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Tibbetts' family should be able to grieve their daughter without becoming political props
As Trump associates keep getting indicted, found guilty, and agree to plea deals while surrendering themselves to the FBI, pro-Trump media have seized on the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, and they are exploiting it for their own purposes. The body of Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student, was discovered on August 21 and her alleged killer has been charged with first degree murder. While a lot of news coverage and social media conversation has centered around Cohen, Manafort and why their dual felony convictions are disastrous news for President Donald Trump, some members of right-wing media and their supporters on social media have instead chosen to politicize Tibbetts’ death -- ignoring her family’s own grief and objections -- in an effort to distract from these bombshell stories.
Below are just a few examples of what the Tibbetts’ family members are having to deal with, just a day after Tibbetts’ body was found:
Former Speaker of the House and conservative pundit Newt Gingrich emailed reporters about how Tibbetts’ death was potentially good news for Republicans in the fall, provided they could exploit it enough.
Turning Point USA communications director and right wing social media star Candace Owens got into an argument on Twitter with someone who says she is Tibbetts’ second cousin, accusing her of hating Trump and his supporters more than Tibbetts’ alleged murderer.
what the hell is candace owens doing pic.twitter.com/hYoPLsC9PV
— Caleb Hull (@CalebJHull) August 22, 2018
Fox News contributor Sebastian Gorka, Fox News contributor Tom Homan (the former acting director of ICE), Fox News guest Jonna Spilbor, CRTV host Eric Bolling, and Breitbart editor-at-large Joel Pollak cited the murder as a reason to build a wall on America’s border with Mexican border. Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren, and Fox News guest Mike Huckabee cited the murder as a reason to end the policy of “sanctuary cities.”
Mike Cernovich used the occasion to promote his involvement with Republican Senate candidate Kelli Ward’s campaign. Ward has already run a Facebook ad on the matter.
Mollie Tibbetts' murder happened because of open borders, there is no vetting, no control.
Will Martha McSally debate Kelli Ward on the Wall?
— Mike Cernovich 🇺🇸 (@Cernovich) August 22, 2018
In a particularly dark note, users on 4chan and 8chan have been actively celebrating Tibbetts’ death. Anonymous postings on these message boards have been highlighting an old tweet of hers and claiming she got what she deserved because of a combination of her political views and her gender. Mentions of Tibbetts on these boards spiked just as the Manafort and Cohen stories were dominating news coverage. Other far right communities have pushed the meme as well. And the neo-nazi site Daily Stormer published a misogynist screed in the same vein.
Tibbetts’ aunt took to Facebook the evening of August 21 and begged others not to politicize her niece’s murder, writing, “Please remember, Evil comes in EVERY color. Our family has been blessed to be surrounded by love, friendship and support throughout this entire ordeal by friends from all different nations and races. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.”
Grieving families shouldn’t have to make statements like this. They shouldn’t have to beg politicians and media figures not to exploit the tragic death of a loved one. They shouldn’t have to watch in real time as their loved one is defamed and dehumanized until her memory is merely a caricature to be memed on the internet in perpetuity. But that’s exactly what happens. Right-wing media exploit tragedies and rewrite biographies of victims in the blink of an eye. They have no consideration for the victims they claim to care about or the grieving families and friends they’ve left behind.
Additional Research by Nick Fernandez, Natalie Martinez, and Katie Sullivan.
Gorka's been cashing in on his ties to Trump while railing against "the swamp"
It’s been almost a year since off-brand James Bond supervillain Sebastian Gorka was fired or resigned (definitely fired) from his ill-defined job in Donald Trump’s White House, and Gorka is still finding ways to monetize his seven months of public pseudo service. He’s followed some well-worn D.C. insider tracks by signing on as a Fox News contributor and guest lecturer at the Heritage Foundation, but he’s also running a side hustle squeezing speaking fees and the occasional “honorarium” out of Republican congressional candidates.
Since last December, Gorka has pulled in nearly $18,000 from GOP candidates seeking federal office, according to Federal Election Commission filings. His $2,500 check from Virginia’s E.W. Jackson, $5,000 speaking fee from Nevada Republican Danny Tarkanian, and $5,240 payment from Arizona GOP Senate candidate Kelli Ward have been previously reported. But the FEC database recently added an additional $5,000 payment to Gorka from Ward’s campaign dated April 16 and tagged as “Event Cost - Speaker.”
