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.
Justice Department and FBI officials maligned by right-wing media in defense of Trump
Right-wing media’s fixation on former FBI Director James Comey began in July 2016, after Comey “recommended no criminal charges be pressed against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified information while she was secretary of state.” Immediately after Comey’s announcement, right-wing media personalities began criticizing Comey’s decision and claiming that his refusal to press charges was meant to “give Mrs. Clinton a pass.” Some conservative media figures, such as Townhall’s Kurt Schlichter and conservative radio host Mark Davis, argued that Comey’s exoneration of Clinton demonstrated that the “fix is in” and the “coverup is on.” Fox News’ Sean Hannity responded to the news by contending, “If you don't think the fix is in here, you do not understand your government today. This government is corrupt at its core. This government is incestuously corrupt.”
Right-wing media’s attacks on Comey’s integrity continued throughout the 2016 election season. In August, conspiracy theorist Larry Klayman appeared on Fox News’ America’s Newsroom to attack Comey as a “political animal” who “basically was looking at his own interest and not the United States.” A month later, then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called for Comey’s departure from the FBI, arguing that he had “lost all credibility” and “besmirched his own agency.” In October, Fox’s Jeanine Pirro baselessly claimed that Comey had “destroyed some of the evidence” relevant to the Clinton case, and Sean Hannity speculated that the Clintons could “have something” on Comey. After Comey again cleared Clinton of wrongdoing in early November 2016, Hannity continued his attacks on the then-FBI director by accusing him of “lying” about Clinton’s emails.
Following months of relentless right-wing media accusations of pro-Clinton bias and attacks on Comey’s credibility, President Donald Trump removed Comey from his post as FBI director in May 2017, while an FBI investigation into links between Trump advisers and Russian officials was still ongoing. Comey’s firing raised questions about Trump’s potential obstruction of justice and led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to independently investigate potential coordination between Trump campaign associates and Russia. Though Comey’s firing drew rebuke from Democrats and many Republicans, right-wing media celebrated his dismissal as the culmination of months of their own disinformation campaign.
Right-wing media started targeting then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe on October 23, 2016, when The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Clinton Ally Aided Campaign of FBI Official’s Wife,” reporting that then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) had donated $500,000 to the 2015 political campaign of McCabe’s wife, Dr. Jill McCabe. Despite the suggestion of scandal in the headline, the article made no actual claim of impropriety, and even stated that Deputy Director McCabe was not involved with his wife’s campaign, he didn’t start working on the Clinton email case until “months after” his wife’s campaign ended, and as such, the FBI had no ethical concerns.
Despite these facts, right-wing media quickly ran with the suggestion that McCabe had a conflict of interest. On October 25, 2016, Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy said the timeline “looks fishy” and Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano said that while he didn’t think McCabe had “broke[n] any laws,” he had “clearly violated Department of Justice regulations.” The conflict-of-interest allegation simmered on in far-right and fake news internet haunts for months. In June 2017, Fox’s Sean Hannity again mainstreamed the false allegation after Sara Carter, a favorite Hannity guest, published an article for Circa News alleging that the “FBI launched a criminal probe” against former national security adviser Michael Flynn in retaliation for Flynn’s involvement in a 2015 sexual discrimination allegation against McCabe and other FBI officials.
In December of 2017, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) also joined the bandwagon on a Fox News guest appearance by baselessly insisting that “Andrew McCabe was present when the FBI’s senior leadership hatched a scheme to deprive Donald Trump the presidency both before and after his election.” After Axios reported on January 23 that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had been pressuring FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire McCabe at Trump’s direction, and Wray had threatened to resign in response, the hosts of Fox & Friends suggested that the Trump administration felt McCabe was “a little bit of a problem” and asked why Wray had “an allegiance” to McCabe.
On December 2, The Washington Post reported that FBI agent Peter Strzok had been removed from Mueller’s investigation in June, after the discovery of several anti-Trump text messages Strzok had sent during the election cycle to Lisa Page, a trial attorney on Mueller’s team and his then-romantic partner. Page left Mueller’s team “before the text messages were discovered.” As ABC News reported, Page had only a “short, temporary assignment and always expected to return” to the office of the FBI general counsel “as soon as that assignment ended.”
On December 4, Hugh Hewitt, a conservative commentator on MSNBC, made one of the earliest calls for a second special counsel to investigate Strzok’s “texts to FBI lawyer Lisa Page” to see if they “reveal a partisan animus toward Trump or admiration for Clinton,” because the public “deserves a detailed account of Strzok’s (and Page’s) duties and authorities during the years in question.”
