On Fox & Friends Sunday, Rep. Devin Nunes announces that he will seek to hold Jeff Sessions in contempt of Congress
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The Republican Party has increasingly created and used political microsites designed to look like local news sites as a political tactic. Here’s why that’s bad for democracy.
Last fall, Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward touted an endorsement from the Arizona Monitor on her Facebook page. Ward’s campaign must have really liked the endorsement because it reprinted it in full on her campaign website. But what is the Arizona Monitor? Is it a local news site? A blog covering local politics in Arizona? Or is it something else entirely?
A Politico investigation found that the Arizona Monitor “launched just a few weeks before publishing the endorsement, and its domain registration is hidden, masking the identity of its owner. On its Facebook page, it is classified as a news site, but scant other information is offered.” Inquiries to Arizona politicos didn’t turn up anything either, with some telling the outlet that “they could only scratch their heads” and were befuddled by the site’s background.
There’s nothing wrong with a local political blog supporting Ward’s campaign, or Ward’s team touting a friendly endorsement on her campaign website and social media. But political campaigns are notoriously overcautious about what they post on social media. Campaigns don’t normally highlight an endorsement from entities no one has heard of, especially when it launched just a few weeks prior. Politico noted that Ward denied any knowledge about the site on Facebook. Given that, there are two obvious questions: Is Arizona Monitor a phony news site meant to fool voters on Kelli Ward’s behalf? If so, who exactly is paying for it?
We may never know who was behind the Arizona Monitor, as the site crumbled quickly after coming under scrutiny. Initially, it posted an article defending itself, but as I was writing this the website was deleted, as well as the site’s Twitter and Facebook pages. Local political blogs don’t generally operate this way; they relish being attacked by larger media outlets (the posture Arizona Monitor initially took) and do not disappear suddenly when attacked. Given its hasty exit from the internet, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that Arizona Monitor was some kind of front.
Republican campaigns and entities creating campaign microsites designed to look like local news sites to support their candidates is nothing new. In 2014, the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) created a series of phony news sites meant to mimic local news sites. The sites included a disclaimer at the bottom but otherwise made no indication that they were the product of a Republican campaign committee. An NRCC spokesperson at the time called it a “new and effective way to disseminate information to voters.” And last year, the Republican Governors Association (RGA) tried its hand at running its own microsite disguised as news site. As Media Matters senior fellow Matt Gertz noted at the time:
FreeTelegraph.com resembles any of a host of hyperpartisan conservative websites that purport to share news. The website’s home page and articles emphasize social media sharing buttons and large photos; the pieces are brief and feature block quotes from other sources instead of original reporting or commentary. But while most right-wing hyperpartisan sites feature pieces supporting President Donald Trump and savaging his foes, FreeTelegraph.com employs a single-minded focus, with every article aiming to praise a Republican governor or gubernatorial candidate or criticize a Democratic one, with a particular focus on GOP targets in Virginia (24 articles), Connecticut (13), and Rhode Island (11).
The website is still active.
In Maine, the state Democratic Party recently filed a complaint with the state’s ethics agency alleging that the Maine Examiner, an anonymously owned news site covering Maine politics, made illegal expenditures in a local mayor’s race and that they might have coordinated with the Maine Republican Party as well.
More recently, Politico reported that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), apparently not content to let the NRCC handle his fake news needs, has a phony news site entirely paid for by his campaign committee. The website CARepublican.com, which Nunes refused to discuss with Politico, has a proper, if tiny, disclaimer but no other indication that it is a campaign website rather than an actual local news site or blog.
But my personal favorite political phony news proprietor is GOP political consultant Dan Backer, who’s turned fake news into a money maker for his pro-Trump super PACs by using them to drive email sign ups and donations. A BuzzFeed investigation last summer found:
Along with AAN [American Action News], Backer or his company, DB Capitol Strategies, is listed as the owner of conservative news domains AmericanUpdate.com, TrumpTrainNews.com, and GOPPresidential.com. Two other news sites — Truedaily.news and ICYMInews.com — link out heavily to the Backer-connected web properties, and use the same Google AdSense and Analytics codes as AAN and the three other sites. Truedaily.news and ICYMInews.com are also hosted on the same server as GOPPresidential.com — yet another piece of evidence to suggest they too are part of the network of sites connected to Backer. (The server in question hosts only those three websites.)
Backer’s political fake news game is a whole new level, combining grassroots digital engagement with clickbait to build lists of supporters his super PACs can message and activate.
