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Echoing Trump and his supporters, Hannity and his guests made hundreds of statements about Mueller's supposed "conflicts of interests"
Fox News’ Sean Hannity has used his prime-time TV show as a platform to try to discredit both the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the special counsel, Robert Mueller, leading the investigation. For months, Hannity and his guests have called for Mueller to resign and brought up bogus “conflicts of interest” in an apparent attempt to undermine the “witch hunt” and save face with one of Hannity’s biggest fans, President Donald Trump.
A Media Matters analysis found that since the beginning of the investigation in May, Hannity and his guests have repeatedly called for Mueller to recuse himself or be fired from the probe and brought up phony “conflicts of interest” in attempts to discredit him. Hannity has also repeated several other canards in an attempt to dismiss the investigation, often hyping them when the ongoing probe results in the release of damaging reports. In this study:
Hannity has called for either Mueller to remove himself or for his firing 40 times. Since Mueller took up the investigation on May 17, Hannity has called for Mueller to remove himself from the investigation -- or for him to be forcibly removed --- 40 times on his Fox News program.
Fox’s Gregg Jarrett has made 11 comments calling for Mueller’s firing or for Mueller to remove himself from the investigation. Gregg Jarrett, Fox legal analyst and ardent Trump defender -- especially on matters related to Russia -- made 11 statements on Hannity calling for Mueller to remove himself from the investigation or be fired.
Other guests have made similar statements, including noted right-wing misinformers. Other guests on Hannity have made similar calls for Mueller to either step away from the investigation of his own volition or for him to be fired:
Right-wing radio host Larry Elder, who claimed that Clinton, the FBI, and the Democratic National Committee are the only ones who were involved in Russian collusion, called for Mueller to leave the probe twice;
Former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom, who called the bogus “unmasking” controversy regarding former national security adviser Susan Rice one of the biggest scandals ever, made two statements saying Mueller should not be involved with the probe; and
Hannity brought up Mueller’s alleged “conflicts of interest” 183 times. Since May 17, Hannity has made 183 statements that Mueller allegedly has a “conflict of interest” that would prevent him from fairly conducting the probe.
Guests have made 45 statements asserting that Mueller has a “conflict of interest.” Apart from Hannity’s own statements, guests on Hannity, including Jarrett and other Trump defenders such as Newt Gingrich and Fox host Jeanine Pirro, have made a total of 45 statements alleging that Mueller has a “conflict of interest” surrounding the investigation.
Two of the most popular “conflicts of interest” are not really conflicts at all. Of the over 220 statements about “conflicts” that Hannity and his guests have hyped, two of the most popular ones (cited 167 times) are not actually conflicts at all:
On 92 occasions, Hannity and his guests -- including Gingrich and Fox contributor Ari Fleischer -- claimed that Mueller’s team was compromised or conflicted because it included several investigators who had previously donated to Democrats. As a group of political science professors wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “According to the Justice Department’s own rules, campaign donations do not create a conflict of interest.”
On 75 occasions, Hannity and his guests -- including Jarrett and Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow -- suggested that Mueller is conflicted because of his relationship with former FBI Director James Comey. But, as The Associated Press (AP) pointed out, Mueller and Comey are “not known to be especially close friends.” Additionally, “Legal experts say whatever connection they do have doesn't come close to meriting Mueller's removal as special counsel.”
Hannity and his guests used a variety of other talking points and canards to discredit the investigation and Mueller:
On 22 occasions, Hannity and his guests referred to the investigation as a “witch hunt”;
On 17 occasions, Hannity and his guests suggested that the investigation was a political attack on Trump, his administration, and potentially even the Trump family;
On 36 occasions, Hannity and his guests attacked the investigation and Mueller for having too much discretion; and
After Comey spoke to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Hannity and his guests ticked up their attacks on Mueller. In the week following Comey’s June 8 testimony to the Senate intelligence committee, Hannity and his guests increased their attacks on the investigation and Mueller, compared to the prior week:
Hannity and his guests called on Mueller to resign or called for his firing 20 times;
Hannity and his guests brought up Mueller’s supposed “conflicts of interest” 40 times; and
Hannity and his guests referred to the investigation as a “witch hunt” four times.
