Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton says "A pardon may be warranted" for Paul Manafort whether he "did anything wrong or not"
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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.”
Right-wing media figures are jumping to defend Fox News host Sean Hannity after it was revealed that Hannity has been a client of longtime lawyer to President Donald Trump, Michael Cohen. Hannity’s defenders are suggesting that he has “been victimized” by the revelation of his name, claiming that he “wasn’t engaging” Cohen “as a lawyer,” and even arguing that Hannity possibly “did not know he was a client of Michael Cohen."
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Donald Trump and his conservative media allies throw themselves a little premature celebration
Today the Justice Department announced the indictment of 13 Russian individuals accused of breaking a whole panoply of laws as part of the Russian effort to disrupt the 2016 presidential election. The indictment itself is a hell of read -- it details a sophisticated and multilayered operation spanning several years that waged information warfare as part of a conspiracy to sow discord and chaos within the American political system. The Russians stole identities, created fake social media accounts, staged protests, bought political ads, and attempted to coordinate with political groups within the U.S.
“By early to mid-2016,” the indictment reads, the Russian defendants’ “operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump … and disparaging Hillary Clinton.” Some of the defendants, the indictment notes, “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”
For Trump’s most slavish defenders in the conservative press, one little word in that passage -- “unwitting” -- is prompting a good deal of celebration. It proves, they argue, that no one in the Trump campaign “colluded” with Russia in the 2016 election, and that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is a farce that needs to be shut down.
Sean Hannity tweeted “No collusion” and linked to an article on his website with the blaring headline: “NO COLLUSION: Mueller Indictment Says TRUMP CAMPAIGN Unaware of Russian Meddling.” Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton tweeted: “Big Mueller indictment of Russians confirms ‘unwitting’ involvement of Trump campaign with disguised Russian operatives. No collusion. Shut it down.”
Republicans are also eagerly jumping on this line of argument. The White House put out a statement saying the special counsel’s investigation indicates “there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia.” During an appearance on Fox News, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said, “Today marks the day that the Democrats’ Russia collusion conspiracy theory unraveled.”
Of course, the indictment doesn’t demonstrate that at all, and the Justice Department was very careful in how it addressed the issue of American involvement in the Russian election conspiracy. In fact, everyone celebrating the exoneration of Trump very well may be spiking the football on the 25-yard line.
Conservatives from Hannity and the RNC on down are conveniently ignoring the fact that this is just one indictment from an investigation that is still ongoing. The indictment indicates that Trump-associated political operatives were unwitting participants in this specific series of alleged criminal activities. It does not say that the illegal actions it describes encompass the entirety of the Russian election-meddling campaign. There very well may be more indictments on the way, and they could be related to known instances of Russian interference that today’s indictment didn’t touch on at all: the hacking of the DNC’s emails, the July 2016 Trump Tower meeting, etc.
During his press conference announcing today’s indictment, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was extremely careful and unfailingly precise in how he described the involvement by Americans in the alleged Russian criminal conspiracy. “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” Rosenstein said (emphasis added). When asked what relationship Trump campaign officials had to the Russian conspiracy, Rosenstein again applied the same precise language. “There’s no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge.”
And that’s to say nothing of the possibility that Trump-associated people could still be charged with other crimes discovered in the course of Mueller’s investigation: money laundering, obstruction, fraud, etc. Mueller is reportedly on the verge of flipping another senior Trump campaign official, which certainly indicates that Trumpworld could still be in for a whole lot of legal trouble.
Of course, no one has any real concrete idea of what will happen. Well, no one except Robert Mueller and his team, who are still investigating. Regardless, the president hopped onto Twitter this afternoon to join the (possibly premature) celebration and proudly transmit the fact that Russia’s “anti-US campaign” -- the existence of which he’d refused to acknowledge up to this point -- got rolling long before he even became a presidential candidate:
Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2018
So, Trump is touting as good news the fact that Russia’s election interference campaign didn’t start with him, but rather identified his candidacy as an asset to be exploited. One starts to think that the president and his allies don’t really think too far in advance before they begin celebrating.
Fox has nearly perfected the art of moving the goalposts after its so-called bombshells have been debunked. (They’ve had a lot of practice.)
It started out as a “bombshell” alert. Text messages, according to Fox News, showed then-President Barack Obama might have been improperly involved in the Clinton email investigation. By midday, it had been debunked (the texts weren’t about the Clinton email investigation at all), but it morphed into a sad charade by the network to pretend that Obama being briefed about Russian interference into the election was somehow a scandal of its own.