Last week, I wrote about how Trump supporters share the most “junk news” online. Given that, it would seem predictable that Republicans would skip the middleman and just create the content themselves. Even better if they can use said content to raise funds for their political activities.
But what might work for the Republican Party in the short term is terrible for democracy. A recent Knight News/Gallup survey found trust in media and views on what is or isn’t fake news was increasingly viewed through a partisan lens. Whereas liberals and Democrats get their news from more mainstream media outlets, conservatives increasingly rely on only right and far-right sources in their news consumption. News sites -- run by the GOP about the GOP -- risk shrinking that filter bubble even further. If this trend continues, and phony GOP news sites increase in popularity, conservatives could reach a point where much of the political news they consume would come directly from the Republican Party and associated campaign committees.
Congressional Republicans team up with a credulous right-wing media to undermine the FBI’s Trump investigation
Sarah Wasko / Media Matters
The crusade by the Republican Party and its media allies to discredit the FBI’s investigation of President Donald Trump and his campaign is a fantastically dishonest and propagandistic farce, and the whole effort is conducted with transparent bad faith while grotesquely masquerading as an exercise in good-government oversight. The mechanism driving this disinformation campaign is a pipeline of bullshit that originates with Republicans in Congress, flows directly through Fox News, and sometimes ends up spilling out all over the president’s Twitter feed.
To date, there have been two high-profile congressional sources for the “scandals” that have powered conservative media coverage of the FBI’s Trump investigation: Senate homeland security committee chair Ron Johnson (R-WI) and House intelligence committee chair Devin Nunes (R-CA). Both have been repeatedly caught lying and ginning up controversy where there is none, and both have had phenomenal success in propagating falsehoods through conservative media outlets that don’t care whether what they report is true or not.
Late last month, Johnson went on Fox News to talk about “corruption at the highest levels of the FBI” as evidenced by a text message conversation between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page that referenced a “secret society” -- presumably a cabal of powerful individuals plotting to illegitimately tar Trump’s presidency. The “secret society” talking point quickly permeated conservative media and became a focal point of outrage.
A couple of days later, the truth about the “secret society” text came out -- it was an obvious joke between the two officials. There was no secret society, and Johnson backpedaled by acknowledging the “real possibility” that the supposedly nefarious text message he’d highlighted as proof of a conspiracy just days earlier might, in fact, be nothing more than a gag.
Just a couple of weeks after that, Johnson was at it again. His committee released an “interim report” on the FBI’s investigation of the Clinton email scandal that once again highlighted specific texts between Strzok and Page. Among them was a September 2, 2016, text from Page regarding the creation of talking points for then-FBI Director James Comey. Page wrote that then-President Barack Obama “wants to know everything we’re doing.” According to the report, “This text raises additional questions about the type and extent of President Obama’s personal involvement in the Clinton email scandal and the FBI investigation of it.”
Fueled by a credulous Fox News write-up of Johnson’s report, the text message shot like an electrical current through the conservative media, which leaped on Johnson’s suggestion that Obama might have meddled with the FBI’s investigation into Clinton. The president himself got in on the dissemination, tweeting that the “NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS” not long after his favorite Fox News morning program ran a segment on the report.
And, once again, it all turned out to be false. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, the text was referring to a briefing on Russian election interference, not a Clinton matter. The FBI’s Clinton investigation was closed by the time Page sent the text.
Devin Nunes’ contributions to the fog of disinformation include last year’s “unmasking” fiasco, in which Nunes -- acting on information fed to him by the Trump White House -- wrongly accused Obama national security officials of inappropriately exposing the identities of Trump aides captured on wiretaps. More recently, Nunes wrote a report that all but accused the FBI of illicitly obtaining a warrant to surveil a former Trump aide. The report’s key contention -- that the FBI hid the political origins of some of the evidence in its warrant application -- was quickly debunked.
In each of these examples, the lies spread rapidly and had ample time to become entrenched as part of a conservative media narrative before the facts undermining them could be established. Claims that former Obama officials inappropriately “unmasked” Trump associates and that an anti-Trump “secret society” exists within the FBI formed the bases of countless Fox News prime time monologues before they were debunked. After the truth came out, the lies were either quietly shelved (per a Nexis search, Sean Hannity mentioned the “secret society” in three straight Fox News shows after Johnson highlighted it on January 23, but hasn’t brought it up since) or kept alive as nefarious-sounding buzzwords (casual, unelaborated references to “unmasking” still come up regularly in Hannity rants).
