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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.”
Fox host Sean Hannity has been under fire for not disclosing his legal relationship with President Donald Trump’s associate Michael Cohen. Hannity also has a legal relationship with Trump-linked attorneys Jay Sekulow, Victoria Toensing, and Joseph diGenova. Hannity hosted them (and Cohen) a total of 83 times on his Fox News show Hannity without disclosing the relationships.
Trump connection: Michael Cohen is Donald Trump’s longtime associate, who has been described as Trump’s “personal lawyer and fixer.” He is currently under federal criminal investigation.
Hannity connection: On April 16, Cohen’s lawyer disclosed in court that Hannity was Cohen’s client. Hannity has since attempted to downplay their relationship. Despite widespread criticism of Hannity’s actions, Fox News reportedly has no plans to hold Hannity accountable for his failure to disclose his relationship with Cohen.
Cohen has appeared as a guest on the Fox show Hannity 15 times in the past five years. Additionally, Cohen was mentioned or discussed during Hannity’s show 11 times. Cohen has also been on Hannity’s radio show twice and has been discussed on Hannity’s radio show at least six times. While Hannity has said things such as “we’ve been friends a long time” and “we’re friends … I know you” to Cohen, giving some insight into their relationship, Media Matters found no instances on Hannity where the host disclosed his legal ties to the lawyer. Here are the times Cohen appeared or was discussed on Hannity’s Fox News show:
4/16/18 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
4/12/18 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
4/11/18 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
4/10/18 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
4/9/18 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
1/11/18 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
1/9/18 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
4/28/17 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
4/3/17 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
1/18/17 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
1/12/17 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
1/11/17 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
1/10/17 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
1/5/17 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
8/19/16 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
8/4/16 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
4/18/16 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
4/8/16 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
3/4/16 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
1/4/16 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
10/5/15 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
8/24/15 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
8/10/15 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
8/4/15 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
7/28/15 - Fox News - Mentioned Cohen
7/24/15 - Fox News - Hosted Cohen
Trump connection: Jay Sekulow announced on June 9, 2017, that he was joining Trump’s legal team. He has been on the team since then and is currently the primary attorney for Trump in regard to the Russia probe.
Hannity connection: In April 2017, after a far-right troll suggested that the CIA “targeted” Hannity for surveillance during the election “because of his perceived ties to Julian Assange,” Hannity claimed that he had hired lawyers Jay Sekulow and Joseph diGenova to investigate and pursue a civil action. Additionally, The Atlantic reported that an Oklahoma radio station received a cease-and-desist letter on May 25, 2017, after right-wing radio host Debbie Schlussel accused Hannity of sexual harassment, that was signed by Sekulow and Victoria Toensing, listing them as “Counsel for Sean Hannity.”
Since Hannity announced that he hired Sekulow nearly a year ago, Sekulow has been a guest on Hannity’s Fox show 53 times. Sekulow has also appeared on Hannity's radio show at least 27 times in that period. Media Matters found only one occasion throughout Sekulow’s 53 appearances on Hannity’s television show in which the host mentioned he had legal ties to Sekulow. On May 23, 2017, two days before the Oklahoma radio station received a letter from Sekulow on Hannity’s behalf, Hannity stated, “Joining us with reaction, from the American Center for Law and Justice, Jay Sekulow, by the way, who's done legal work for me in the past.” Here are the times Sekulow appeared on Hannity’s Fox News show:
3/8/18 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
2/2/18 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
1/23/18 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
1/22/18 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
12/15/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
12/12/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
11/14/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
10/30/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
10/26/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
10/23/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
9/21/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
9/12/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
9/5/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
8/15/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
8/8/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
8/7/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
8/4/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
8/3/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
7/27/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
7/18/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
7/17/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
7/14/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
7/11/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
7/10/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/29/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/27/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/26/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/23/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/22/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/21/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/19/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/15/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/14/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/13/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/12/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
[Sekulow joined Trump legal team]
6/9/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/8/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
6/7/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
5/30/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
[Radio station KFAQ received letter signed by Sekulow as “Counsel for Sean Hannity”]
5/23/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow, “who's done legal work for me in the past”
5/22/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
5/19/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
5/18/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
5/16/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
5/15/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
5/12/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
5/10/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
5/9/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
5/3/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
5/2/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
4/28/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
4/19/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
4/12/17 - Fox News - Hosted Sekulow
Trump connection: Trump reportedly wanted to add Victoria Toensing and her husband diGenova to his legal team. Ultimately, neither of them did due to what Sekulow called “conflicts” that prevented them “from joining the president’s special counsel legal team.” He added: “However, those conflicts do not prevent them from assisting the president in other legal matters.”
