Donald Trump’s penchant for taking advice from the shills and charlatans he sees on his television may be the thing that finally does him in, if last week’s federal criminal indictment over his handling of government documents results in legal accountability.
Trump’s legally perilous decision to refuse to return documents that were removed from the White House and brought to his Mar-a-Lago residence when he left office came despite the objections of his lawyers and at the urging of Tom Fitton, The Washington Post detailed Wednesday. Fitton is a right-wing movement apparatchik who built a relationship with Trump via frequent guest spots on pro-Trump propaganda networks like Fox News. Fitton has appeared on Fox’s weekday programming at least 171 times since September 2017, with the bulk of the interviews coming before 2020.
From the Post:
Trump time and again rejected the advice from lawyers and advisers who urged him to cooperate and instead took the advice of Tom Fitton, the head of the conservative group Judicial Watch, and a range of others who told him he could legally keep the documents and should fight the Justice Department, advisers said. Trump would often cite Fitton to others, and Fitton told some of Trump’s lawyers that Trump could keep the documents, even as they disagreed, the advisers said.
The Post further reported that “Several other Trump advisers blamed Fitton for convincing Trump that he could keep the documents.”
The New York Times and CNN both reported last year on Fitton’s role influencing the decisions Trump made about the documents, which triggered his indictment last week in the probe overseen by special counsel Jack Smith. Fitton appeared before Smith’s grand jury, which he has termed “harassment” and “prosecutorial misconduct.”
Fitton has made a tidy living for himself as part of the right-wing scandal industrial complex that uses legal efforts to smear Democrats like Hillary Clinton and protect Republicans like Trump. But he is not a lawyer and never attended law school – he “holds a B.A. in English from George Washington University” – and federal prosecutors who examine the same cases as Fitton keep coming to the opposite conclusions. He’s also an election denier who pushed conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic following the 2020 election and urged legislatures in states President Joe Biden won to submit electors for Trump.
In other words, you should not be taking legal advice from him if you are a rational person who hopes to avoid serving prison time. But we’re talking about Trump here. The former president spent his four years in the White House drawing on the counsel of the people he saw on his television. He constantly echoed right-wing TV networks on his Twitter feed, filled his administration with familiar faces from Fox’s green rooms, turned the network’s hosts into his personal Cabinet, and made decisions on everything — from pardons to legislative strategy to federal contracts — based on what they told him. He never stopped relying on Fox, even after following the network’s lead triggered his first impeachment.
Fitton is one of those underqualified Trumpists who entered Trump’s inner circle because he told the former president what he wanted to hear in frequent television appearances. He played a key role in developing Fox host Sean Hannity’s alternate narrative of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference with the 2016 election, which posited that Trump and his allies had done nothing wrong and were being persecuted by law enforcement officials who were themselves committing crimes. Fitton used high-profile Fox appearances to argue that the FBI had become “KGB-type operation,” call for the firings of high-ranking FBI and Justice Department officials, and urge Trump to issue pardons to his cronies who were “caught up in Mueller’s web.”
Those appearances helped bring Fitton to Trump’s attention and ultimately into his inner circle. Politico reported in 2018 that Trump had “come to see Fitton as one of the most effective critics of the Mueller probe” and that Fitton’s “regular appearances on Fox News ensure he has an audience with Trump, who often perks up when he sees Fitton on TV and listens for tweet-worthy nuggets.” Indeed, Trump sent at least seven live-tweets of Fitton’s Fox appearances between September 2018 and January 2021.
Fitton has repeatedly argued during his appearances on right-wing TV shows that Trump’s retention of government documents, including highly classified ones, was legal, and attacked his indictment as “prosecutorial misconduct.”
“President Trump had a right to those records.” Fitton said during a June 9 interview on Fox News Tonight. He added that President Joe Biden should also be indicted over his retention of documents under the rules the Justice Department is enforcing, adding that it has “one standard: Target Trump and people we don't like and protect our own if you're a Democrat, and that's what's happening at the Justice Department and Jack Smith should be ashamed of himself for putting out this type of shoddy political indictment.”
“I read this indictment and I didn't see any evidence of crimes,” he similarly told Newsmax’s Eric Bolling on Monday. “I saw allegations related to holding documents that ignored the legal basis for his withholding documents. And I saw inferences from innocent conversations and confusing sets of circumstances of obstruction.”
He added, “It all could be true and he's still innocent because they haven't shown any crimes.”
Fitton argued on Fox Business Wednesday evening that Trump had unlimited power to designate as “personal” any documents he took with him when he left the White House. On that basis, Fitton thus claimed that the National Archives had been “harassing” Trump when it asked him to return the documents he had taken, saying, “that wasn't the law and I think it was a setup.”
They knew that they had no business harassing Trump, but they changed -- you know, they lied to him about the law or misled him about the law, and then of course, that all led to the boxes being returned, them finding allegedly classified information, which were really personal documents of his that he had made personal via, as the indictment says, putting them in boxes with all bunch of other clippings and such, right? And that led to the subpoena and the sham obstruction charge.
He added that the indictment “is a partisan targeting of Trump, and I hope a court sees through it and shuts it down as soon as it can.”
Just hours later, the Post reported that Fitton had been offering the same counsel to Trump – and that the former president had listened.