Relentlessly pushing pseudo-scandals is Fox News’ bread and butter. The network essentially throws anything at the wall to see what sticks, and the Obama-FBI text message “scandal” is just the latest example. Here’s a breakdown of how Fox News messed up and is now trying to move the goalposts on its fraudulent claims.
At 6:00 a.m. on February 7, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee published an interim report titled “The Clinton Email Scandal And The FBI’s Investigation Of It,” prepared by committee Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). The report pointed to a text FBI lawyer Lisa Page sent to FBI Agent Peter Strzok about preparing talking points for then-FBI Director James Comey that read “Potus wants to know everything we’re doing.” The report claimed this text “raises additional questions about the type and extent of President [Barack] Obama's personal involvement in the [then-Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton email scandal and the FBI investigation of it."
From the moment Fox’s morning show Fox & Friends started on February 7, it was clear there was a new “scandal” emerging in the network’s ecosystem. Co-host Steve Doocy opened the show with a “Fox News alert and a bombshell exclusive.” The bombshell: “New messages” that referenced Obama “now raising even more questions” about the Clinton investigation.
Doocy noted Johnson’s report and questioned, “Are they talking about Barack Obama? Does that mean he was involved in whatever they were doing? That's a bombshell.”
A bombshell it was not. But here’s how the story progressed on Fox News’ flagship morning show:
Brian Kilmeade: “There’s a story here at the very least, don’t you agree.”
Doocy: “New messages now raising even more questions about what the FBI and former President Obama knew about the Clinton investigation and when.”
Griff Jenkins: “We’re taking a look at this, and it is raising a lot of questions. And it’s shocking. … Investigators telling Fox News this now raises questions about President Obama’s personal involvement in the Clinton email investigation.”
Doocy (again): “Those text messages now raising even more questions about the FBI and perhaps President Obama’s involvement during the Clinton investigation of her email server.”
And on, and on.
Fox’s so-called “straight news” shows didn’t fare much better.
During America’s Newsroom, Fox News contributor Guy Benson claimed the text message “might suggest undue presidential interest and/or influence.” Anchor Bill Hemmer responded, “Boy, that opens up a whole new can of worms, Guy.”
During the next show, Happening Now, Fox contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy stated that the text referring to POTUS “looks like it was about the Hillary Clinton investigation,” adding, “President Obama clearly had a stake in her being exonerated and Trump not winning the election.” She went on to say, “This is just like a mystery. It keeps unfolding and unfolding, and it gets dirtier and dirtier. And now we know it goes to the top.”
The debunks of Fox’s most recent “bombshell” began to roll out around noon. ThinkProgress, focusing on the timeline of events, called it “a total fraud.” Vox’s headline: “Trump says new FBI texts are a ‘bombshell.’ They’re not.” Even the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal poured cold water on the narrative being shouted on Fox News all day; according to the Journal, the text messages Fox used to suggest Obama had been “meddling” in the Clinton email investigation actually referred to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. CNN came to the same conclusion.
When the narrative that Fox News helped spearhead started to fall apart, the network’s hosts, guests, and anchors ran through a couple different plays. At first, they attempted to erase the network’s role in hyping and fueling the “bombshell report.”
On Special Report, guest host Shannon Bream brought up Obama and the FBI officials’ texts, noting, “There was some speculation that was about the Hillary Clinton email investigation, but now there’s talk that that was about the Russia potential collusion investigation, A.B. But it's now raising more questions and more criticism.” Panelist Mollie Hemingway also noted, “Initially, some people thought it had to do with the old Hillary Clinton email investigation.”
Note that neither of them mentioned it was the very network they were on that had invented the “speculation.”
Perhaps there is no better example of these acrobatics than Sandra Smith’s reporting on consecutive days. On Wednesday, Smith hyped “bombshell text messages” that were “rocking the FBI, revealing additional evidence of anti-Trump bias, and raising new questions about President Obama’s personal involvement in the Hillary Clinton email investigation.” On Thursday, she vaguely alluded to “a lot of conclusions drawn that these were exchanges about Obama wanting to know everything when it came to the Hillary Clinton email investigation which was closed at the time,” noting the Journal’s debunk that it was actually about Russian meddling.
