 

  • One America News’ Jack Posobiec tweeted that he was “told the unreleased portion of the Swalwell report is far, far worse for the Congressman and he is actively fighting to obstruct its release to the American people.”
  • The Daily Wire claimed the story was a “bombshell” and detailed calls from Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) for Swalwell to be “removed from Congress.”
  • Turning Point USA’s Benny Johnson tweeted: “BOMBSHELL: Chinese communist spies in bed with Russia-collusion hoaxer” -- a reference to Swalwell’s support of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
  • On Sinclair Broadcast Group’s America This Week, host Eric Bolling said that Swalwell “may have been compromised by the Chinese” during Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference, despite the Axios article reporting Swalwell cut off contact with Fang in 2015. Former Trump Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell said “there’s no doubt” Swalwell “was downplaying the Chinese threat and overplaying and hyping the Russian collusion narrative -- there’s a nexus there.” 
  • Grenell later tweeted that “there must be a full classified briefing for the Senate and House intel committees about the Swalwell spy scandal.” 
  • Fox host Sean Hannity asked on his prime-time show: “Do you trust the judgment of a guy who had a yearslong relationship with a Chinese spy? And why the hell is he anywhere near the House Intelligence Committee?”
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Citation From the December 10, 2020, edition of Fox News' Hannity

  • Fox host Mark Levin tweeted that “Eric Swalwell must be expelled from Congress.” 
  • Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz said that Swalwell should be thrown off the House Intelligence Committee, claiming, “There’s an ongoing, I think, systemic vulnerability that Nancy Pelosi is putting us in that doesn’t need to be there.”
  • Fox anchor Tucker Carlson wrote an op-ed for the network’s website asking: “Why is Eric Swalwell still on House Intel Committee after Chinese spy revelations?” Carlson claimed that Swalwell’s “first love” is “defending the government of China from all criticism.”
  • Sinclair’s Sebastian Gorka called on President Donald Trump to “strip” Swalwell of “his TOP SECRET clearance.”

Accusing the mainstream media of failing to sufficiently cover the story 

  • Washington Examiner wrote an article titled “Major media outlets mostly ignore story linking Rep. Eric Swalwell to suspected Chinese spy.” 
  • GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted: 
  • The Daily Caller wrote that “media largely ignores report of Swalwell’s involvement with suspected Chinese spy.”
  • Fox News published an article claiming Swalwell's “reported entanglement with Chinese spy [was] ignored by CNN, broadcast networks.”

Fearmongering about China’s influence and the presence of Chinese nationals in the U.S.

  • The Daily Wire published transcript of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech that appeared in part to be a response to the Axios report. Pompeo reportedly warned that universities are “easy targets” for China because they are “rife with anti-Americanism.” Pompeo also said that it’s “no accident” that “400,000 students a year studying in our universities come from one country” and claimed the Chinese Communist Party is “poisoning the well of our higher education institutions for its own ends.”
  • On Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade introduced the story by stating that “the China threat is everywhere.” Fox contributor Jack Keane then fearmongered that Chinese students on campus are involved in intelligence operations because they “don't assimilate into the full breadth and social experience of the college” and “stay in their own cocoon.”
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Citation From the December 11, 2020, edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends

  • On America’s Newsroom, Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo launched into a long rant about China, accusing Swalwell of “literally sleeping with the Chinese Communist Party,” warning that the Chinese government has “gotten in academia, they've gotten in Wall Street, they've gotten in Hollywood,” and claiming of the COVID-19 pandemic, “They unleashed this virus on the world.”