After it was reported that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer, Hannity and his guests attacked Mueller’s “conflicts of interest.” In the week after The New York Times reported on July 8 that Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign officials had met with a Russian lawyer who had ties to the Kremlin in hopes of securing damaging information on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Hannity complained about Mueller’s “conflicts of interest” 18 times.
Following report on Trump’s attempts to discredit the investigation, Hannity launched more attacks on Mueller. In the week following a July 20 New York Times report that claimed Trump and his aides were “looking for conflicts of interest they could use to discredit the investigation — or even build a case to fire Mr. Mueller or get some members of his team recused,” Hannity and his team ratcheted up their attacks on Mueller compared to the prior week:
Hannity and his guests brought up Mueller’s supposed “conflicts of interest” 36 times;
Hannity and his guests claimed 18 times that Mueller’s investigation was compromised because some of his investigators had donated to Democratic politicians;
Hannity and his guests discussed Mueller’s relationship with Comey in order to discredit the investigation seven times;
Hannity and his guests asserted seven times that the investigation was a politically motivated attack; and
Hannity and his guests called the investigation a “witch hunt” four times.
Following reports of Mueller’s use of a grand jury, Hannity and his guests attacked Mueller for his “conflicts” and wide discretion. A week after reports surfaced that Mueller had impaneled a grand jury as part of his investigation, Hannity and his guests made 21 statements attacking Mueller’s “conflicts of interest” and 20 statements asserting Mueller had too much discretion over the investigation.
After the news came out that multiple Trump campaign associates had been indicted, Hannity and his guests attempted to connect Mueller to Uranium One. Between October 30 -- when it was revealed that three Trump campaign aides had been indicted due to Mueller’s investigation -- and November 3, Hannity and his guests made 18 statements attempting to link Mueller to Uranium One and 14 statements complaining about Mueller’s alleged “conflicts of interest.”
Media Matters searched Nexis for transcripts of Fox News’ Hannity between May 17 and November 3 mentioning the words “Mueller” or “special counsel.” Transcripts were then coded for statements -- which in this study we defined as a sentence -- which included the following:
calls for Mueller to resign or recuse himself or calls that he be fired, or suggestions that he never should have been appointed as special counsel;
suggestions that Mueller had a conflict of interest with the investigation;
mentions of Mueller’s investigators who had ties to Democratic lawmakers;
mentions of Mueller’s alleged friendship and relationship with Comey;
questions as to whether Mueller should resign, recuse himself, be fired, or have never been appointed as special counsel;
claims that the investigation is a political attack on Trump, his administration, or his family;
suggestions that the investigation is a “witch hunt”;
claims that Mueller had been given too wide a mandate over the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein;
claims that Mueller had expanded his investigation too far; and
attempts to link Mueller to Uranium One.
Transcripts were reviewed by two independent coders and differences were then reconciled.
The Senate health care bill is dead again after two conservative Republican senators said last night they would not vote to advance the legislation because it does not repeal enough of former President Barack Obama’s signature health law. As GOP leaders scramble to find a new tactic that will allow them to strip health insurance from millions while slashing taxes for the wealthy, President Donald Trump’s media supporters have been left grasping for a message.
The original bill, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assembled through a secretive process and tried to rush through with little public debate, would lead to 22 million more Americans being uninsured at the end of the decade, largely due to cuts to Medicaid; many of those who retain insurance under the bill would pay more for fewer benefits. The bill was amended after the Congressional Budget Office offered that verdict, but the GOP decided not to wait for a new score before moving forward. Democratic senators are universally opposed to the legislation, while the most moderate and conservative Republicans have also refused to sign on, either because it does too much or too little to move away from Obamacare’s improvements to the health care system.
Trump’s propagandists look to him to set the tone for how to respond to bad news. But the message out of the White House has always been incoherent on health care, largely because the president seems to have no real interest in the various, serious policy debates surrounding the future of health insurance for the American people -- he just wants a win. In May, the president held a Rose Garden event to celebrate the passage of the House bill, which he described as a “great plan.” Weeks later, he turned around and privately called that legislation “mean.”