Another tactic Fox tried was to claim that the details were “still up for debate.” During the 7:00 p.m. hour -- after the story had already fallen apart -- host Martha MacCallum introduced a segment on the topic, asking, “What was [Obama] keeping tabs on? That part of the story is still up for debate.” And correspondent Ed Henry noted the Journal’s debunk, but also argued that what the text message really referred to was “up for debate.”
Lastly, Fox personalities shifted the goalposts. The initial scandal, that Obama supposedly was caught interfering in the Clinton email investigation, morphed into a different, supposed scandal, but one with the same cast of characters. Fox began arguing that, even if the text was referring to the investigation into Russian interference, that constituted a scandal on its own. Henry tried to make this case, saying, “Nonetheless, we should note that in April 2016, Obama insisted to our own Chris Wallace he never spoke to the attorney general or the FBI director about any pending investigations at all.” Hemingway used a similar tactic, stating “learning that it’s in fact about the Trump-Russia meddling election is far more interesting,” adding, “This is just, again, just a tiny part of a much larger scandal.”
Several of these tactics were also used on Sean Hannity’s show that night. Introducing the story with Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton, Hannity noted, “Wall Street Journal says it was not about the email investigation, but from earlier comments I saw that you made, you have your doubts about that.” Fitton responded, “Pick your poison in terms of presidential involvement in these sensitive criminal investigations,” essentially arguing that, whether the text message was about Obama wanting to know about Clinton or Russia, it was bad either way.
By the following morning, the network had coalesced around this new narrative. Now, the scandal wasn’t that Obama was being informed about the Clinton email investigation; the scandal, somehow, was that Obama, the U.S. president and commander in chief, was being informed about the investigation into foreign interference in the upcoming U.S. election. Fox & Friends repeatedly used that argument during its February 8 edition, even bringing on Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, to make the same (but new) argument. America’s Newsroom continued on with the new charade of pretending that Obama being briefed on the investigation into Russian interference was somehow a problem.
And so it continues.
It’s hard to keep track of all the pseudo-scandals that Fox News runs through in a given week. The network, especially on Fox & Friends and Hannity, puts out wild trial balloons to see what sticks. Sometimes, as with their fixation about the “secret society” scandal (which, incidentally, was started on Fox, also in part by Sen. Johnson), it blows up in their face. But as with any other good propaganda outlet, they don’t stop blurring the facts and insisting that there are still new “questions,” “concerns,” and “allegations” that need to be investigated -- even if the so-called scandal was already debunked.
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Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted on January 31 to release a memo, written by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), which they claim shows partisan abuse of power on the part of the FBI to obtain a FISA warrant. The full four page text of the memo was released on February 2 and, led primarily by Fox News host Sean Hannity, right-wing media figures have used its contents to slam, discredit, and call for the firing of both special counsel Robert Mueller and U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Fox host Sean Hannity claimed that Mueller “never should have been appointed based on what we know tonight” and that “he needs to go, yesterday.” He also called the investigation “a witch-hunt from the very beginning” and called for charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn “to be dropped.” Hannity also declared the investigation an attempted “coup” and “an attempt to unseat an elected president” based on the memo.
Right-wing author Ann Coulter tweeted, “Rosenstein should be fired for opposing the release of the memo.”
Conservative radio host and frequent Fox guest Dan Bongino tweeted that Rosenstein “STILL” has a government job despite being one of the “central figures in the most significant political spying scandal in US history.”
Tea Party Patriots tweeted, "It's time for DAG Rod Rosenstein to do his job or resign!"
Former Trump aide and Fox News national security strategist Sebastian Gorka tweeted, "Rosenstein should be suspended from his position immeidately."
Tom Fitton, frequent Fox guest and president of Judicial Watch, said Rosenstein “has some explaining to do” and that “it’s fair to ask whether he’d be fired.” Fitton also told Fox host Harris Faulkner that the probe is subject to “being called off now by the Justice Department.”
Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett tweeted that a “source” told him Rosenstein in a meeting with Nunes “threatened to subpoena the texts and emails of Congress,” and called for Rosenstein to “resign or be fired” if true.
Fox News host Todd Pirro asked former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski if "it's time for Rod Rosenstein to go." Lewandowski responded that Rosenstein's involvement with the FISA application "should give people in the Justice Department grave concern ... and Rod needs to answer for those questions."