Hannity connection: Hannity has leaned on Toensing in the past to help push conspiracy theories about both Benghazi and Uranium One. Toensing represented the alleged FBI informant who made allegations about foul play by the Clintons in the Uranium One deal and who was frequently discussed on Hannity’s show. Additionally, Toensing was identified, along with Sekulow, as “Counsel for Sean Hannity” in a letter received by an Oklahoma radio station in March 2017 after right-wing radio host Debbie Schlussel accused Hannity of sexual harassment.
Hannity has hosted Toensing on his show 11 times in the past two years. And Toensing has been discussed or mentioned on the show nine times. Hannity has previously alluded to Toensing being “one of the great attorneys” and a “friend for years,” and he has actually claimed on multiple occasions that he’d love to hire her. But a Media Matters review found no instances in which Hannity disclosed on his Fox News show that Toensing was or had been his attorney. Here are the times Toensing appeared, or was mentioned, on Hannity’s Fox News show:
3/26/2018 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
3/22/2018 - Fox News - Mentioned Toensing
3/9/2018 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
3/8/2018 - Fox News - Mentioned Toensing
2/21/2018 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
2/8/2018 - Fox News - Guest Mentioned Toensing
2/7/2018 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
1/29/2018 - Fox News - Mentioned Toensing
1/4/2018 - Fox News - Mentioned Toensing
12/4/2017 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
11/28/2017 - Fox News - Guest Mentioned Toensing
11/21/2017 - Fox News - Guest Mentioned Toensing
11/20/2017 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
11/13/2017 - Fox News - Mentioned Toensing
11/6/2017 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
10/26/2017 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
10/25/2017 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
10/24/2017 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
10/18/2017 - Fox News - Hosted Toensing
5/5/2016 - Fox News - Mentioned Toensing
Trump connection: Trump wanted to hire Joseph diGenova to his legal team after he reportedly watched diGenova’s Fox News appearances defending him and presenting the Russia probe “as a conspiracy against him.” But diGenova and his wife Toensing ultimately did not join his team because of unspecified “conflicts” related to their ability to join “the president’s special counsel legal team.” Sekulow added: “However, those conflicts do not prevent them from assisting the president in other legal matters.”
Hannity connection: In April 2017, after a far-right troll suggested that the CIA “targeted” Hannity for surveillance during the election “because of his perceived ties to Julian Assange,” the WikiLeaks founder, Hannity claimed that he had hired lawyers Sekulow and diGenova to investigate and pursue a civil action. Additionally, The Atlantic reported that Toensing’s signature in a May 25, 2017, cease-and-desist letter sent on behalf of Hannity to an Oklahoma radio station “sits above her name and that of her husband Joseph E. diGenova, the members of diGenova and Toensing LLP, who are identified as ‘Counsel for Sean Hannity.’”
Since Hannity said he hired diGenova nearly a year ago, diGenova has been a guest on Hannity’s Fox News show five times. DiGenova was also discussed on Hannity’s show on one other occasion. Separately, diGenova has appeared on Hannity’s radio show at least seven times in that time period. In March of this year, while discussing diGenova and Toensing, Hannity stated on his show, “I’d hire them in a second.” But a Media Matters review of diGenova’s appearances on Hannity’s Fox News show found no instances in which Hannity disclosed that diGenova’s firm represented him. Here are the times diGenova appeared or was mentioned on Hannity’s Fox News show:
4/16/18 - Fox News - Hosted diGenova
4/11/18 - Fox News - Hosted diGenova
4/4/18 - Fox News - Hosted diGenova
3/22/18 - Fox News - Mentioned diGenova
2/7/18 - Fox News - Hosted diGenova
5/11/17 - Fox News - Hosted diGenova
Nick Fernandez, Zach Pleat, Sanam Malik, Steve Morris, and Tyler Monroe contributed to this post.
