The Justice Department’s probe into the origins of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election is a Fox News-fueled effort designed to benefit Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. That argument isn’t just coming from Media Matters and other progressives -- the president’s own campaign just admitted it.
Trump has always wanted a partisan attorney general who would use the office to protect the president and punish his enemies. After his turbulent relationship with the less pliable Jeff Sessions, Trump appears to have gotten precisely that in William Barr, who was confirmed to the post in February. Barr helmed a pro-Trump disinformation campaign designed to cushion the impact of special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report. He launched an investigation into the early days of the probe that eventually led to Mueller’s appointment, suggesting it was a witch hunt targeting Trump even as he was unable to offer evidence of any actual investigative irregularities. And Trump has given him unprecedented authority to unilaterally declassify whatever he finds during his own review of the Russia investigation, allowing him to selectively release the information for Trump’s political benefit.
According to Trump’s campaign, Fox figures -- particularly prime-time host and sometime Trump adviser Sean Hannity -- are responsible for Barr’s effort to devote federal resources to this politically motivated probe.
During a Tuesday interview on his radio show, Hannity asked Trump campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany to assess the impact that “the media mob” would have on the 2020 election. Reeling off a list of news outlets, Hannity claimed Trump is opposed by “pretty much everybody except for like me” and several other key Fox hosts and guests.
“Yeah, the work that you do every night, Sean, is going to go a long way,” McEnany replied. “It already has. We now have the Justice Department looking into the misdeeds of the Obama administration.”
Hannity is a devoted Trump supporter and uses his show to shill for his policies and denounce his enemies. Even at a network that has virtually merged with the Trump team, Hannity stands out -- he appeared in a 2016 Trump campaign ad and spoke at one of the president’s 2018 rallies.
But the Trump spokesperson wasn’t simply talking about the impact of Fox’s propaganda on the president’s base. Attributing a federal investigation to Hannity’s influence takes his impact to a new and disturbing level.
What’s more, McEnany is probably correct. Hannity’s show is devoted to the sprawling conspiracy theory that “deep state” operatives tried to smear Trump by means of the Russia probe because they wanted him to lose the 2016 election to Hillary Clinton.
This makes no sense. The FBI investigation into the Russian ties of Trump associates was kept under wraps through that campaign, while disclosures about its investigation related to Clinton’s emails probably played a crucial role in her loss. But Hannity has kept up the drumbeat for more than two years, and his conspiracy theory has spread through much of the network’s programming.
Trump, who watches hours of Fox programming a day, in turn has regularly parroted network’s most paranoid claims, channeling the falsehood that the FBI had attempted a coup against him and raving about the purported “treason.” And soon after Barr’s confirmation, commentators began noting that his public comments resembled the narratives pushed by the right-wing network, even saying that Barr “talks like Sean Hannity.”
It would be unnerving enough if Fox’s paranoia was simply influencing the attorney general’s words. But as McEnany pointed out, it also seems to have impacted his actions.
On the night of Barr’s confirmation, Hannity used his Fox show to urge him to conduct criminal investigations into officials tied to the Russia probe. And after Mueller completed his probe in March, Fox News commentators pivoted to demanding an investigation of the investigators -- one that they said should include former President Barack Obama himself.
According to Trump’s reelection campaign, that Fox coverage triggered the federal probe Barr announced the following month.
And the Trump campaign plans to cynically deploy the Fox-fueled probe against former Vice President Joe Biden if he becomes the Democratic nominee. “The Democrats really have a huge albatross around their neck,” she told Hannity, “because he was right there in the center of all the wrongdoing we saw happen there.”
It was inevitable for Hannity’s pro-Trump commentary to become the foundation of the president’s reelection campaign. That the campaign acknowledges that messaging might come via a federal investigation is an ominous sign.