That sort of policy incoherence gets in the way of formulating messaging around legislative setbacks. Last night, for instance, Trump tweeted that “Republicans should just REPEAL failing ObamaCare now & work on a new Healthcare Plan that will start from a clean slate. Dems will join in!” But that tactical messaging completely ignores the question of what a good health care plan would look like, and whether the Senate bill that just went down in flames met that criteria. Without clearly defined heroes and villains or a clear policy vision, his media allies have been left to their own devices. The noise machine is grinding to a halt.
Absent messaging from the top, here are a few ways the pro-Trump media are responding:
Most of Trump’s propagandists are of the opinion that Trump cannot fail; he can only be failed. As such, they’ve quickly turned their fire on McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI).
“I know the president is frustrated with the situation. A lot has been promised to him and not much delivered,” Fox host Kimberly Guilfoyle said last night. “I think this is a failure on the part of the leadership, to be quite honest. Because they needed to get this to stick and to coalesce and get it done.”
“Second failure for Mitch McConnell,” Steve Doocy added on Fox & Friends this morning, pointing to the bill’s previous collapse last month.
Knives out for McConnell on Trump's favorite show Fox & Friends. pic.twitter.com/NHcoO1Sf0d
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) July 18, 2017
Even Matt Drudge is getting in on the act:
— Kendall Breitman (@KendallBreitman) July 18, 2017
If the Senate bill continues to struggle, and Trump doesn’t publicly support McConnell, we could see calls for his replacement in the near future.
Trump’s lack of interest in policy leaves his supporters plenty of room to say that they didn’t like the bill, without creating any dissonance about the fact that the president supported the legislation.
Doocy went after the bill from the start this morning, saying, “Ultimately, what undid this bill is -- the one that they are not going to vote on now -- is it was a lousy bill. I mean, it still had big taxes. It still had a lot of regulations. It had that insurance company subsidy slush fund that Rand Paul was talking about. It was not what the American people” wanted. Notably, since Doocy also has little knowledge of or interest in policy, he can’t really say what a good replacement would look like either, simply saying Congress should “get rid of all that stuff and come up with something new.”
One of the problems Senate Republicans faced in trying to push through health care legislation is that because they knew no bill would attract enough Democratic support to overcome a filibuster, they were trying to pass the bill with a 50-vote threshold through the budget reconciliation process. But that process limits what can actually go into the bill, making full repeal of Obamacare extremely difficult.
In order to sidestep that process, the hosts of Fox & Friends are calling for Senate Republicans to deploy the “nuclear option” and eliminate the filibuster altogether, making all votes subject only to a majority vote. It’s unclear how this would help pass a health care bill since Republicans just demonstrated they don’t have 50 votes in the Senate, but this morning Doocy, co-host Brian Kilmeade, and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer all seemed eager to push through that proposal.
A few hours later, Trump, who regularly watches Fox & Friends, chimed in, tweeting, “The Senate must go to a 51 vote majority instead of current 60 votes. Even parts of full Repeal need 60. 8 Dems control Senate. Crazy!”
For some, the best way to get through a crushing defeat for the president is to downplay that it happened.
Another option is to give up altogether. That’s the current recommendation of Fox News host Eric Bolling, at least until the president makes clear that he’s sticking with health care.
“Let's just say this thing fails. They put it off to the side,” he said on this morning’s Fox & Friends. “They screwed up. They failed. You shore up the individual insurance markets. You put it off to the side. Then you take up something that I think every single American, whether you are Democrat, independent, or Republican, can wrap their brain around, tax reform.”
The good news for the pro-Trump media is that tax reform is a very simple issue with few stakeholders and broad agreement in Congress on a way forward. It also helps that the president has learned important lessons from the health care fight about overconfidence in the face of policy fights.
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Media shouldn’t be so willing to let White House press secretary Sean Spicer off the hook for his comments comparing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler given the implicit and explicit ways President Donald Trump and his administration have embraced white nationalists. No matter how ineffective, Spicer’s comparison is another example of a wink and a nod to the type of hatred that is a part of this White House’s culture.
