The House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, which today enters a new phase with public hearings before the Intelligence Committee, is primarily a story about his corrupt abuses of power in seeking to coerce a foreign government to investigate his political opponents. But it also illustrates perhaps the greatest impact yet of the nexus between Fox News, the president, and federal policy.
Over several months this year, the president’s political interests came to dominate U.S. policy toward Ukraine. His personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani spearheaded an extensive disinformation campaign and created a parallel policy track that eventually subsumed the work of federal agencies. Vital military aid to Ukraine and a state visit by its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, were apparently conditioned — perhaps illegally — on Ukraine’s willingness to conduct criminal investigations into Trump’s perceived foes for the benefit of his reelection campaign.
The plot was on the threshold of success. Zelensky was preparing to give a public interview promising to probe former Vice President Joe Biden and alleged Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election when the aid was abruptly released as a whistleblower’s complaint threatened to expose the scheme. That complaint, which has been repeatedly vindicated by the testimony of firsthand witnesses, and the release of Trump’s July phone call summary with Zelensky in which he asked for the Ukrainian president to “do us a favor” by opening those investigations, led inexorably to today’s hearing.
Fox’s role -- and particularly that of Sean Hannity, the network star who also privately advises the president -- was central to every phase of the story. The network was the source of the president’s long-held animus toward Ukraine, the vector of Giuliani’s disinformation campaign, a common former employer of some key figures and a unifying factor of others, and the fountainhead of arguments that Trump and his House Republican allies have used to try to minimize the scandal.
The Ukraine scandal shows that Fox has been all but running the country. The network’s programming may ultimately bring down Trump’s presidency — or fulfill Roger Ailes’ dream and serve as the bulwark that preserves it.
Fox stoked Trump’s rage toward Ukraine
Trump’s deep enmity for Ukraine reportedly dates back to fall 2017 and apparently baffled some White House aides who were confused about its source. But the likely explanation is quite simple: The president learned to hate Ukraine by watching Fox.
In summer 2017, the White House was threatened by reporting that during the 2016 presidential campaign, top Trump advisers, including the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner, had colluded with Russians intent on supporting his election.
In an effort to push back on this reporting, Hannity used his Fox program to promote the bogus narrative that the “real collusion” during the 2016 election had been between Hillary Clinton and Ukraine. He obsessed over purported “Ukrainian election collusion” in a dozen monologues over the course of the summer of 2017, coverage that on at least one instance caught the eye of Trump, who regularly watches Hannity’s program and reportedly talks to him on the phone about it frequently.
Hannity’s coverage seems to have predisposed Trump to hate Ukraine, setting the stage for the abuses of power that followed.
Fox supercharged Giuliani’s disinformation campaign
Giuliani, with the president’s approval, developed a shadow foreign policy campaign in Ukraine, working with corrupt officials to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, undermine the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election, and remove U.S. and Ukrainian players that posed obstacles to that effort. That disinformation campaign played out on Fox.
Giuliani filtered the results of his investigation through John Solomon, a conservative writer with a long record of serving as a mouthpiece for right-wing opposition research. Solomon would write up aspects of Giuliani’s work in columns for The Hill, then go on Fox, where his scoops were woven into the network’s conspiracy theories. Over a six-month period, Solomon appeared on Fox News or Fox Business at least 72 times; 51 of those appearances were on Hannity’s program. (Solomon’s role as a Giuliani henchman led to him landing a contract as a Fox contributor last month.) As Fox’s feverish coverage of the Bidens crescendoed, Trump and Giuliani both appeared on the network to bolster the smears.
Depositions from witnesses before the impeachment inquiry reveal that top administration figures at the White House and State Department were forced to monitor Fox for clues about the shape of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine. George Kent, a State Department official with oversight over the country, reported tracking extensive coverage from Hannity and Fox host Laura Ingraham. Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official, testified that she and then-national security adviser John Bolton both regularly tuned in to Fox to keep abreast of Giuliani’s antics, adding that the network’s coverage began to “have an impact obviously on our work.”
Notably, Kent and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch each testified to an effort by the State Department to contact Hannity in order to thwart what Kent termed a “campaign of slander” against the ambassador. Yovanovitch had apparently become a thorn to Giuliani’s effort to conduct a shadow foreign policy, and so he promoted lies about her that made their way into Solomon’s columns and then onto Fox’s airwaves.
Joseph diGenova, a frequent Fox guest who is Solomon’s lawyer, argued in March on Hannity’s program that Yovanovitch “needs to be called home to the United States for consultation” in order to “answer a slew of questions about her conduct and her assault on the president of the United States.”
According to Kent, State Department counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl subsequently “reached out and suggested to Mr. Hannity that if there was no proof of the allegations, that he should stop covering them.” (Hannity has since denied that State contacted him about Yovanovitch.) In any case, Giuliani’s smear campaign apparently had its intended effect, as Yovanovitch was recalled from her post in May.