Hannity, as part of his broader crusade against Russia investigations, quickly labeled Strzok “a Trump hater … appointed to every position that helped Hillary and every position that hurt Trump.” Hannity was referencing Strzok’s participation in Mueller’s investigation, his interview of Flynn, and his recommendation to change the language in Comey’s July 5, 2016 letter about Clinton’s handling of classified information from “grossly negligent” to “extremely careless,” to better reflect that the FBI had found nothing criminal. On December 13, Hannity took credit for Republican lawmakers calling on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a second special counsel, claiming “You’ve heard it here first. We’ve been doing this now for months.” On December 17, Rep. Gaetz included Strzok and Page (whom he called Strzok’s “mistress”) as key figures in the anti-Trump “scheme” and accused the FBI of plotting to “deprive President Trump his ascension” to the presidency. Fox’s Pete Hegseth similarly said Strzok and Page’s texts were evidence of a “bureaucratic conspiracy” against the president.
On January 22, Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and John Ratcliffe (R-TX) appeared on Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum to allege that, based on out-of-context wording from a text between Strzok and Page, “there may have been a 'secret society' of folks within the Department of Justice and the FBI, to include Page and Strzok, working against” the president. Their appearance drove two days of intense right-wing media messaging that the FBI had a “secret society” dedicated to undermining Trump and that, as Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs said, Trump had grounds “to declare war outright against the deep state.” The narrative quietly died when ABC News reported the full text, which showed that the reference to a “secret society” was a joke, not a revelation of the “attempted coup” that Hannity had alleged.
Despite the “secret society” allegation completely falling apart, Hannity and House Republicans, pointing to a text message believed to reference McCabe, continue to allege that Strzok and Page were part of a secret FBI effort to defend Clinton and/or undermine Trump.
On January 31, CNN further weakened the right-wing narrative of anti-Trump bias, reporting that Strzok helped draft the letter Comey sent to Congress days before the 2016 election, “announcing [that] the bureau was investigating newly discovered Clinton emails ... reigniting the email controversy in the final days of the campaign.”
On January 30, Trump fired then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and issued a statement accusing her of having “betrayed the Justice Department” by refusing to enforce his Muslim ban. However, right-wing media’s criticism of Yates over the Muslim ban was soon drowned out by a February 13 Washington Post report that revealed that Yates had “warned” the Trump White House that Flynn lied to the FBI about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak, then-Russian ambassador to the United States, and therefore “was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail.”
Even though Flynn resigned almost immediately after the Post’s report, in anticipation of Yates’ May 8 testimony about the Russia investigation, right-wing media leapt at the chance to follow Trump’s lead in smearing her as a “Democratic operative” out to get Trump. Right-wing media figures attempted to brand her as a “Hillary loyalist” and baselessly alleged she had leaked classified information to the media to hurt the president. After Yates’ Senate testimony, Hannity claimed on May 8, that the Obama administration was involved in improperly unmasking members of the Trump campaign and administration, as well as journalists, lawyers, doctors, and even Hannity himself. The New York Post used the baseless unmasking allegations to accuse Yates of blackmailing Trump, and a National Review article bemoaning Senate Democrats’ “partisan innuendo” during Yates’ testimony ended by suggesting another article titled “Susan Rice’s White House Unmasking: A Watergate-style Scandal” as further reading. Reliable right-wing attack dog Judicial Watch also filed a lawsuit to access Yates’ emails from her 10 days as acting attorney general, which the organization later used to further launch attacks on her as one of many “anti-Trump partisans” allegedly corrupting the Justice Department.
Hannity’s unmasking obsession was a re-manifestation of an older, already-debunked fake scandal involving Susan Rice of the Obama administration, a fake scandal that Hannity, as recently as February 1, still believes is part of the deep state plot against Trump.
The officials left standing, and how right-wing media is working to change that
Right-wing media has waged an all-out war against Mueller since May 2017, when Mueller took up the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. Conservative figures have continuously claimed that Mueller has “conflicts of interest,” that he is leading a “witch hunt” or a “coup” against Trump, and that Trump should fire him or he should resign himself.
Attacks against Mueller began within weeks of his appointment on May 17, 2017. On June 11, Fox’s Newt Gingrich argued that it was “delusional” to expect Mueller to be impartial. Fox’s Gregg Jarrett claimed that Mueller cannot “fairly and objectively evaluate the evidence he gathers.” Ann Coulter called for Mueller to be fired, as did Hannity repeatedly throughout June.
Hannity has spearheaded the right-wing media campaign against Mueller, often unleashing his most scathing criticisms of the special counsel after reporting that is damaging for Trump. A Media Matters study found that from Mueller’s appointment in May to December 8, Hannity demanded Mueller’s firing, resignation, or recusal 44 times on his Fox News show. Hannity’s guests made similar calls on 35 occasions while appearing on his show. In addition to calling for Mueller’s outster, Hannity and his guests accused Mueller and his team of having “conflicts of interest” 364 times, and condemned Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt” 43 times.
