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  • Hugh Hewitt and Sen. Tom Cotton go to the fever swamps in Kavanaugh nomination postmortem

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) are pushing a conspiracy theory that professor Christine Blasey Ford’s decision to speak out about then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was actually orchestrated by Democratic leaders in the Senate. The version of events proposed by Hewitt and Cotton is at odds with reports on how Ford decided to come forward, and it serves to undercut Ford’s bravery.

    Cotton was a guest on the October 9 broadcast of Hewitt’s radio show, The Hugh Hewitt Show. Hewitt prompted the conspiracy theory by asking Cotton if he thought “that this was planned long before it was unveiled? And by that, I mean the leak of Dr. Ford’s letter. I don’t know who did it, but I believe it was part of a campaign that was set up to occur exactly when it did. Do you agree with me?”

    Cotton did agree, and he wove an evidence-free conspiracy theory that as early as July, “the Schumer political operation” -- a reference to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) -- and possibly former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara were involved in a plan to leak the contents of a letter Ford had sent to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). In the letter, Ford gave an account of Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her when they were both in high school.

    This conspiratorial timeline is at odds with reality. Ford sent a letter dated July 30 to Feinstein and asked that the California senator keep its contents confidential. The Intercept was the first to report on the letter, writing on September 12 that it “describes an incident involving Kavanaugh and a woman while they were in high school” and that Feinstein was refusing to share its contents with other senators, which “created tension on the committee.” According to Politico, “The reporter behind that [Intercept] story later stated that Feinstein’s staff did not leak the letter.”

    Ford came forward publicly in a September 16 Washington Post article. She said later during her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the presence of reporters at her home and workplace made her realize her identity would be revealed in any case, so she decided to speak on the record with a reporter at the Post who she said had gained her trust.

    Hewitt has a history of being dishonest while discussing federal judicial nominations, but political talk shows still treat him as a mainstream conservative commentator when they bring him on to talk about the topic. While previously his falsehoods served to provide cover for the GOP to radically change norms around the nomination process, he has now sunk to pushing a conspiracy theory.

    Cotton, for his part, has his own history of underhanded behavior on executive branch nominations. In 2014, Cotton placed a hold on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Cassandra Butts to serve as ambassador to the Bahamas. More than two years after her nomination was announced, Butts, who Cotton acknowledged was not a controversial nominee, died of leukemia at age 50, with Cotton’s hold still in place. Before she died, Butts told The New York Times that she had visited Cotton to ask about the hold and he said he knew she was friends with Obama and the hold was a way to inflict personal pain on the president.

  • This American Life falls for Jeff Flake’s gimmick

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Among U.S. senators, perhaps no one bears more responsibility for Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court than Arizona’s Jeff Flake. The retiring Republican senator has made a cottage industry in recent months out of his willingness to break away from Republican Party orthodoxy surrounding President Donald Trump. But he does so in entirely symbolic gestures, nearly always supporting the president's agenda whenever it comes to a vote.

    Flake deployed a variation of this tired schtick on September 28, when he inserted himself into Kavanaugh’s confirmation process by saying he would oppose the vote on the Senate floor unless the FBI was given one week to reopen its background investigation into Kavanaugh.

    While Flake received some plaudits for attaching this caveat to his vote, there is little evidence that he deserved the praise. Of course the FBI’s process was controlled by the Senate’s GOP leadership and the White House -- not Flake -- and their investigation predictably ended up being a sham, extremely limited in both scope and time. What’s worse: The farce of an investigation provided a pretext for senators who were receiving the strongest pressure to vote no -- most notably Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Flake himself -- to push Kavanaugh over the finish line instead.

    This American Life, a weekly public radio program and podcast with an estimated audience of nearly 5 million listeners, published an October 5 episode in which producer Zoe Chace followed and interviewed Flake throughout the confirmation process. Unfortunately, the typically illuminating program fell short in this instance by casting Flake in the softest and most credulous light possible.

    The episode glorified the moment when Flake set in motion the sham FBI investigation, with Chace narrating that Flake’s move preserved “the integrity of the process on the Senate Judiciary Committee.” It also celebrated Flake’s all talk, no action approach as something admirable and sorely needed in today’s politics -- even as Flake himself acknowledged to Chace that in his view “he could never have done something like this if he were still running for office”:

    ZOE CHACE: Preserving the integrity of the process on the Senate Judiciary Committee is a much less romantic story than the one about two survivors of sexual assault changing a senator's mind at the last second. That's what happened, though.

    And finally, that day, the world sees Jeff Flake find a third way. It's something he's been looking for for a long time on a lot of issues -- a way to vote with his Republican colleagues, but stand for certain principles with the Democrats. It's the weirdest niche. But he's a weirdo right now -- a ghost Republican. He doesn't really have a constituency he's speaking for, being anti-Trump but pro- his policies.

