On Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller appeared on Capitol Hill for high-profile hearings before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees to discuss the results of his 22-month investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. His probe resulted in indictments or guilty pleas from 34 people -- including top Trump advisers. His final report detailed a sustained, multi-faceted effort by the Russian government to help Trump win the election, numerous contacts between Russia and Trump associates, presidential efforts to sabotage the investigation, and endless lies by Trump to cover up all of the above.
At that critical moment, House Republicans decided to focus their strategy in questioning Mueller on the hazy alternative narrative generated by their loyal propagandists at Fox News. The result was a case study in the iron grip Fox has on the Republican Party during the Trump era.
Fox spent years poisoning the well for Mueller’s probe. The network’s commentators, led by Sean Hannity, told their audience that Trump and his associates were innocent victims of a sinister plot by “deep state” operatives trying to pull off a “soft coup.” Since Mueller concluded his work, Fox personalities have been diligently lying about what his report said and amping up calls to investigate the investigators. That coverage -- frequently echoed by Trump himself -- has shaped the opinions of Fox viewers on the Mueller investigation.
This years-long effort came to a head on Wednesday, with Hannity effectively dictating the GOP’s strategy in handling Mueller. The night before the hearings, he urged congressional Republicans to focus their attention not on the results of the investigation, but on the investigators. And that’s exactly what many of them did, using questions ripped from Hannity’s program to demand Mueller weigh in on the network’s conspiracy theories.
One House Republican cited Gregg Jarrett, the Fox legal analyst who once argued on Hannity’s show that in light of the Mueller probe, “the FBI has become America’s secret police” like “the old KBG.” Another entered into the record an op-ed he had written for Hannity’s website. Others championed Hannity’s feverish focus on tangential topics like former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele’s memos, the research firm Fusion GPS and its founder, Glenn Simpson, and the purported political leanings of Mueller’s staff.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and a Hannity regular, devoted much of his opening statement during the afternoon hearing to the Fox host’s twisted theory that the real collusion during the 2016 presidential campaign was between Russia and the Democrats.
The result was dizzying for those not fully versed in Fox’s peculiar obsessions. “I've paid decently close attention to the Russia / Mueller saga, but I don't know how you follow Nunes questioning unless you're deep into HannityLand,” The New York Times’ James Poniewozik commented at one point. “It's like the GOP is producing a superfan podcast.”
But House Republicans’ use of this “impenetrable dialect” demonstrates that rather than trying to educate a broader audience, they were speaking directly to Fox viewers steeped in “right-wing witch-hunt lore,” as The Washington Post’s Nicole Hemmer noted. “They were not there to investigate but to instigate, to rile up a base that had made up its mind about Mueller around the same time Trump did,” she concluded.
The base was apparently riled. As the network’s propagandists cheered on the GOP legislators and announced that the hearing had failed, Trump, an inveterate Fox watcher who has frequently parroted the network’s anti-Mueller conspiracy theories, spent Wednesday afternoon and evening and Thursday morning tweeting out a dozen quotes and clips from the network’s programs and thanking its hosts and guests for supporting him.
Hannity himself was thrilled with House Republicans’ “amazing” performance, and made time during his opening monologue to take a bow for his own work in promoting the narrative they spent the day channeling.
“I want to say a very big thank you to the ensemble team that we have. I can't mention everybody. I won't even begin to,” he said. “But you know the people that we have had on. And we have been in the forefront of peeling one layer of the onion after another after another after another. It has been arduous. It has been shoe-leather reporting, the way it should be done.”
Later in the program, several of the House Republicans who had echoed Hannity during the day’s hearings appeared on the program to kiss his ring and accept his praise.
“I was impressed with everybody and I think you all did a great job. You in particular, sir,” Hannity told House Judiciary Committee ranking member Doug Collins (R-GA).
“Without the people I'm about to introduce this wouldn't have happened,” he said at the top of an interview with Nunes and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL).
“Thank you for what you did for your country,” Hannity concluded. “This is important stuff.”
By Thursday morning, the network with the ear of the president and his party had moved on to floating pardons for “some of those who paid the price for knowing him” while urging an investigation into “the role of President Obama” in the Russia probe.