The presence and power of the conservative echo chamber means that Republicans in Congress like Johnson and Nunes don’t really have to care when the obvious lies they’re peddling get debunked. They have a receptive audience for whatever conspiratorial claim they can manufacture, and they can be confident that they’ll face no factual challenge to their nonsense so long as they limit their media appearances to Fox News and other conservative safe spaces.
Hannity in early January: “All this information about” alleged FISA abuses “will finally now see the light of day”
Almost a month before Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) chose to publicly release what was a classified and partisan memo written by intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) alleging Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) abuses by the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ), Fox host Sean Hannity appeared to have advanced knowledge of some of the claims laid out in the Nunes memo. Almost a month prior to the memo’s public release, Hannity was hyping “shocking information … that will show systemic FISA abuse” and bragged that the media will “be forced to cover this story.”
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The same people who loudly demanded the Nunes memo be released won’t be bothered by its underwhelming “revelations”
After far more drama and tension than should have been necessary, the infamous House intelligence committee memo on alleged surveillance abuses by the FBI against President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was released. And it was, predictably, a hilarious and self-defeating flop, but that fact won’t discourage Trump’s most slavish acolytes from claiming the Russia “hoax” has been exposed.
This was actually a bit sad for me. I was holding out an irrational hope that House intelligence chair Rep. Devin Nunes, in the course of his day-to-day duties of abusing the committee’s oversight role to shield the president from political damage, might have accidentally stumbled into some real FBI malfeasance. After all, the government has granted itself vast surveillance powers and shielded itself from public accountability through secrecy and classification, making it extraordinarily difficult to know if and when abuses of those powers occur.
But, alas, the memo was a bust. It didn’t really tell us anything that hadn’t already been leaked or guessed, and it actually undermined a critical point Donald Trump and his defenders hoped the memo would bolster.
Nunes’ document alleges that FBI investigators relied in part on a dossier compiled by ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele to obtain a FISA warrant against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, and that the government failed to “accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts” about the dossier when applying for and reauthorizing the warrant. Those “relevant facts” do not have anything to do with the accuracy of the information contained within the dossier, which Nunes’ memo doesn’t address.
Rather, the memo complains that the government did not disclose the “political origins” of the dossier -- specifically the fact that Democratic groups helped fund it and that Steele himself showed “clear evidence” of bias against Trump -- when presenting its case before a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) judge. The memo doesn’t actually make any allegations, but it strongly implies that Justice Department officials deliberately withheld this information to illicitly obtain and reauthorize surveillance of Page.
None of us have any way of knowing how legally significant these claims of bias would have been, however, because Nunes’ memo doesn’t lay out the government’s case against Page in any detail. Nor does it provide the name of the FISC judge who heard the evidence. In fact, it doesn’t provide any information one would need to gauge the validity of its implications. Instead, the memo strongly suggests that the Steele dossier was the critical component to the case against Page (while it conveniently omits the fact that he was on the radar of counterintelligence officials as far back as 2013).
This is important because Trump and his defenders are heavily invested in the notion that the whole Russia investigation originated from the Steele dossier, which they loudly insist is discredited and total bunk. The memo, however, accidentally disproves that allegation. In a sloppy attempt to gild what is already an unimpressive lily, Nunes’ memo vaguely alleges bias by noting that investigators mentioned a different Trump associate, George Papadopoulos, in its warrant application for Page. “The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016,” the memo notes, thus corroborating a New York Times report that the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russia contacts began with Papadopoulos, not the Steele dossier.
But all of this is immaterial to the people who had already decided what the memo would say before they even saw it. Nunes, with allies in the conservative media, mounted an effective PR campaign around this document while it was still under wraps and advertised it as an earth-shaking and world-historic revelation of anti-Trump corruption and bias at the highest levels of government. Sean Hannity (who is denying reports that he advised Trump to approve the memo’s release) hyped the memo earlier this week by saying “this makes Watergate like stealing a Snickers bar from a drug store.” Former Trump White House official Sebastian Gorka grandiloquently declared that the memo’s revelations would be “100 times bigger” than the abuses that precipitated the American Revolution.
The memo, of course, comes nowhere close to matching that absurd hyperbole; it’s impossible to assert that the memo even points to a minor scandal at this point. So, now, these same Trump lackeys will set about to loudly exaggerating or flat-out lying about the memo’s contents so that it fits their pre-formed conclusion. It's already happening: right-wing pundits are saying the "devastating" memo undermines special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump. The same people who spent weeks loudly demanding that the memo be released won’t be bothered by what the memo actually says. All they’re interested in his how they can use it to discredit the intensifying federal investigation into the president and his associates.