Fox personnel made Ukraine policy
Fox and the Trump administration have effectively merged over the past few years. The result is that a variety of administration players in the Ukraine scandal, such as Bolton, have a Fox pedigree, while some of the president’s most fervent defenders on the network’s airwaves, like Sarah Sanders, used to work for Trump. Notably, Tony Sayegh, a former Fox contributor turned administration aide, will reportedly join the White House to help coordinate the impeachment communications strategy.
But a less formal group of Fox-linked figures has also played an outsized role in the scandal. DiGenova and his wife Victoria Toensing, who are attorneys with close ties to Trump and who regularly appeared on Hannity and other Fox programs to push Ukraine conspiracy theories, are at the center of a legal web of individuals with various interests in impacting U.S. policy toward Ukraine. This group includes Giuliani; the Soviet-born con men Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were arrested last month on alleged campaign finance violations and have a variety of ties to Trump; and the Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who reportedly has links to Russian organized crime and drew scrutiny from Ukrainian anti-corruption groups.
Firtash hired diGenova and Toensing to fight his extradition to the U.S. on bribery charges. They, in turn, hired Parnas to work on the case as a paid translator. Meanwhile, Parnas and Fruman worked with Firtash to push for Yovanovitch’s firing in order to reap financial gain while simultaneously working for Giuliani on his disinformation campaign. DiGenova and Toensing are also longtime lawyers for Solomon and have done legal work for Hannity, both of whom promoted the dirt generated by the rest of the group.
This network imploded in October when Fruman and Parnas were arrested at Dulles International Airport in Virginia and charged over alleged schemes to funnel Russian money into U.S. political campaigns and to make straw donations to advance the political interests of a Ukrainian official. At the time, they were headed to Vienna, Austria, where they were reportedly planning to meet Giuliani and help with a planned interview that Victor Shokin, a disgraced Ukrainian prosecutor, was planning to do with Hannity. Shortly after the arrest, Attorney General William Barr reportedly met with Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox’s parent company.
Fox powers the GOP response -- and it may be enough to save Trump
It’s easy to get a sense of Fox’s impeachment coverage without ever turning on your television. All you have to do is check the president’s Twitter feed.
The network has been relentlessly lying to its viewers, with Fox propagandists producing a wide array of disinformation about the particulars of Trump’s abuse of power and manufacturing controversies about the whistleblowers, witnesses, and Democratic members of Congress seeking to bring his transgressions into the light and decrying the constitutional remedy of impeachment as a Soviet-style “show trial,” “regicide,” and an attempted “coup.”
Trump has been watching. “To get news on impeachment,” Politico reported last week, “Trump often relies on his favorite Fox shows: Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, 'Fox and Friends,' Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro, because he thinks they provide an alternative to the narrative many journalists in the more down-the-middle press are giving.”
That programming has become central to Trump’s impeachment defense, with the president frequently tweeting about Fox commentary he likes, or even sending out raw video of the network’s propagandistic segments.
Trump has sent 380 tweets and retweets about the Ukraine story that in some way touch on Fox — more than 43 percent of his total tweets about the story — since news of the whistleblower broke in mid-September through midday on November 11, according to my review. Notably, he has retweeted or quote-tweeted Fox personalities discussing the story 82 times, and live-tweeted the network’s coverage 104 times.
On November 9, for example, Trump used his Twitter feed to promote clips of favorable impeachment-related commentary from Fox hosts Jesse Watters and Mark Levin and Fox Business hosts Trish Regan and Stuart Varney. At one point, the president retweeted Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett’s feed eight consecutive times over a two-minute span, amplifying his attacks on the whistleblower, Biden, and the inquiry.
Trump may be the nation’s most powerful and prominent Fox addict. But his obsession with the network’s programming is not unique within his party. Leading House Republicans also take their cues from Fox, recognizing that they can use Trump’s propaganda tool to demonstrate their fealty and adopt its talking points in public settings to bolster their political power.
Stalwart pro-Trump Reps. Devin Nunes (CA), Andy Biggs (AZ), Lee Zeldin (NY), Jim Jordan (OH), Matt Gaetz (FL), and Mark Meadows (SC) have together made at least 51 appearances on the network to defend the president from impeachment since September 24, according to Media Matters data. Republican members have also taken Hannity’s conspiracy theories into the secure room where depositions are taking place, peppering impeachment witnesses with references to the “black ledger,” the “Steele dossier,” and other Fox obsessions.
As public impeachment hearings begin, those Republican members and their colleagues will likely channel Fox’s programming in an effort to create as much confusion and doubt as possible about the president’s actions. That will thrill their base, the partisan Fox-viewers who believe the network’s poisonous programming and are far more likely to oppose impeachment than Republicans who rely on other news sources.
That’s no accident. Fox was created by Ailes, a veteran of Richard Nixon’s administration, in part to ensure that no future Republican president would be forced from office. Trump is facing impeachment because of Fox’s propaganda. But that may ultimately be what ends up saving him.