During an April 11 White House press briefing, Spicer likened Assad to Hitler, telling reporters that unlike Assad, “you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” When he was asked to clarify, Spicer said that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” when in reality the German SS and police used poison gas to asphyxiate millions of Jews in concentration camps (which Spicer called “Holocaust centers” in his comments). After repeatedly trying to explain his comments, Spicer ultimately apologized, calling them “inexcusable and reprehensible.” Meanwhile, white nationalists cheered the remarks, praising the press secretary for exposing the “Jewish gas chamber hoax.”
Media were quick to accept Spicer’s apology and let him off the hook. Fox News’ Kevin Corke called it “heartfelt and … very unequivocal” and added, “he should be able to move on … quickly.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza said, “I’m going to give Sean the benefit of the doubt,” saying Spicer “got himself into a verbal trap and could not get himself out.” On CNN’s New Day, Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to former President George W. Bush, accepted Spicer’s apology, adding that “the notion that this is somehow nefarious or indicative of Holocaust denial, I dismiss.” Additionally, CNN commentator David Axelrod tweeted that Spicer has “apologized” for his comments and it’s “time to move on.”
But this is hardly the first time that Spicer and the Trump administration used obtuse language or offered an implicit nod to the white nationalist community. For instance:
Trump hired Stephen Bannon, who previously ran Breitbart, a "platform for the” white nationalist “alt-right" movement as his chief strategist -- a move that was lavishly praised by white nationalists.
At the end of the presidential campaign, Trump ran an ad that Talking Point Memo’s Josh Marshall wrote was “packed with anti-Semitic dog whistles, anti-Semitic tropes and anti-Semitic vocabulary.” Naturally, Trump’s white nationalist supporters loved it, calling it “absolutely fantastic.”
In a closed-door meeting, Trump reportedly suggested that an onslaught of anti-Semitic incidents were false flags, an assertion repeatedly made by white nationalist media figures. Previously, Trump had refused to condemn the incidents while berating a Jewish reporter.
The White House failed to mention the Jewish people in a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This is in addition to the direct contact Trump and his aides have had with members of the white nationalist community. For instance:
According to The New York Times, Trump has “retweeted supportive messages from racist or nationalist” supporters, including “accounts featuring white nationalist or Nazi themes.”
Former Trump adviser A.J. Delgado retweeted a Trump endorsement from the anti-Semitic hate site The Right Stuff.
Trump’s senior counselor Kellyanne Conway tweeted “love you back” to an anti-Semitic Twitter account.
Media figures are wrong to simply dismiss Spicer’s Holocaust comments as a hiccup. The connections between the Trump team and the white nationalist community are too strong for Spicer’s comments to be treated as a one-off. Spicer’s blunder is emblematic of the administration’s continuing effort to wink and nod at -- and sometimes openly embrace -- its white nationalist supporters.
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Media figures have repeatedly downplayed Trump’s widely criticized rhetoric, policy flip-flops, divisive comments, and refusal to release his tax returns, citing his political inexperience and claiming that unlike other politicians, Trump is “learning as he goes” and must be evaluated “in Donald Trump terms.”
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Earlier this week, Bloomberg View columnist Barry Ritholtz took Art Laffer to task for a piece of economic analysis the former Reagan adviser penned in 2009 that proved drastically wrong. Ritholtz used the column to ask : Why aren't pundits held accountable?
It's an important question, and one that warrants consideration, particularly as unrepentant architects of the Iraq War enter the public sphere to opine on the deteriorating situation in that country.
Following President Obama's speech on the increasing violence in Iraq, Ari Fleischer weighed in on Twitter:
Regardless of what anyone thinks of going into Iraq in 2002, it's a tragedy that the successes of the 2007 surge have been lost & abandoned.
-- Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) June 13, 2014
As critics were quick to point out, it's impossible to have a credible discussion about the situation in Iraq without consideration of how we got there in the first place (also, we actually invaded Iraq in 2003). And it's certainly convenient for Fleischer to wave away questions about the initial invasion given that he helped to sell it as President Bush's press secretary.