In exchange for the thousands of dollars it costs to have Gorka speak on their behalf, these candidates get a full dose of the only commodity Gorka has to offer: his proximity to Trump.
Here’s one of the speeches Gorka gave on behalf of Kelli Ward -- it largely consists of Gorka talking about how Trump is the greatest and oh by the way, he was once Gorka’s boss. “This is a woman who gets things done, just like somebody else I know. … I want to talk to you about my old boss, OK? ... What’s he really like behind closed doors? What’s he like in the Oval? … We flew on Air Force One to Youngstown, Ohio.” In that same speech, in which he transformed his connections to the politically powerful into monetary gain for himself, Gorka railed against “the swamp.”
Obviously this is a good deal for Gorka; all he has to do is show up and ramble for a few minutes about the president and he gets a tidy little sum to finance his suede-vest-and-tourniquet lifestyle. But is it worth it for these campaigns to pay Gorka to hear him drone quite Britishly about the unblemished greatness of Donald Trump?
Yeah, probably … for now. Ever since the 2016 election, Republican politics has devolved into a grim and undignified competition over who can best communicate their slavish and self-debasing loyalty to the president. For as long as that dynamic lasts, having a Trump-adjacent minor celebrity like Gorka on hand to lend a bit of insider credibility doesn’t hurt, just so long as everyone agrees to overlook the fact that the transactional nature of the relationship is the very essence of the “swamp” they all claim to loathe.
Gorka’s sinecure at Fox News is also quite swampy. As I wrote when Gorka was first hired by the right-wing cable network as a “national security strategist,” Gorka had no actual national security role in the White House, and real security experts view him as a jumped-up charlatan. He’s functionally useless at the specific role Fox News hired him for, and Fox News apparently acknowledges as much.
The Daily Beast reported last week that the network has effectively banned Gorka from appearing on its supposed “hard news” programming and siloed him to its rabidly pro-Trump opinion shows: Hannity, Fox & Friends, etc. “Fox’s news division simply does not view Gorka as credible enough to regularly comment on subjects on which Gorka has branded himself a longtime expert, or to analyze the administration of which he was a member,” The Daily Beast reported. (Gorka is also apparently passing around fake Fox News business cards, just to add to the aura of sadness.)
Once again, Gorka’s only valuable contribution to Fox News is his relationship to Trump, who apparently loves watching Gorka’s cable hits. The network’s pro-Trump propagandists understand this, so they invite the nominal “national security strategist” to bark about whatever story they’re chasing on a given evening. Sometimes those stories are national security-related, but more often than not Gorka is brought on to inveigh against the media or the Russia investigation or “the cesspit, the cesspool that is Hollywood.” It’s a racket that’s made possible only by the president’s affection for Gorka’s brand of combative nonsense.
Gorka is a bleak manifestation of this rancid era in politics. Through dogged loyalty to a corrupt politician, he briefly rose to an official position that far exceeded his qualifications. Now he’s running tidy little scams wherever he can and eagerly invoicing whomever is willing to hear increasingly stale anecdotes about his undistinguished few months spent in service to Donald Trump.
During a July 23 press conference, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that President Donald Trump is considering revoking the security clearances of several former high-ranking U.S. officials. Right-wing media figures -- including several people on Trump’s favorite cable network, Fox News -- have pushed the possibility of pulling the clearances of these officials in recent months, and have boosted Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) recent efforts on the matter.
According to Sanders, Trump is taking aim at the clearances of former CIA Director John Brennan, former FBI Director James Comey, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden, former National Security Agency Director Susan Rice, and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
On April 30, conspiracy theory site The Gateway Pundit published an article complaining that “corrupt” and “Trump-hating” Brennan and Clapper still had clearances despite “working with the ‘destroy Trump media.’” Less than a month later, Fox News strategist Sebastian Gorka called for the Trump administration to revoke clearances of former officials during an appearance on Fox News’ Hannity. Gorka argued that Trump “needs to pull the clearances of Clapper, Comey, Brennan, and Hillary [Clinton].” Guest host Jeanine Pirro responded, “Hold on a second. These people are not in office anymore, and they still have security clearances?” She then agreed with Gorka, saying that Trump ought to “take their security clearance.”
