Fox News’ rebooted evening lineup of loyal Trumpists is rallying to the former president’s defense as a federal indictment looms in special counsel Jack Smith’s probe of Donald Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection. While Fox’s propagandists do typically offer zealous support at Trump’s most vulnerable moments, they have an added incentive in this case: Their network’s own coverage was critical to his scheme.
Trump disclosed on Tuesday that he had received a target letter from Smith’s office, which typically precedes criminal charges. “THIS WITCH HUNT IS ALL ABOUT ELECTION INTERFERENCE AND A COMPLETE AND TOTAL POLITICAL WEAPONIZATION OF LAW ENFORCEMENT!” he said on his Truth Social platform.
That night, Fox host Laura Ingraham denounced the target letter as a “political prosecution” in which the “Biden DOJ [is] making a total mockery of our legal system” in order to stop Trump’s 2024 campaign. Newly anointed 8 p.m. host Jesse Watters urged House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to take action to stop Smith, perhaps by eliminating the funding for his office. And Sean Hannity hosted Trump himself, giving the former president an unimpeded platform to rant against the potential charges.
This pattern of Fox hosts seeking to undermine criminal charges against Trump also played out with respect to his first and second criminal indictments earlier this year. But their conduct is even more risible in this case because Fox itself played an essential role in laying the groundwork for Trump’s election subversion plot. The right-wing propaganda channel is essentially an unindicted co-conspirator to his allegedly criminal scheme.
We won’t know what Smith alleges until there is an indictment and it is unsealed. But Trump could be charged with a wide array of crimes related to his multifaceted attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, including the organization of fraudulent electoral certificates and fake electors; the pressuring of Vice President Mike Pence and other officials to participate in the corrupt scheme; fundraising efforts related to the plot; and his incitement on January 6, 2021, of the protestors who stormed the U.S. Capitol and delayed Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
Whatever the eventual charges, the foundation underlying Trump’s alleged crimes is the “Big Lie,” his false claim that he won the 2020 presidential election. And the participation of Fox and the broader right-wing media ecosystem was a prerequisite in carrying out what was functionally an attempted coup based on that fraudulent pretext.
The sitting president prematurely declared victory on Election Night and subsequently waged a campaign to delegitimize the actual results by pushing lies and conspiracy theories about Democrats using massive voter fraud to steal the election. That crusade continues to this day, undeterred by his own advisers who told him he lost, the repudiation of numerous state and federal officials of both parties who said the election was fairly conducted, and the dozens of court rulings rejecting his lawyers’ claims to the contrary.
Fox hosts and executives knew immediately that the election had not been rigged and that Trump had lost, as revealed by internal documents and testimony in Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against the network. But in order to retain Fox’s heavily pro-Trump audience and the profits those ratings support, they got on board with Trump’s election lies. Fox cast doubt on Biden’s victory or pushed conspiracy theories about the election results hundreds of times in the weeks following the election, creating justifications for Trump’s corrupt efforts to reverse its result.
GOP leaders had spent decades building up Fox and other partisan media outlets as the only potential source of truth for their followers, so their decisions to bombard audiences with ‘rigged election’ falsehoods had a major impact. Pollsters found a huge share of Republicans said that the election had been stolen, creating incentives for Republican state legislators, attorneys general, and members of Congress to try to use their official powers to overturn the results. Trump, himself an avid Fox viewer, regularly highlighted the election conspiracy theories he saw on the network to his supporters. And after the Big Lie came to its culmination with the January 6 insurrection, several participants facing legal consequences and their attorneys pointed the finger at Fox as the reason for their actions.
Fox could have leveled with its viewers and acknowledged what many of its hosts privately believed — that Trump’s election claims were false. Indeed, Dominion’s lawyers pointed out in a filing that Rupert Murdoch and Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott discussed on January 5, 2021 -- the day before the electoral voters were to be certified by Congress -- having the network’s influential prime-time hosts “say some version of ‘The election is over and Joe Biden won.’ [Murdoch] hoped those words ‘would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election stolen.’”
But it never happened. As the filing recounts, “Scott told Rupert that ‘privately they are all there’ but ‘we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers.’ So nobody made a statement.” Instead, that night on his Fox show, Hannity promoted congressional Republicans’ last-ditch effort to prevent the certification of the electoral votes — and the “big crowds” of Trump supporters in Washington, D.C. for the event.
The next day, a mob of Trumpists summoned to the city by Trump and incited by his election fraud claims assaulted scores of law enforcement officers, stormed the U.S. Capitol, and sent Pence and the members of Congress assembled to oversee the counting of electoral votes into hiding.
Fox hosts with close ties to the president and Murdoch himself recognized in real time that the situation was disastrous — but any regrets they may have had were inconsequential. Accountability for the attack was off the table given the network’s own voluminous record in promoting the Big Lie. Instead, the network began valorizing the rioters that very night, and in the years since it has sought to sweep the insurrection under the rug or create insidious counternarratives that place the onus for the violence everywhere else.
The right’s unwillingness to grapple with its role in helping Trump try to overthrow the election results has continued resonance. At Fox, employees who dissented from the network’s coverage left or were fired, while some who promulgated the election lies were promoted. Within the GOP, election trutherism became standard fare, raising the probability that the future brings another, more successful subversion plot. And as the Republican presidential primary campaign heats up, candidates are largely unable to use the former president’s attempt to destroy American democracy against him.
When Trump’s most prominent primary opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, was asked about the looming charges on Tuesday, he responded in part by accusing the Justice Department of “criminalizing political differences.” In a twisted way, that’s correct: the two parties are divided over whether a president should be able to try to subvert the democratic system to stay in power.
Trump created that scenario — but he couldn’t have done so without his friends at Fox. And as an indictment moves forward in the days to come, he will be able to count on their continued support. Even after their lies on his behalf cost the network hundreds of millions of dollars, they’re preparing to usher him back to power by whatever means necessary.