If you were to ask me who Jeanine Pirro works for, I’m not sure I could give you a straight answer. On paper, at least, she is an employee of Fox News, which pays her money to host a weekly show called Justice with Judge Jeanine. It’s a terrible program that exploits the well-worn cable news trope of using a crackpot pundit’s career in law enforcement to give unearned credibility to their howlingly stupid opinions. In theory, Justice with Judge Jeanine is a platform for Pirro (a former judge, former district attorney, failed Senate candidate, and speed-limit scofflaw) to give her take on the week’s top legal stories.
In practice, however, Pirro serves as a combative and vocal propagandist for President Donald Trump. Pirro makes it her business to be the loudest pro-Trump voice in whatever room she happens to find herself in, and she moonlights as an informal adviser to Trump, who reportedly seeks her out for her counsel. Pirro’s advocacy for the president is so aggressive that it often borders on insane -- some of her commentary would be at home in an authoritarian state media apparatus. And she has enthusiastically sold out the cause she built her career in public life on -- advocating for women who were victims of abuse -- to become a sneering and poisonous sycophant to the most powerful elected official in the country.
An ambitious rise and embarrassing fall
Jeanine Pirro does not lack for ambition. Her career in public life saw her score a series of firsts: She helped create and lead what was then called the Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Bureau for Westchester County, New York; she was the first woman to be elected as a judge on the Westchester County court; and she was the first woman to serve as the county’s district attorney. Her ex-husband, Al Pirro, was a well-connected real estate lawyer and GOP fundraiser who knew all the power players in New York -- one of his biggest clients in the late 1990s was Donald Trump, back when he was still in the real estate game.
She had a talent for drawing media attention and relentlessly marketed herself as a hard-charging prosecutor who brought legal hell down upon sex offenders and domestic abusers. Pirro positioned herself as an advocate for women at a time when victims of domestic abuse were an afterthought in the criminal justice system. Her political ascent was durable enough to survive Al Pirro’s 2000 conviction on charges of tax fraud and conspiracy.
All this success and exposure made her a star within the New York GOP, which, in the mid-2000s, was desperately looking for someone to derail the re-election of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. Pirro, the crusading, media-savvy district attorney, seemed like an obvious choice, and in August 2005, she announced her campaign for the U.S. Senate. She came into the race with a ton of hype and lofty expectations, and almost immediately Pirro proved she was completely out of her depth.
Pirro’s campaign was an unalloyed fiasco from the start. Her speech announcing her candidacy became a nationwide joke after she spent half a minute silently fumbling for a missing page of her prepared remarks (The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart cracked that she observed “32 seconds of silence in memory of the premature death of her campaign”). Her first campaign ad didn’t directly state that she was running for a seat in Congress, and she showed up at the wrong location for a press conference announcing the ad buy. Pirro was also a fantastically inept fundraiser. Her campaign pulled in just $438,555 in its first fundraising quarter, compared to Clinton’s $5.3 million. (Amusingly, $900 of Clinton’s haul that quarter came from Donald J. Trump, according to campaign finance records.)
With no money, no traction, and almost exclusively negative press attention, Pirro came under pressure from New York Republicans who wanted her to get out of the race so another candidate could take on Hillary. Among the high-profile Republicans plotting against Pirro’s ambition was her own husband, who reportedly urged state GOP officials to convince her to end the campaign.
Pirro quit the Senate race after just four months and opted instead to run for New York attorney general. She won the Republican nomination running unopposed. But whatever slim hope Pirro might have nurtured for a comeback was crushed in September 2006 when she herself came under federal investigation for conspiring to wiretap her husband, who she suspected was cheating on her.
No charges ended up being filed, Pirro lost the race to future New York governor Andrew Cuomo by 20 points, and she and her husband separated a year later. With her political career left a smoldering ruin, Pirro made the move to television. After a short run as host of a low-rated Judge Judy-like courtroom reality program, Pirro jumped to Fox News and started hosting Justice with Judge Jeanine in 2011.
Pirro enthusiastically sells out for Trump
Pirro’s affinity for Trump makes sense in a lot of ways: They’ve been friends for decades, they’re both Republicans, they’re both combative New Yorkers who crave media attention. But in one very important aspect, Pirro and Trump should -- at least in theory -- be irreconcilably opposed.