Here are some quotes from the former Bush flak that Think Progress assembled in 2007, when Fleischer surfaced as a leading voice behind that year's escalation:
"[T]here's no question that if force is used, it will achieve the objective of preserving the peace far faster than the current path that we're on." [2/14/03]
"My point is, the likelihood is much more like Afghanistan, where the people who live right now under a brutal dictator will view America as liberators, not conquerors." [10/11/02]
"There have been contacts between senior members of -- senior Iraqi officials and members of the al Qaeda organization, going back for quite a long time. ...Iraq provided some training to al Qaeda in chemical weapons development. There are contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda." [1/27/03]
"There is no question that we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical particularly. ... And all this will be made clear in the course of the operation, for whatever duration it takes." [3/21/03]
"[N]o, I don't think there's any chance of losing the peace, but it is going to be a battle to continue to win the peace." [5/19/03]
Fleischer has no apology for what he did -- he'd simply prefer not to speak of it.
The role people like Fleischer played in supporting and selling the invasion of Iraq and whether or not they've assessed that role and found their actions wanting are factors media should consider as they report on current efforts by conservatives to pin all the blame for the current state of that country on President Obama.
This need for pundit accountability isn't limited to Iraq. Earlier this month, Fox News hosted Oliver North to criticize President Obama for negotiating with terrorists to release Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. North, of course, is famous for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which he facilitated the illegal sale of missiles to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. prisoners in Lebanon.
Such pundit antics are par for the course at Fox, which hosts Judy Miller to discuss Middle East weapons of mass destruction, Mark Fuhrman to opine on race, and "heckuva job" Michael Brown to talk about disaster relief.
Right-wing media denied the effectiveness of anti-poverty policies in response to President Obama's recent push to reduce income inequality, instead hyping marriage as a preferable economic solution. But experts have rejected that notion, citing a systemic lack of economic opportunity as a more critical issue.
Stressing style over substance, lots of Beltway pundits teamed up with Republican partisans to push the theater criticism point that Vice President Joe Biden may have blown last night's debate with his body language. Specifically, critics are complaining he smiled and chuckled too much while Rep. Paul Ryan was speaking.
Even after CBS News' snap poll showed that Biden had scored a big win with undecided voters, pundits and Republicans suggested Biden's facial expressions, not the substance of his comments, were newsworthy.
From the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin:
And BuzzFeed's Ben Smith:
The media effort is reminiscent of when pundits and Republicans teamed up on Al Gore after his first presidential debate with George W. Bush in 2000. Back then, they pushed the line that Gore had sighed too often in response to Bush's answers. History shows that right after the debate viewers crowned Gore the winner of the face-off. But after the media's sigh initiative, Bush was perceived to have won the debate. Today, Gore's sighs are routinely referenced as debate blunders. ("Utterly insufferable," Esquire recently wrote.)
It's unlikely the press can turn Biden's strong showing into a stinging defeat, in part because the 2000 sigh episode was part of a much larger anti-Gore press push. But it's telling how seamlessly the mainstream press joined with Republican operatives to launch post-debate (style) spin targeting Biden last night and trying to tie him to Gore's performance.
From former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer:
And the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza:
In its piece, "Is Joe Biden The New Al Gore?" Politico reported that "at least among some pundits and Republican strategists: it reminded them of Al Gore's infamous sighs in the 2000 presidential debates against George W. Bush, which were enough to seriously hurt Gore's candidacy." [Emphasis added.]
Politico stressed that Gore's sighs were "universally panned by pundit" are now "remembered as one of the standout aspects of the debates that year." What's lost in that rewriting is that Gore actually won the first debate. The Associated Press reported on October 4, 2000 that Gore had won three out of four snap polls conducted that night.
Blogger Bob Somerby meticulously documented Gore's press treatment during the 2000 campaign. He recently revisited the infamous sighs:
Did George Bush win that first debate? Only after the press corps began playing videotaped loops of Gore's troubling sighs (with the volume cranked, of course).
Debates matter. But so can the media's lazy style spin.