More recently, Sen. Paul has begun to champion stripping the former officials of their clearances, and right-wing media has been happy to publicize his efforts. On July 20, Fox’s Tucker Carlson hosted him to discuss the issue, calling it “terrifying” that “out-of-the-closet extremist” John Brennan still has a clearance, arguing that Brennan “is not the only reckless partisan with a history of dishonest who retains a security clearance," and complaining that James Clapper and Michael Hayden also still have clearances.
And just this morning, The Gateway Pundit published a post headlined "Senator Rand Paul Meeting With Trump to Request John Brennan’s Security Clearance Be Revoked."
Despite right-wing media’s calls and the White House’s apparent interest, it is unclear whether all of these officials still have clearances at this point.
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On May 31, CBS News reported on retaliatory tariffs from Canada, Mexico, and the European Union, targeting numerous products including American steel and aluminum, playing cards, motorcycles, and tobacco. European Commission president Jean-Paul Juncker said that Trump’s move “leaves us with no choice but to proceed … with the imposition of additional duties on a number of imports from the U.S.”
News reports and experts say the tariffs will hurt Americans in a number of ways. Though the steel and aluminum industries stand to benefit, “almost every US industry” that uses these metals will be faced with higher manufacturing costs, which “will likely get passed on to consumers.” These higher costs could “kill hundreds of thousands of jobs” as companies scramble to offset artificially high prices. Retaliatory tariffs levied by other nations are threatening a wide range of businesses, from agriculture to commercial production. According to The New York Times, even Trump’s own Council of Economic Advisers concluded that the tariffs would hamper economic growth.
But media coverage of U.S. allies’ responses to Trump’s economic attack centered on the sensationalism and drama of the moment. Though CNN interviewed or cited economists in a few segments on the tariffs’ effects for American workers and business, the majority of the punditry focused on the shock value of levying tariffs against U.S. allies. CNN also interviewed Stephen Moore, a Trump campaign economic advisor whom CNN hired as its in-house defender of the president who dodged policy questions to muddy the facts and obsequiously push the Trump agenda (which is how interviews with former or current Trump officials usually go); the network did not interview any workers who could potentially be hurt by the retaliatory tariffs.
Fox News, meanwhile, played up the personal drama Trump incited with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Fox personalities said that “the public spat between these world leaders [Trump and Trudeau] is something to watch,” argued that Trudeau should “maybe … realize it’s not personal,” and generally attacked Trudeau for, among other things, “trying to out-alpha President Trump.” Lou Dobbs hailed Trump’s defeat of our allies’ “globalist conspiracy,” and on Dobbs’ show, sworn Nazi sympathizer Sebastian Gorka denounced Canada’s response to Trump because Canada “started it.” When Fox figures tried to analyze the tariffs, they usually didn’t get beyond spouting worn-out taglines such as the electorate wanted the “disrupter-in-chief” to provide “a complete change in direction.” Jesse Watters got creative, however, when he positively compared Trump’s tariffs to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, a 1930 tariff commonly understood to have “exacerbated the Great Depression.” (Fox & Friends did feature one dairy farmer who, predictably, supported Trump’s agenda.)
Much of the coverage on MSNBC also focused on the spectacle and/or provided a superficial analysis of Trump’s actions. But anchors Stephanie Ruhle and Ali Velshi, along with correspondent Vaughn Hillyard, did do substantial reporting on how the tariffs might impact American laborers, coverage which often included the workers themselves, during their combined three hours of hosting time., Velshi and Ruhle dedicated segments to explaining the far-reaching nature of the tariffs from U.S. allies (as well as an earlier round of tariffs from China) and how they might affect laborers and consumers alike.
Ruhle, Velshi, and Hillyard notwithstanding, a common facet of tariff coverage was, as Fox & Friends Weekend co-host Pete Hegseth said, the “unpredictability” of the situation, because it “makes for good TV.” With Friday’s White House announcement of another $50 billion in tariffs against Chinese products, media need to move beyond the drama and focus on the substance and the potential devastation to some Americans.
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Conservatives often bemoan liberal dominance of Hollywood. But since Donald Trump’s election, Fox News’ Sean Hannity has built the closest thing the right wing has to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the wildly successful superhero franchise. Where Marvel’s superheroes fight alien invaders, the stars of the Sean Hannity Expanded Universe (SHEU) position themselves as the last bulwark against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. But while the superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fight villains like Thanos on their own, Hannity and his compatriots want to go a step further and enlist their audience to support a frightening and anti-democratic response by Trump.