Conservative radio host, Townhall columnist, and birther Jeff Crouere wrote, the memo showed Mueller is “investigating the wrong administration” and claimed Mueller was “compromised from the very beginning of his probe.” Crouere went on to call for an end to this “witch hunt” after the release of the “bombshell memo.”
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh alleged that the memo means Mueller is investigating the wrong people “on purpose,” and called the FBI's activities a “Democrat-run operation.”
Conservative radio host Mark Simone tweeted that Rosenstein is on the same "team" as former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Far-right blog The Gateway Pundit claimed Rosenstein "threatened" Nunes and House Intelligence Committee members.
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Here’s who they have left
Right-wing media have consistently lined up behind Donald Trump to defend him against any and all allegations regarding Russian interference in the presidential election. Led primarily by Fox News and primetime host Sean Hannity, right-wing media figures have denounced, undermined, or maligned Department of Justice and FBI officials involved in the broader Russia investigation since it began.
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Fox News’ coverage of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is growing ever-darker, as my colleague Simon Maloy noted last week, with the network’s Trump-loving commentators offering up increasingly hysterical warnings that Mueller needs to be fired before he destroys the rule of law and the republic.
Eight nights ago, for example, Sean Hannity declared Mueller a “direct threat to you, the American people and our American republic.” Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett chimed in, claiming that “Mueller has been using the FBI as a political weapon,” turning the bureau into “America's secret police” just like “the old KGB.”
This discussion was irresponsible and dangerous. But it also set a new bar for fearmongering about the Mueller investigation. And so the president’s lackeys, who are eager to kill Mueller’s probe before its completion, have spent the last week going on Fox and trying to clear it.
They are on an invective escalator. Every new development in the Russia probe requires ever-more-inflammatory rhetoric -- for Jarrett and Hannity, the false KGB comparison was just the logical next step from comparing the Mueller team to the Mob. The tenor of the criticism only becomes more hysterical. A new, baseless “conflict of interest” for a member of Mueller’s team raises the bar. But so does a former Trump aide copping a plea in exchange for working with the special counsel’s office -- it gets presented not as evidence Mueller’s probe is on the level, but evidence that it is not.
Meanwhile, their audience -- which at times includes the president -- receives increasingly dire warnings that a professional probe run by a Republican who was appointed FBI director by a president of each party is actually a corrupt effort at a deep state coup.
But how do you top comparing the FBI to the KGB?
Jeanine Pirro calls for a “cleansing” of the FBI and DOJ
Here’s how Fox News host Jeanine Pirro opened her show on Saturday night:
Over a seven-plus-minute monologue, she specifically called for “handcuffs” for FBI agent Peter Strzok and Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, and piled on criticism for Mueller, James Comey, senior DOJ official Bruce Ohr, and current FBI Director Christopher Wray. “The stench coming out of the Justice Department and the FBI is like that of a Third World country, where money and bullies and clubs decide elections. It all started when ‘Cardinal’ Comey destroyed our FBI with political hacks to set events in motion to destroy the republic because they didn’t like the man we chose to be our president. Well, it’s time to take them out, in cuffs,” she concluded.
Pirro is a friend and sometime adviser to the president, who regularly tunes in to her program. She reportedly took her conspiracy theories to the White House last month, denouncing Comey and Mueller in an Oval Office meeting with the president and his top aides. Pirro may be angling to join the administration so she can carry out this purge of the law enforcement apparatus; she reportedly interviewed to be deputy attorney general during the transition
Tom Fitton asks if the FBI needs to be shut down because it is now a “KGB-type operation”
For Tom Fitton, head of the conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch, those who are simply calling for Mueller’s firing haven’t gone far enough:
Fitton’s comments last night are an obvious one-up on last week’s KGB comparison -- the situation may now be so dire that it requires destroying the entire bureau in order to save it.
Lou Dobbs: Trump should be exonerated because he won the election
On December 11, Lou Dobbs said on his Fox Business show that Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation may be because he’s been blackmailed by the “deep state.” After Fox contributor Jason Chaffetz criticized Sessions, calling for congressional action but clarifying that he’s “not saying it has to go the Republicans' way,” Dobbs replied, “Why the hell shouldn't it go the Republicans' way? We elected a Republican president.” Dobbs added that the congressional Republican leadership should be “standing shoulder to shoulder with Trump” and “bring this thing to a conclusion.”
Pro-Trump media figures are downplaying the breaking news that President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, will plead guilty for lying to the FBI about conversations he had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.