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As special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference gets closer to President Donald Trump, he is shaking up his defense team. Fox News reports that as part of an ongoing shakeup that included the departure of lead lawyer John Dowd, the president’s legal team is adding Victoria Toensing. Toensing joins a group that includes her husband, Joseph diGenova, hired earlier in the week, and Jay Sekulow. All three share a common theme: Each was hired after making regular appearances on Fox News in which they vigorously defended the president and attacked the Russia probe.
This is the legal team Fox News host Sean Hannity built. As Fox has remade itself as a pro-Trump propaganda machine, working to delegitimize Mueller’s probe and defend the president on all counts, the network has brought on several lawyers who try to put a legal gloss on its tactics. These figures are especially prevalent on Hannity’s program, which has led the charge in denouncing the special counsel. Trump appears to be tearing down his legal team and reassembling it with lawyers pulled from the Fox greenroom.
Sekulow, a longtime fixture on right-wing TV who joined Trump’s team in June, was reportedly hired to serve as “the omnipresent TV face of Trump's defense” because the president liked the way that Sekulow, who had characterized the president as the victim of a “deep state bureaucracy” and a “shadow government,” defended Trump in cable news appearances.
Toensing and diGenova probably have their jobs for the same reason -- both are conservative activists who regularly use Fox appearances to offer a staunch defense of the president and lash out at the president’s investigators in ways that mirror Trump’s own attacks on the FBI and special counsel. (Toensing has made at least 21 appearances on the network since mid-October, while diGenova has appeared at least 12 times over the same period, according to Media Matters data.) DiGenova has argued that Trump was framed by FBI officials and the Justice Department while Toensing has called for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate Mueller himself. Adding them to the team may signal that the president wants his lawyers to engage in a scorched-earth offensive.
Trump, who watches hours of cable news each day, has long had an affinity for television personalities, with several playing key roles as campaign advisers or joining the administration after his inauguration.
Trump’s legal team shakeup is part of a broader pattern, in which Trump is becoming increasingly confident in his role, removing senior staff he believes were thrust upon him, and bringing in more cable news personalities. National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and national security adviser H.R. McMaster have been replaced by CNBC contributor Larry Kudlow and Fox News contributor John Bolton, whose TV hits the president reportedly enjoys, with Fox host Pete Hegseth reportedly a leading contender to replace Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.
Some of the president’s key outside advisers are also cable news propagandists whose programs Trump regularly watches. These include Fox’s Jeanine Pirro, who was reportedly interviewed for deputy attorney general during the transition and blasted Attorney General Jeff Sessions during an Oval Office meeting with Trump and top White House staff last year; Fox contributor Newt Gingrich, who was reportedly a finalist to be Trump’s running mate; and Hannity, with whom the president regularly consults. Notably, Hannity has previously retained both Sekulow and diGenova as his personal lawyers.
But while the president has frequently hired cable news personalities, they have not found great success -- former Fox News contributors K.T. McFarland and Monica Crowley both bowed out from high-profile Trump administration roles due to scandal, while cable news fixture Sebastian Gorka was forced out of the White House in part due to a concern that he had “no clear duties.”
Trump may think that filling his legal team with cable news personalities is a great idea, but it has one clear downside. Sekulow has “virtually no experience in law enforcement investigations or white-collar matters,” diGenova “is not expected to take a lead role” but instead to “serve as an outspoken player for the president,” and Toensing’s addition is seen as “a sign that Trump wants to flip the script and investigate his investigators.” Who is going to do the actual work of defending the president as the Mueller investigation takes the debate from the greenroom to the courtroom?
Update: Toensing reportedly may also join Trump's legal team
UPDATE: Vanity Fair's Gabriel Sherman reported on March 22 that according to two sources, President Donald Trump "is likely to add" Victoria Toensing to his legal team as well, in "a sign that Trump wants to flip the script and investigate his investigators."
Since Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel in May and given a mandate to investigate Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election and any other matters arising from that probe, the president and his supporters in Congress and the media have responded in two ways. First, they have tried to make the case that the president and his associates did nothing wrong -- that there was “no collusion,” as Fox News’ Sean Hannity and others have put it. Second, they have sought to delegitimize anyone whose work could endanger the president, from Mueller himself, to other top FBI and Justice Department officials involved in the case, to the journalists reporting on the probe.