Wild denigration of the special counsel hasn’t been limited to Hannity’s often conspiratorial show, however, and has instead been commonplace across the Fox News lineup. Fox News hosts and contributors have attacked Mueller as partisan and called for his ouster. During an opening monologue that piled criticism onto Mueller, Pirro called for a “cleansing” of the FBI. In December, Geraldo Rivera admitted, “I want to free Donald Trump from Mueller,” and Jarrett claimed that Mueller was “using the FBI as a political weapon ... like the old KGB," and should be fired.
After The New York Times reported in January that Trump wanted to fire Mueller in June 2017 for reasons that echoed Hannity’s conflict of interest claims, some media figures at Fox doubled down on their attacks against the special counsel and defended Trump’s right to dismiss him. Jarrett defended Trump’s attempt to fire Mueller because “Mueller had not one, but two conflicts of interest.” Hannity defended Trump, asking, “Does he not have the right to ask these questions?”
Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller as special counsel in May 2017, has been a frequent target of right-wing media figures who have attempted to smear him as a biased and corrupt member of the anti-Trump “deep state.”
Hannity called for Rosenstein's resignation as early as June, less than a month after Rosenstein appointed Mueller. On June 16, Infowars’ Roger Stone, who sells himself as Trump’s inside man and has openly talked about his official and unofficial roles in Trump’s presidential campaign, condemned Rosenstein for leading a “witch hunt” against Trump, and said that the president should fire both him and Mueller. Other right-wing figures have been equally scathing in their attacks on Rosenstein. Jarrett described Rosenstein as part of a Justice Department “cartel, the equivalent of the mob,” and Fox contributor Mike Huckabee accused him of being engaged in “what essentially amounts to a coup d'etat” against Trump.
The tempo of right-wing media’s criticisms of Rosenstein has increased in recent weeks, as Trump’s propagandists called for the release of a memo drafted by Republicans on the House intelligence committee. The memo was released on February 2 against the advice of the FBI and the Justice Department, a decision made by Trump apparently without reading the document. The House intelligence committee voted along partisan lines to release the memo to Trump and then to the public. As explained by The New York Times, the memo focuses in part on Rosenstein’s actions after the 2016 election, which could indicate that “Republicans may be moving to seize on his role as they seek to undermine the inquiry.”
Soon after Republicans began calling for the release of the memo, Hannity addressed Rosenstein directly on his show, and then called for his ousting: “Rod Rosenstein, you need to explain your role in all of this and specifically if you were involved in extending this FISA warrant. And, frankly, Rod Rosenstein needs to be fired.” Hannity again called for Rosenstein to be “fired and investigated” on January 22. He has described the deputy attorney general as “corrupt,” suggesting he was part of a “rogue group of Obama administration holdovers that despise Donald Trump” that were “abus[ing] the powerful, unmatched tools of intelligence that we give our government to protect us” in order to “influence first the election and then undermine the choice of the American people.” He also questioned whether Rosenstein might be part of the non-existent anti-Trump “secret society.”
Other Fox personalities have echoed Hannity’s attacks on Rosenstein. Jarrett told Hannity that Rosenstein had approved an “illegal investigation,” and during an appearance on Lou Dobbs’ Fox Business show, he baselessly claimed that Rosenstein has “serious political bias” and may have committed a federal crime that carries a 10-year prison sentence. Discussing the memo on Justice with Jeanine Pirro on Saturday, Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton claimed that there needs to be “pressure on the FBI to clean out its ranks at the leadership level,” adding, “If Rod Rosenstein isn’t going to do it, they should find someone who will.” Pirro responded, “I got to tell you I couldn’t agree with you more. That place is dirty.”
Despite him being Trump’s pick to lead the FBI, right-wing media’s attacks on Christopher Wray began before he had even been confirmed as FBI director, and have continued unabashedly into 2018. Dobbs launched his first attack on Wray shortly after the then-nominee appeared before the Senate. Dobbs denounced him for refusing to take a “loyalty oath” to Trump, and questioned “where the hell” Wray got the idea that the FBI “is an independent agency.” Dobbs has frequently criticized Wray, calling for his ouster on multiple occasions.
Dobbs is not alone in his attacks on Wray. His colleagues at Fox News have ramped up their criticism of the FBI director since Axios reported that Wray effectively stopped Trump at one time from firing McCabe. In the aftermath of the Axios report, Fox’s Andrew Napolitano baselessly speculated that Wray could be involved in the text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page that were briefly missing, noting that he doesn’t know if Wray’s “hands are clean on this.” Brian Kilmeade, co-host of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, the president’s go-to source of information, also attacked Wray, and questioned why he would intervene on McCabe’s behalf.