Remember that Pirro’s entire public image was built around her work on behalf of victims of abuse: women who had been cowed into silence by their abusers and left unrepresented by the law and the courts. Her career as a politician was rooted in the idea that she was a tireless and hellacious enemy of sexual predators, wife beaters, and perpetrators of domestic violence. A 2005 profile of Pirro in the New York Observer described her as “half crusading cop, half crusading mom” and said her career was defined by “work with victims of spousal abuse and sexual abuse, murder, stalking, rape, [and] torture.”
As a pundit, however, she has fanatically aligned herself with the nation's most prominent accused sexual assaulter. Donald Trump has faced too many credible allegations of assault against women to simply wave off, but Pirro has done exactly that, making every excuse for him, even when Trump got caught describing his own sexual misconduct.
“The comments are shameful and cringeworthy. The words are disgusting, devastating, and embarrassing. It’s the kind of locker room and frat house talk that personally infuriates me,” Pirro said on her program following the release of the Access Hollywood tapes in which Trump boasted of groping women by their genitalia. “But guess what: I still without a doubt support Donald Trump.” Her rationale aligned perfectly with the excuse offered by Trump: that his comments were just “words” and not to be taken as an admission of sexual assault. And regardless of what Trump said, she argued, he was still better than “double-talking woman” Hillary Clinton.
Pirro mortgaged her own reputation to defend Trump from his own self-incrimination. “He has always been a gentleman,” Pirro said on Fox & Friends in October 2016. “I know the man, and I can speak as a woman who has fought for battered women, I have crusaded for women my whole career to level the playing field for women who are victims of crime.” When multiple women came forward with their stories about Trump’s sexual assault, Pirro dismissed them as not credible and perhaps part of an anti-Trump conspiracy. “It’s a little too convenient. All of the sudden all of these people on one day on the day when WikiLeaks starts coming out,” she said.
Last month, during one of the “Opening Statements” that she starts each show with, Pirro lashed out at former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned from the White House amid allegations that he’d physically abused his ex-wives. Pirro called Porter a “batterer” and lamented that “he doesn’t walk around with a scarlet letter or a sign on his forehead that says ‘I beat women.’” But she also went out of her way to exculpate the people in the White House who protected Porter for months, like chief of staff John Kelly, casting them as victims of anti-Trump hysteria. “You want to stop a four-star general who is running the White House, who believes in chain of command, who makes a decision within 40 minutes because you hate Donald Trump?” she asked before absurdly suggesting that the Rob Porter scandal was actually Barack Obama’s fault somehow. “Find another scapegoat. You might want to look at the last president.”
The reason Pirro has so enthusiastically set fire to her reputation like this is that Trump is her avenue to power and influence. She protects and champions Trump in the face of all the damning evidence because he’s her friend, and because he’s the president of the United States and he gives her access.
Softballs and poison
Jeanine Pirro’s access to Trump comes in several different forms. She’s not just a pro-Trump pundit -- she’s also an adviser whom the president routinely seeks out. The New York Times reported in November 2017 that Pirro had once interviewed to be Trump’s deputy attorney general and that she had met with Trump in the Oval Office to “excoriate” Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Daily Beast reported that Trump regularly consults Pirro “privately for advice on political and policy matters.” Pirro was the keynote speaker at a January event at Mar-a-Lago put on by a pro-Trump political group, and she’s reportedly discussed with Trump the possibility of writing a rebuttal book to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury.
As a media figure, Pirro has scored two interviews with Trump since his inauguration; both were embarrassing spectacles that set new boundaries for the definition of “softball.”
Her most recent sit-down with Trump was on February 24. The “questions” she asked him were, in several instances, just direct invitations for Trump to praise himself. This, for example, is an actual question posed to the president of the United States by Jeanine Pirro:
Mr. President, your approval rating is soaring. And we can talk about the economy and the low unemployment and the stock market and all of the great things that have been happening with the economy. But you have accomplished all of this -- and, by the way, there’s a poll that put you at 50 percent, and at CPAC you were at 93 percent approval rating -- you did all this in one year with the economy. To what do you attribute these incredible advances?
“I know that you support the military and you’re giving them the resources they need -- are we going to have a parade?” she asked at another point. The parade (one of Trump’s favorite pet issues) elicited a follow-up from Pirro: “When do you think we can have this parade? Because I want to go to the parade!”