The New York Times report today that Trump plans to hire Joseph diGenova to join his personal legal team ties those two branches together more tightly than ever. As the Times points out, in a January appearance on Fox, the Washington lawyer with deep ties to the GOP baselessly accused people at the Department of Justice and FBI of “trying to frame Donald Trump of a falsely created crime.” But beyond that, diGenova’s wife and law partner, Victoria Toensing, who is also a longtime Republican activist and lawyer, is representing a purported “witness” whose claims are at the center of a right-wing media effort to have another special counsel appointed. In theory, this second special counsel would be able to investigate Mueller himself over a shoddily constructed conspiracy theory involving the Russian nuclear energy agency’s 2010 acquisition of Uranium One, a company with licenses to extract U.S. uranium.
In 2015, conservatives used the Uranium One deal to attack Hillary Clinton, claiming that as secretary of state, she helped push the deal through in exchange for payments from Russians to her husband and the Clinton Foundation. They returned to the story after the election as a way of diffusing the Trump-Russia story by claiming that, in the words of Sean Hannity, it was Clinton who was guilty of the “real collusion” with Russia. And the tale came back again after an October 17 report in The Hill claimed that a “confidential U.S. witness” who was “working inside the Russian nuclear industry” -- later revealed as lobbyist William Douglas Campbell -- had told the FBI that Russian nuclear officials had tried to pay off the Clintons to secure Hillary Clinton’s support for the deal, and that the Obama administration had then covered it up.
Each iteration of this story has collapsed in light of the simple reality that the State Department was one of numerous federal and state agencies to sign off on the Uranium One deal, and that there is no evidence -- even from Campbell -- that Hillary Clinton ever personally participated in any discussions about it.
Crucially, the latest version of the Uranium One conspiracy theory implicates not just Clinton, but also Mueller, who was FBI director when Campbell came forward. As such, it provided a way for the president’s allies to call for Mueller’s removal. As Fox News' Jeanine Pirro put on October 28, “Starting Monday, this has to happen: Special counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller must be fired immediately. His role as head of the FBI during the uranium deal and the Russia extortion case, his friendship with Jim Comey, demand his firing.”
Toensing is Campbell’s lawyer, and so she has played a key role in promoting the Uranium One tale. She and diGenova frequently represent Republican clients or “whistleblowers” whose claims could be damaging to Democrats. As such, those clients typically receive credulous coverage from Fox and other right-wing outlets, where the lawyers often appear. True to form, Campbell’s claims drew a constant stream of coverage on Fox. In the three weeks after The Hill story dropped alone, the network devoted nearly 12 hours to the Uranium One story.
Toensing herself has appeared on Fox to discuss the story at least 18 times since it broke. In one of those appearances, Toensing made her aims explicit. After Hannity said that in spite of the Uranium One news, “Robert Mueller is now investigating anything involved with Russia,” Toensing replied, “I think this cries out for a special counsel. I just don't see how this can continue on. Congressional committees are fine. But this really takes -- this is a criminal investigation.”
Over the following days and weeks, the president’s media and congressional allies chimed in, calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Uranium One deal. It’s clear that at least part of the impetus for that push is to checkmate Mueller -- as longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone put it, Mueller “can’t be a special prosecutor when he himself is under investigation,” making the naming of a Uranium One special counsel a key step toward curtailing the Mueller probe.
That argument made it all the way to the Oval Office, with Pirro reportedly calling for a special counsel's appointment and bashing Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a November meeting with the president and his top aides. Sessions has since publicly suggested that a second special counsel is unnecessary, but the Justice Department has also taken steps to move forward on an investigation.
With diGenova moving onto Trump’s payroll, he’ll be trying to defend the president while Toensing continues to attack Mueller. The pro-Trump two-step has been made manifest in a single household.
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.
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A Republican activist, attorney, and key player in the Benghazi hoax accused a former congressional staffer of harassing Benghazi eyewitnesses during congressional testimonies before going to work for Hillary Clinton -- but the staffer in question actually left Congress months before the interviews of those eyewitnesses took place. The false claim is just the latest in a long line of fictions from the Benghazi hoaxster, who has been discredited by Republicans members of the House Intelligence Committee and Benghazi CIA contractors alike.