Hannity has cast himself as his series’ Iron Man, the only visionary clear-sighted enough to identify an existential threat. The sprawling team assembled around him includes bankable leads, aging stars seeking new relevance, promising new faces, and ensemble players, all crossing over into each other’s storylines to build common narratives. Their overarching tale is that Mueller’s Russia probe is a “witch hunt,” the result of the fabrications of a shadowy cabal of journalists, Democrats, and “deep state” operatives. The happy ending they seek is the president saving himself by curtailing Mueller’s probe and instead ordering investigations into his political enemies.
For more about Hannity's conspiratorial narrative and the authoritarian endgame he's pushing, see our study reviewing his coverage of the first year of the Mueller probe.
President Trump is simultaneously the audience for this story, the victim who needs to be saved, and, in Hannity’s telling, the potential hero. The SHEU’s proposed solution to the Mueller investigation is in line with the authoritarian model for law enforcement Trump prefers, casting the Justice Department’s function as protecting the president and punishing his enemies. Unlike Marvel fans, Trump is able not merely to watch members of the SHEU on Fox broadcasts, but to break the fourth wall and go on their shows for fawning interviews, highlight particular segments for his Twitter followers, promote their programs and books, and even call on a select few for advice.
That might be a fanboy’s fantasy. But it has real and frightening consequences. The SHEU is reaching out from the Fox News screen and encouraging the president to act on his authoritarian impulses. Hannity and his teammates are preparing their viewers to support Trump no matter what norms he shatters. They have great power, and if Trump takes their advice, they will bear great responsibility.
Anti-Mueller conspiracy theories have permeated nearly every corner of Fox. But only the true stalwarts merit inclusion in the Sean Hannity Expanded Universe:
A weekly guest spot with the Fox & Friends crew helped turn Trump into a political phenomenon, and he’s remained a loyal viewer throughout his presidency. If you see Trump angrily tweeting about the Mueller probe early in the morning, Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, Brian Kilmeade, or one of their guests is almost certainly responsible.
Lou Dobbs’ cable news career seemed over when his bigoted commentary finally forced CNN to push him out in 2009, but he soon found a new home at Fox Business. Even at Fox, he’s distinguished himself as a shameless pro-Trump sycophant whose calls to not just fire but jail Mueller and the FBI and Justice Department leaders who have defied Trump are genuinely unnerving.
A longtime friend of Trump’s whom he considered for a senior Justice Department position, Jeanine Pirro has a Saturday night program that’s a must-watch for both White House aides and observers hoping to predict Trump’s messaging. She drew attention for her disturbing call for a “cleansing” of the FBI and DOJ and the arrests of top officials she considers insufficiently loyal to the president.
Gregg Jarrett spent much of his career as a marginal legal commentator and weekend Fox anchor. But he raised his profile by becoming the go-to analyst for hosts like Dobbs and Hannity, who value having someone with a law degree claim that Trump’s associates are innocent because collusion isn’t a crime and condemn their FBI pursuers for acting like “the old KGB.”
Jarrett’s a hack, but at least he’s Fox’s hack. Other attorneys regularly called upon to dismiss the investigation include Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow and the husband-and-wife team of Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova, who were briefly considered for Trump’s legal team and have represented several figures under Mueller's investigation. All three are mainstays in the right-wing legal community -- and each has done legal work for Hannity.
Once colleagues at the right-wing website Circa News, John Solomon has moved on to The Hill while Sara Carter is a Fox contributor who publishes her reporting at her personal blog. Their slanted reporting based on conservative sources helps fuel anti-Mueller Fox hosts eager for information confirming their dire theories, and it garners the pair regular appearances throughout the SHEU -- and Hannity’s call to award them with Pulitzer Prizes.
A former Secret Service agent, Dan Bongino parlayed three failed bids for federal office into a career as a mid-level right-wing pundit, a gig on the National Rifle Association's media operation NRATV, and regular appearances on Fox & Friends and Hannity. Keep an eye on this one -- someone willing to call the Russia probe “an obvious frame job” could go far in this morally bankrupt movement.
After spending years attacking the ethics of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton now uses his Fox appearances to urge Trump to pardon everyone implicated by the Mueller probe and describe the FBI as “a KGB-type operation.”