The Daily Beast reported President Donald Trump “has been in regular contact with” Fox News host Sean Hannity in recent weeks about the release of a memo drafted by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) critical of the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and his ties to Russia.
According to The Daily Beast, Trump has spoken with Hannity regularly “over the phone” about releasing the memo. The report echoes earlier reports from the New York Times, which alleged Hannity “had for months peppered Mr. Trump, his family members and advisers with suggestions on strategy and messaging,” and from the Los Angeles Times, which reported Hannity had called Trump and advised the president on immigration. From the the Daily Beast:
According to three sources with knowledge of their conversations, Trump has been in regular contact with Hannity over the phone in recent weeks, as the Fox News primetime star and Trump ally has encouraged the prompt release of a controversial four page memo crafted by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. Hannity has gone to the wall to push for the public release of the memo, which the Intelligence Committee and its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), authorized this week in a party-line vote despite the classified information therein.
Sources say Hannity’s persistent advocacy reinforced Trump’s already growing determination to get that memo into the public realm—despite huge potential fallout within the law enforcement and intelligence arms of his own administration.
In their conversations, Trump and Hannity discussed the Nunes memo’s supposed bombshell-level significance, and how it could shed light on the alleged anti-Trump bias and “corruption” at the FBI. On these calls, Trump has directly referenced specific recent Hannity segments related to #ReleaseTheMemo, according to one of three sources with knowledge of their conversations.
"Senior counselor to the president, Sean H[annity]," one senior White House official joked to The Daily Beast this week.
In recent weeks, Hannity has used his radio show to attack the FBI’s criticism of Nunes’ memo, and directed listeners to “call Congress now” and “say, ‘Release the memo.’” Hannity has also repeatedly and publicly called for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to be removed.
While Hannity advises the president on Nunes’ memo, Fox News anchor Shep Smith noted how the memo is intended as “a weapon of partisan mass distraction." From January 25:
Many who have seen the memo say it's misleading, distracting, and lacking context. The memo itself is in the conservative discussion mix while the special counsel investigating Russian interference in our democracy is apparently about to interview the president of the United States while seeking to determine whether he's colluded with the Russians or obstructed justice. A memo can be a weapon of partisan mass distraction, especially in a pivotal moment in American history when it behooves the man in charge for supporters to believe the institutions can't be trusted, investigators are corrupt, and the news media are liars. Context matters.
Update: On February 1, Sean Hannity responded on Twitter to The Daily Beast's report, calling it "Fake news" and saying on his show, Hannity, "people in the media were saying that I'm advising him on the memo. ... You can't advise this president, he's such his own man."
SEAN HANNITY (HOST): By the way people in the media were saying that I’m advising him on the memo. First of all, you can’t advise this president, he’s such his own man. You can’t tell him not to tweet. He follows his own ways. And I’m saying it every night, call your congressman, release the memo, hello.
Update: Crooked Media's Brian Beutler adds a notable point:
It’s ok that Trump is talking to Hannity about a classified memo on an unsecured phone because there’s no private email server involved.
— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) February 2, 2018
Right-wing and fringe media are claiming yet again that President Donald Trump was correct when he accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping in Trump Tower, now arguing that a legal wiretap targeted at former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is proof of Trump’s claim. However, said wiretap was pursuant to a warrant and targeted at Manafort, not Trump. This is at least the fifth time in six months right-wing media has attempted to validate Trump’s lie.
The Washington Post reported that the FBI obtained a FISA warrant to investigate Trump associate Carter Page during the summer of 2016. The warrant was legally obtained through the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court. Right-wing media outlets falsely claimed that the FBI investigation into Page is evidence that supports Donald Trump’s accusations that the Obama administration illegally wiretapped him, despite multiple intelligence experts and even GOP Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) calling Trump’s claim is false.
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Right-wing media figures and fringe outlets are taking a weeks-old interview with Evelyn Farkas, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under President Barack Obama, out of context to claim she “admitted” that the Obama administration surveilled President Donald Trump’s campaign and that it proves Trump was right when he claimed Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. But Farkas did not mention surveillance in the interview; instead, she discussed a New York Times article about preserving intelligence related to Trump and Russia. The claims are yet another attempt by right-wing and fringe media to bolster Trump’s allegation that Obama wiretapped him, which the intelligence community and government officials have repeatedly debunked.
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