Victoria Toensing appeared on the September 9 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends to aid the network in reviving the myth of a "stand down" order in Benghazi. Going even further, Toensing claimed that Michael Allen, former chief of staff for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, orchestrated the harassment of three CIA contractors giving their eyewitness testimony on the Benghazi attacks before Congress, even speculating that Allen purposefully prohibited the Committee from getting answers before leaving to join a "Hillary organization":
STEVE DOOCY (co-host): When these three operators and the others came back and they testified behind closed doors to the House Intel Committee, I understand they were harassed by the House Intel Committee that we thought were trying to get all the answers. What was up with that?
TOENSING: Republicans. And they were told, they were accused that they were not telling the truth. They were threatened with "the committee is not going to pay your travel expenses," which committees always do for witnesses who come in from out of town, "because you're writing a book and you're going to make money, and by the way, you shouldn't be writing a book."
Now you say why would that happen with the Republican-dominated House Intelligence Committee? Well, that chief of staff, the head of that staff that harassed these three brave men, a few months later went to work for Beacon Global Strategies. That is a Hillary organization.
Please do not listen to Victoria Toensing. She does not represent us in any way shape or form
-- Kris Paronto (@KrisParonto) September 9, 2014
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) called out Fox News' favorite Benghazi lawyer, Victoria Toensing, for her "unfortunate" and untrue allegations about the 2012 attacks and subsequent investigations.
Fox & Friends invited Toensing on its September 9 program to weigh in on the network's latest attempt to revive the repeatedly debunked myth of a "stand down" order issued to three CIA security personnel in Benghazi.
Toensing dismissed the fact that both the House Intelligence Committee and various investigations determined that no such stand down order was issued, claiming the State Department had worked to undermine and "vilif[y]" the security personnel and Benghazi witnesses. According to Toensing, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee "harassed" the security contractors when they gave their testimony on Benghazi, pressuring them not to write about their experiences.
Rep. Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, shot down Toensing's accusations in a later segment on Fox & Friends. Rogers debunked the notion of any stand down order, and though he refrained from mentioning Toensing by name, he called out "lawyers who have a financial interest in this, certainly making allegations that are far from true." Rogers went on:
ROGERS: As I said, I hope everybody buys [the security contractors'] book, because these are very brave souls who served their country proudly, who ended up driving into unknown circumstances and saved them. That's all really good. And so, the only way that people buy the book is with some inflammatory comments. These are attorneys who have a financial stake in this. And it's unfortunate. The facts will -- we've asked that these transcripts be released, and I think that'll tell the truth. I think Americans can look at that and find out what was the real truth.
Toensing is well-known to be an unreliable source, previously criticized as lacking "impartiality, non-partisanship, and professionalism."
A coalition of Islamophobes, birthers, and conspiracy theorists led by a prominent supporter of impeaching President Obama will assemble at the Heritage Foundation this afternoon to discuss the September 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
The event, titled "Benghazi: The Difference It Makes Is Accountability!" will be co-hosted by the Benghazi Accountability Coalition. In a post at National Review Online, Andrew McCarthy, a conservative commentator and former federal prosecutor, identifies himself as the chairman of that new "volunteer organization."
McCarthy is the author of a new book that seeks to build "the political case" for President Obama's impeachment. The book includes a draft Articles of Impeachment detailing "The Benghazi Fraud." According to McCarthy, the talking points used by former Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice to discuss the terrorist attacks on Sunday morning political talk shows constituted a deliberate effort "to defraud the American people in connection with matters of great public importance, in violation of [President Obama's] duty to execute the laws faithfully and his fiduciary duty to be truthful in his statements to the American people."
At National Review Online, McCarthy promises that today's forum will "feature some speakers with tremendous insights into the relevant issues about the Benghazi Massacre." James Jay Carafano, Heritage's vice present of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, will participate, lending the organization's imprimatur to the proceedings. Here are some of those notables who will appear alongside him:
Earlier this week Fox News hosted the "professional dirty trickster" who founded an anti-Hillary Clinton group with the acronym "C.U.N.T." The day before, it was the attorney who pushed fabricated anti-Clinton stories in the 90s. Last month, it was the woman who has suggested the Clintons may have had her husband killed.
Fox has never had particularly high standards for who they put on air, and it appears there's no source too incredible for Fox to host as long as they are willing to smear the Clintons. And that list is long.
As Joe Conason and Gene Lyons detailed in their book The Hunting of the President, in the 1990s, an array of conservative operatives, right-wing journalists, and opportunists sought to drive the Clintons from the White House. Their backgrounds were often shady, their methods deceitful, and their claims fraudulent.
So who might be the next guest for a network with no standards and an urge to stop a potential Hillary Clinton presidential run? Some of these figures have gone on to extensive careers in the conservative media, while others haven't been in the public eye for decades.
But all have literally unbelievable stories to tell.
Gary Aldrich is a former FBI agent who wrote a 1996 book about his time inside the White House during the first three years of the Clinton administration. CNN described the book, produced by a right-wing publisher and flacked by a Republican operative, as filled with "second-hand, unsubstantiated sexual rumors about and bitter attacks against President and Mrs. Clinton," including ludicrous claims that President Clinton was regularly ditching his Secret Service detail for trysts at a downtown hotel (Aldrich later said that allegation was a "hypothetical"). Aldrich also wrote that on "orders from the First Lady's Office," the White House Christmas tree was decorated with crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia as well as sex toys and condoms (unsurprisingly, the White House denied the charge).
Aldrich used the notoriety from his book to become a professional conservative. He founded the right-wing Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty in 1997 to support federal whistleblowers (Linda Tripp was among the organization's first clients), but the bulk of the group's spending soon focused on raising money and paying Aldrich's salary. The group was largely silent during the Bush administration, but re-emerged to support tea party groups in 2010. Aldrich has written op-eds for TownHall and the Daily Caller.
Larry Nichols spent years at the heart of the conservative campaign to smear President Clinton. A former jingle writer who became a marketing consultant for the State of Arkansas, he was fired from the Arkansas Development Finance Authority in 1988 for making hundreds of phone calls to Nicaragua contra leaders and their American political supporters on the taxpayer's dime, and apparently held a grudge. Shortly before Bill Clinton's 1990 re-election as governor of Arkansas, Nichols held a press conference announcing he was suing Clinton for allegedly using state funds to conduct affairs with five women. All five women subsequently signed affidavits denying the claims and threatened to sue Nichols, who later issued a statement saying he had wrongfully issued the accusations because he was mad about being fired. But the incident nonetheless ushered in the right-wing focus on Bill Clinton's sex life.
Nichols, who described himself as "smut central" in a 1998 interview, spent years tracking down sketchy rumors about women who had had affairs with the president and trying to peddle them to everyone from supermarket tabloids to major newspapers. Last year, he offered a new explanation for why he had spent years trying to destroy the Clintons -- he claimed to have "beat up women and beat up husbands to protect the Clintons" and even "killed people" for them for money until they turned on him and he had to defend himself.
Wednesday morning, Benghazi whistleblower attorney Victoria Toensing appeared on Fox News' Fox & Friends as part of a long standing campaign among conservatives to discredit the findings of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) report on the Benghazi attacks, authored by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.
Toensing delivered what has become the standard conservative myth -- the claim that the ARB report was a "corrupt cover-up to protect Hillary Clinton." She asserted:
Because they were not thorough. There are all kinds of people they didn't interview. They made false statements and they framed four State Department employees to take the blame away from the higher-ups. They did not interview Hillary. They did not interview her top deputy for security, Pat Kennedy.
That is a lie. Pat Kennedy was interviewed by the ARB, a fact Pickering, one of the authors, has made clear. On May 12, Pickering explicitly told CNN's Candy Crowley, "We interviewed Pat Kennedy." This was also pointed out during the May 8, 2013 House Oversight hearing on Benghazi. Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) addressed the room, stating:
By the way, defend in statements that Undersecretary Kennedy was not interviewed by the ARB by Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen. That is a misstatement of fact. He most certainly was. You can look it up. It is documented. He was interviewed, and he provided evidence. And that evidence was evaluated.
So it is not true that Undersecretary Kennedy was not part of that process. He most certainly was, and I would ask Mr. Chairman that the record so reflect.
In fact, Fox News Host Greta Van Susteren tweeted out this exchange:
So why tell such a blatant lie?
Because Toensing thinks she can get away with it and the right needs to discredit the ARB. Prepared in the aftermath of the attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, the report detailed more than two-dozen recommendations on improving security for our State Department personnel overseas. It did not cast blame on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Barack Obama nor did it conform to the narrative conservatives and their allies on Capitol Hill -- namely Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) -- have been selling to the media about Benghazi.
Because both Pickering and Mullen are public servants with reputations beyond reproach, the right has had to work overtime trying to discredit their report.
The simplest way to attack the ARB is to claim their work was incomplete because they failed to interview specific witnesses.
And because the complete list of witnesses who spoke with the ARB remains classified, most often there is no way to respond to these accusations, unless a name was at sometime placed in the public record. Conservatives will continue to make claims about the ARB process, but without citations, the media should keep a watchful eye on which sources they trust.
Fox gave conspiracy theorist and Republican attorney Victoria Toensing a platform to revive repeatedly debunked myths about what happened after the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
On the August 21 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, Toensing's claims included questions about the legitimacy of the independent Accountability Review Board's (ARB) report on the attacks as a "corrupt cover-up to protect Hillary Clinton" and the myth of Benghazi "whistleblower" and diplomat Gregory Hicks' demotion.
Toensing has propped up claims that have been proven false or misleading, misinformation that Fox News continues to peddle.
Her efforts to question the legitimacy of the ARB report are neither new nor credible. Toensing argued in a May 12 Weekly Standard blog post that the "report was purposefully incomplete and willfully misleading," and she claimed that the investigation did not include interviews with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This claim has been debunked, notably by ARB chairman and career diplomat Thomas Pickering, who said he did speak with Clinton and that their conversation about the Benghazi investigation was "more than sufficient for the preponderance of evidence that we had collected to make our decisions."
During a May 10 interview with radio host Steve Malzberg, Toensing stated that Hicks, her client and Benghazi "whistleblower," was "effectively demoted" as a result of what happened during and after the attacks. This story conflicts with Hicks' own statement during congressional testimony that concerns for his family kept him from returning to Libya.
Fox News Sunday selected Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova, attorneys who represented witnesses at a Republican-led hearing on the attacks at a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, for its "power players of the week," an unfortunate choice given that both individuals misled Fox News and its viewers about allegations of threats and intimidation against their clients and about efforts by the administration to prevent their clients from testifying.
Though Fox News Sunday aired certain aspects of Toensing and diGenova's biographies, the segment neglected to mention that the two have a history of poor professional conduct, including criticism from a Democratic congressman for inappropriate behavior and actions while they worked as congressional investigators due to their constant media appearances attacking President Clinton. They were also accused of having a conflict of interest for representing a Republican committee chairman under Justice Department investigation while simultaneously serving as special counsel to the committee in a separate investigation. More recently, Toensing pushed the false claim that outed CIA agent Valerie Plame had not been covert, in addition to other falsehoods.
On April 29, Fox's Special Report aired video of Toensing claiming that people who wanted to testify on Benghazi "have been threatened," which Fox & Friends aired the following morning. Toensing was also cited by Special Report on April 29 in reporting the allegations that "the Obama administration is trying to intimidate potential whistleblowers into silence" and that possible witnesses were having their careers threatened. And a May 6 FoxNews.com article by Fox Washington correspondents James Rosen and Chad Pergram sourced a claim that a witness named Mark Thompson "has been subjected to threats and intimidation by as-yet-unnamed superiors at State, in advance of his cooperation with Congress" to diGenova, who was representing Thompson.
But testimony by the witnesses at a GOP-led hearing on May 8 and subsequent interviews of their attorneys on Fox News revealed that Toensing and diGenova misled the network by claiming that their clients had suffered threats, intimidation, and orders to keep quiet. When asked on Fox's Your World on May 9 about claims that Thompson had been threatened, diGenova replied that Thompson "actually hasn't said that," and explained that his client "didn't feel intimidated."
Gregory Hicks, another witness at the hearing -- represented by Toensing -- explained under questioning that he had not been told not to speak to congressional investigators, only that he was required to have a State Department attorney present while doing so. Hicks also explained that, in contrast to claims that the administration tried to silence him, he was interviewed twice by the State Department's independent Accountability Review Board that was created to investigate the Benghazi attacks. Hicks' testimony further contradicted Toensing's April 29 claim to Special Report that careers were being threatened when he explained that "the overriding factor" in his determination to not return to his post in Libya was to remain with his family in the United States.