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Two reports over the weekend revealed that Israeli operatives were hired to collect information on two former officials of President Barack Obama’s administration in order to discredit them, allegedly at the behest of the Trump administration. Simultaneously, Sebastian Gorka, who at the time was deputy assistant to the president, was repeatedly going on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show to smear the same officials.
According to reports in The Observer and The New Yorker, “people in the Trump camp” hired Israeli operatives “to find incriminating material on Obama diplomats who negotiated” the Iran deal. The two aides targeted were Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser to Obama, and Colin Kahl, who was deputy assistant to Obama. The New Yorker reported that in May and June of 2017, Rhodes’ and Kahl’s wives began receiving suspicious emails that now appear “to be part of an undercover campaign by an Israeli private-intelligence firm to discredit Obama officials.”
At the time the Israeli operatives were allegedly trying to dig up dirt on the two officials, Gorka, then deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, was running his own smear campaign against the two with Hannity's help. Gorka repeatedly appeared on his show to vilify Rhodes and Kahl by linking them to “the deep state” and accusing them of being a danger to and jeopardizing national security.
On May 10, 2017, Gorka claimed the “real danger” to this country is political appointees like “the Ben Rhodes of the world, the Colin Kahls.” Several days later, Gorka once again called out Rhodes and Kahl, asking, “When is it going to stop? When is the conspiracy theory insanity of the resist movement, of the Ben Rhodes, Colin Kahl nexus going to say, look, we’re not going to endanger national security anymore?” In June, Gorka once again went after the two officials, saying, “It’s people like [former United Nations Ambassador Susan] Rice, Ben Rhodes, Colin Kahl who are covering their tracks for the disastrous policies of the last eight years.”
Agenda-driven right-wing figures and online media outlets are using their platforms to try to discredit Judge Kimba Wood, a federal judge overseeing the case of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, currently under scrutiny for possible bank fraud and wire fraud. Right-wing media started targeting Wood after she ordered Cohen to disclose the name of his anonymous legal client on the basis that there was no legal ground to withhold it; the client turned out to be Fox News anchor Sean Hannity. Far-right Twitter trolls, conservative writers, and Fox News commentators -- among others -- dug into Wood’s past, scandalized her ties to Democrats, and attacked her for training as a Playboy bunny while in law school.
This is a familiar tactic for right-wing media figures, who regularly attempt to defame any judge with whom they disagree. Right-wing media have also launched a full-on offensive against special counsel Robert Mueller and his team’s investigation into ties between the Trump orbit and Russian officials. Here are some of the things these figures and outlets have claimed undermine Wood’s credibility:
True Pundit: “Cohen’s Judge & Stormy Daniels Have Much in Common: Playboy Bunny Judge Worked for Hugh Hefner”
Infowars’ Jerome Corsi: Wood “worked as a Playboy Bunny at a Playboy casino in 1966.”
Infowars: “No Joke: Judge Who Forced Cohen to ID Hannity Performed Soros Wedding”
Right-wing troll Mike Cernovich: "On the same day that Soros-funded Media Matters announces a boycott, The judge who performed Soros' wedding names Sean Hannity as a Michael Cohen client. TOTAL COINCIDENCE."
The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra: “The judge who ordered @SeanHannity's name to be released performed the wedding for far-left billionaire George Soros.”
Fox News host Melissa Francis: “Kimba Wood taking time away from Michael Cohen matter to perform George Soros wedding.”
Conservative commentator Jeffrey Lord: Bill and Hillary Clinton “pressed to make [Wood] Attorney General.”
FrontPage Magazine: “Judge Kimba Wood was Bill Clinton's nominee for Attorney General. But then her nomination fell apart over her employment of an illegal alien and the Playboy thing. ... It's a safe bet that Judge Kimba Wood might harbor some resentment toward Republicans."
Fox’s Sebastian Gorka: Wood “is a Clinton confidante who was chosen by Hillary to be AG. The #DEEPstate is real.”
Right-wing radio host Mark Simone: “Michael Cohen's bad luck was getting a judge from the Clinton administration.To give you an idea of her politics - Kimba Wood was chosen by the Clinton's to be Attorney General and she performed George Soros's wedding.”
American Thinker: Wood “was Bill Clinton's second choice to be attorney general. … Is this amazingly great luck for the Mueller-U.S. attorney tag team or what?”
Disclosure: George Soros made a donation to Media Matters in 2010.