Her previous interview with Trump, on May 13, 2017, came in the immediate aftermath of his massively controversial firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Pirro used the opportunity to soothe Trump’s ego. “The media’s in a frenzy, and so given that some of these congresspeople thought he should have been fired … doesn’t it suggest to you that it isn’t even about Comey, it’s about anything that you, as president, do?” (Trump, of course, agreed.) That question wasn’t nearly as sycophantic as Pirro’s take on the messaging disarray within the administration. “Are you moving so quickly that your communications department can’t keep up with you?” Pirro asked. “Yes, that’s true,” Trump responded.
I’d like to think that any media personality bearing even the spindliest shred of professional integrity would choke on the idea of being so exuberantly obsequious to the most powerful politician in the country. Pirro, however, is not so encumbered.
The obverse side to Pirro’s gross deference to Trump is the noxious vitriol she spits at anyone who crosses the president, be they political adversaries or government officials who’ve drawn Trump’s ire.
Like her Fox Business Network colleague (and fellow presidential propagandist) Lou Dobbs, Pirro is a staunch advocate of arresting and prosecuting Trump’s perceived enemies for the crime of opposing Trump. On December 9, 2017, she caused a stir by calling for a “cleansing” of the FBI and the Justice Department (DOJ), which she said were full “of individuals who should not just be fired, but who need to be taken out in handcuffs” and whose “corruption and lawlessness” require that they made into “examples.” Her fervor for “cleansing” the DOJ was undercut by her difficulty in identifying any actual crimes committed by the people she wanted purged -- special counsel Robert Mueller’s arrestable infraction, for example, was that “in a year, with a team dedicated to destroying Donald Trump, he can’t come up with one piece of evidence.”
That insane harangue caused a media backlash driven largely by the fact that Pirro herself was a former law enforcement official calling for a purge of law enforcement. The following week she responded with an escalating series of attacks on the DOJ, grandiosely declaring: “I hereby double down.” She said there is “a criminal cabal in our FBI and the Department of Justice who think they know better than we do who our president should be,” describing it as “a crime family like in the movies except this time the FBI is the crime family.”
Hillary Clinton also features prominently in Pirro’s weekly diatribes, likely due to Trump’s ongoing obsession with his former rival and Pirro’s own history as a failed Clinton foil. Last week saw huge stories break on guns, trade, and White House staffers, but Pirro’s “Opening Statement” on Saturday’s show focused on a tweet by Clinton about Trump and Russia. “The woman is even dumber than I thought,” she said as the starting point for a six-minute screed aimed at a candidate who lost an election 16 months ago.
Earlier this year, Pirro filmed a “Street Justice” segment in which she wandered around Chappaqua, NY, pestering locals with inane questions about the Clintons. “Does Hillary Clinton drop off her pantsuits here?” she yelled through the open door of a dry cleaner (the employee inside ignored her). Then she tromped through the local woods “looking for Hillary,” apparently because Clinton was spotted hiking there after the election. The segment was confusing and pointless but extremely amusing to Pirro. “You think she’s home writing another book? Or maybe she’s still reading ‘What Happened’ because she can’t figure out what happened!” she said, taking obvious delight in what she believed to be a joke.
The wages of propaganda
Like other pro-Trump propagandists in the Fox News family, Jeanine Pirro understands that the way to attract and maintain the president’s attention is through grandiose, inflammatory demonstrations of dog-like loyalty. Trump watches a disgusting amount of cable news and loves pundits who posture as fighters and scrappers. Pirro markets herself precisely that way: a brawler who brings the principled, no-nonsense sensibility of a crusading judge to her weekly program. But Pirro has no principles and her only crusade is deifying Trump. And for her service, she is rewarded with access to the White House and the president.
Corrupt arrangements like these have a baleful influence on how media figures behave. The most unethical and least principled actors in the media ecosystem are the ones who enjoy the best access and benefit from the exposure granted by their proximity to the president. This perverse incentive structure makes flagrant toadyism and barking lunacy desirable attributes (or, at the very least, it makes them less intolerable as trade-offs for access). The rise of unscrupulous pro-Trump whack jobs like Jeffrey Lord and Ed Martin speaks to this dynamic: inflammatory, manifestly untrustworthy voices given positions of prominence by media outlets because their slavish devotion to the president.
This rotten dynamic puts a sycophant and sellout like Jeanine Pirro on the inside track, and it makes the Trump worship and scalding venom of Justice with Judge Jeanine a formula to be emulated.