    He's retiring from the Senate in a few months. As he says, he could never have done something like this if he were still running for office. There's no value to reaching across the aisle, he says. There's no currency for that anymore. If you do that, you'll lose. So there is not much crossing over to the other side ever, by anybody -- which is maybe why, when you do cross over, this is what happens.

    Chace also adopted Flake’s claim about Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, saying the senator “found Ford credible and convincing, but he came back, over and over, to the fact that there was nothing corroborating her testimony. No one else could put him in the room that night.”

    Setting aside the credulous repetition of the bizarre GOP talking point that Ford is credible and convincing yet also totally mistaken about who attacked her, the claim about corroboration is misleading at best. Ford’s account of being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh when they were both in high school was corroborated by conversations Ford had in therapy, with her husband, and with friends and other family members prior to his Supreme Court nomination. And the GOP-controlled FBI investigation ensured that no contemporaneous corroboration would be uncovered, despite compelling evidence -- such as an entry on Kavanaugh’s calendar showing that he was drinking with the same people Ford said were at the party during the time frame in which she said the assault occurred. The FBI investigation was also not permitted to independently verify employment records for key witness Mark Judge, an action Ford herself suggested to the Senate Judiciary Committee would help to narrow the time frame of the alleged assault for a more thorough investigation.

    More broadly, it would be an understatement to characterize the collegial exchanges between Flake and Chace throughout the segment as a softball interview. In one scene, the two met up in New York City, where Flake was speaking at an event the day after he made his FBI investigation gambit. Chace noted that presumably liberal New Yorkers approached the senator and asked him to pose for pictures, which she took for them. Later the reporter and the senator laughed as she asked, “Do you think they know that you're going to vote for Kavanaugh?”

    Chace’s interviews with Flake focused on the optics and political horse race aspects of the Kavanaugh nomination while ignoring real-world impacts. For example, the program didn’t force Flake to explain to women what it means to have yet another justice confirmed to the Supreme Court despite multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct. Or what it means to have a new Supreme Court justice who is fresh off of delivering a highly unusual and partisan rant before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Or what it means to confirm a nominee who clearly lied under oath numerous times in testimony, something that Flake had told 60 Minutes would be a deal breaker. (Clearly when it was time for him to vote, it wasn’t.)

    Instead, the program focused primarily on what it's like to be the senior senator from Arizona, right now. “Jeff Flake's had a rough few years,” Chace reflected after he called for the FBI investigation but before he announced he was voting to confirm Kavanaugh. “They hate him on the right, and he keeps disappointing the left. It feels good, for once, to be popular.”

    The segment closed with one last interview after Flake had done what most expected and voted for Kavanaugh. Chace asked, “Do you feel better now? You're kind of back among your people. You had kind of a week with the Democrats celebrating you, but you're back among your people.”

    “Do I have people?” Flake responded. “I guess so. I am a man, temporarily, without a party,” he said, laughing.   

  • Fox & Friends fearmongers about left-wing violence while ignoring violence and threats from the right 

    Blog ››› ››› GRACE BENNETT

    Today’s edition of Fox & Friends painted a picture of a society terrorized by left-wing violence and threats toward conservatives, completely ignoring very real incidents of violence and intimidation against Democrats and professor Christine Blasey Ford.

    Hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and guest host Ed Henry spoke at length about the supposed violence of the left, and fearmongered about the danger it entails for conservatives. Some of the hosts’ most pressing concerns included people protesting inhumane policies by yelling at politicians dining in restaurants, and peaceful protesters placing cameras in politicians’ faces. While the discussion did highlight some genuinely concerning threats against Republican senators, the hosts did not mention any threats against their Democratic colleagues or their staffs.

    Just three days ago, a Florida supporter of President Donald Trump was arrested after repeatedly posting online about his plans to kill Democratic senators. In one post, he wrote that he was “about to accept an offer on my house just to get more money to fund my plan to kill Democrat office holders and their families.” He also expressed hope that fellow conservatives would break into liberals’ homes and murder them in their sleep. Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama reported that his female staff members have received violent threats from supporters of newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And Christine Blasey Ford, who testified under oath that Kavanaugh assaulted her while in high school, has been the target of sustained harassment and death threats for weeks. The threats are so serious and pervasive that she still cannot return to her home, even after Kavanaugh was confirmed and sworn in as a Supreme Court justice.

    Fox & Friends chose to ignore these clear incidents and threats of right-wing violence, and instead focused on fearmongering about an allegedly lawless left. From the October 8 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends: