Fox News spent more than two years crafting a feverishly complex alternate narrative to counter special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference into the 2016 election. Now the network’s propagandists are hoping to steer Mueller’s Wednesday hearings before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, urging congressional Republicans to focus on their obsessions.
Mueller’s probe resulted in indictments or guilty pleas from 34 people -- including Trump’s former campaign chair and national security adviser. His devastating final report detailed substantial and egregious evidence of contacts between Trump associates and Russians and presidential efforts to sabotage the investigation. But on Fox, these details are often treated as irrelevant at best and fictitious at worst.
Instead, since the launch of Mueller’s probe in May 2017, Sean Hannity and other prominent Fox hosts have warned their viewers that Trump and his associates are the innocent victims of a sinister conspiracy fomented by “deep state” operatives, Democrats, and the press -- all working together to take down the president and, perhaps, the republic.
But Fox’s counternarrative is based on falsehood and fantasy. It claims a dossier assembled by a former British intelligence officer and funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee kicked off the probe (it didn’t), cites a FISA warrant against a former Trump campaign aide as evidence of an anti-Trump conspiracy (it isn’t), misreads text messages between FBI officials to suggest they show an all-out effort to stop Trump’s election (they don’t), and smears Mueller and members of his team as having conflicts of interest (they don’t).
This effort by Fox has become the right wing’s answer to the Russia investigation. Conservative legal commentators like Fox analyst Gregg Jarrett have played their part by explaining how the president’s foes supposedly committed the real crimes, congressional Republicans have used their investigative powers to obtain and release documents to support it, and Trump himself has adopted Fox’s talking points.
Mueller’s public testimony poses a risk to the work Fox’s propagandists have done to inoculate their audiences against the mounting Russia revelations. After Attorney General William Barr produced a faulty memo about Mueller’s conclusions, and again after the release of the report itself, the network’s personalities declared Trump vindicated, and their viewers believed them.
As Mueller’s testimony will not support that conclusion, key network players are urging Republican members of Congress to use their question time to promote the network’s conspiracy-minded counternarrative.
“For Republicans, this hearing is a golden opportunity to ask the questions that need to be asked to Robert Mueller to hold him accountable,” Hannity said during a July 12 segment on the hearings. “We -- you, we, the American people, we deserve answers to all the pressing questions that our government has totally ignored and the media mob has ignored.”
He then reeled off more than a dozen questions that Mueller “must answer.” Many of them revolved around the dossier and the composition of the special counsel’s team.
HANNITY: Mueller must answer, why did he hire a team full of Democratic donors, not one Republican available? Why would he ever hire in this case Hillary Clinton's former attorney?
Why did he hire this guy, Andrew Weissmann? A guy who has withheld exculpatory evidence in the past, a Clinton-loving partisan hack, he was there the night of Clinton's, oh, victory party that never happened. A record full of prosecutorial misconduct.
Why did Mueller have time to investigate, let's see, taxi medallions, loan applications, FARA violations, tax fraud, but he didn't look at the dirty dossier, the lying to a FISA court, the premeditated fraud committed on a court to spy on the presidential campaign? Why was the probe never into Hillary Clinton's bought-and-paid-for Russian lies? Or what about Christopher Steele, with his Russian lies that he put together? What about Glenn Simpson, Fusion GPS? What about the Clinton campaign's coordination with the government of Ukraine that we have pointed out?
Now, keep in mind people like Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, all charged with crimes totally unrelated to collusion or conspiracy with Russia to impact the 2016 campaign. Yet, in an investigation supposedly about collusion and corruption, well, no one connected to Clinton, the DNC, their phony Russian sourced op research. How did you ignore all of that, Mr. Mueller?
Does Robert Mueller hate President Trump? Did he hire people that hate President Trump for a reason, then-candidate Trump? Now, is this why he pursued an investigation into obstruction even after there was no underlying crime of conspiracy or collusion?
And why is Mueller given contradictory statements on the topic of obstruction? Is he being pressured by Andrew Weissmann? Did he forget? Did he not remember what he said? Did he even write that 9 1/2 minute rambling press conference?
You know, at the end of the day, is Rob Mueller really proud of his 22-month witch hunt, that really did nothing than give fuel to what are rampant conspiracy theories, lies, propaganda, misinformation?
On Monday, Hannity promised to “lay out my version” of how Mueller should be questioned on the next night’s program. But he provided his audience with a sneak peek, urging Republicans to ask questions “no longer than 10 seconds, 11 seconds each, and I think they ought to be sharp” and giving as examples, “When did you know about the dirty dossier? Did you know the dirty dossier? When did you find out the dirty dossier was used as the bulk of evidence to get a FISA warrant to spy on the Trump campaign and transition and presidency? When did you first know that there was no collusion and determined no collusion with Russia?”
“Yes, absolutely,” Jarrett replied to Hannity’s advice. “They should be short, direct, succinct questions. You know in the course of just an hour, I've put together 37 questions here. They're all one-sentence long. But I would make Christopher Steele, the dossier, and Hillary Clinton campaign paying for Russian information to influence the election certainly the centerpiece of that.” He added that he would also challenge Mueller about his purported conflicts of interest and those of his team members.
Jarrett has previously offered advice of his own directly to one of the Republican congressmen who will be questioning Mueller.
“There are so many questions to be asked of Robert Mueller by Republicans,” he told Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) while guest-hosting Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight on July 15. “Among the many questions and I have a list of about 20 of them, one of them would be, ‘Mr. Mueller, you sat across a desk from [FBI agent] Peter Strzok and you fired him because of his biased text. And yet, number one, you never asked him if that bias infected his decisions and contaminated of the special counsel investigation.’”
“‘Number two,’” Jarett added, “‘you let him walk out of that office with his cell phone, you didn't confiscate it and preserve the evidence. As a result, it was wiped clean.’ Isn't that one of the questions he should be asked?”
After Gaetz complained that the people involved in the investigation had been biased, Jarett argued that “it became a partisan panel because Mueller left it up to Andrew Weissmann of all people, the partisan-in-chief, to select the entire staff.”
“And you know, that's just one of the many questions I would have: ‘What in the world were you thinking allowing a guy like Weissmann to come near the building?’” he added.
There’s reason to believe Jarrett’s advice will be taken. At the top of the interview, Gaetz told the Fox analyst, “I'm on my way to go meet with my House Judiciary colleagues, and we all have our Gregg Jarrett Russia Hoax book, dog-eared and coffee-stained for our preparations.”
Fox personalities and guests repeatedly suggested questions for Mueller throughout the program. Meanwhile, President Trump has been echoing Fox News conspiracy theories about the investigation on Twitter.