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Two Bush administration veterans have now stated that Karl Rove's comments about Hillary Clinton's health were an intentional effort to push the story into the media, raising significant questions about whether media will be complicit in his smear campaign.
When Rove was quoted wildly speculating that Clinton might have a "traumatic brain injury" following her 2012 concussion and blood clot -- both of which she fully recovered from, according to doctors -- it continued conservative media's months-long efforts to politicize Clinton's health. But new reports suggest Rove's vicious and false attack was calculated to divert more mainstream media attention to Clinton's age and health.
The May 14 Politico Playbook features an anonymous Bush official email which claims that Rove "accomplished exactly what he wanted to" by forcing media to discuss her health and potentially giving her "more reasons to stay out of the race":
A Bush administration alumnus emails: "Karl accomplished exactly what he wanted to: ... Give Hillary more reasons to stay out of the race. Because if she gets in -- no matter how much people villainize him for saying it -- Hillary's health is now a real issue to be discussed. If having to deal with uncomfortable media scrutiny is what will keep her out of the race, this just upped the ante significantly, especially if there is anything healthwise going on, even a small matter. It was a brilliant shot across the bow, even if it was a cheap shot."
Nicolle Wallace, former communications director for the Bush White House and 2004 re-election campaign, also explained on Morning Joe that "Karl didn't just stumble into this line of questioning about Hillary Clinton's health, OK? He is one of the most prepared and deliberate speakers ... I think that the fact that we're having a three day conversation about Hillary's age and health may have been his objective."
While both of these accounts are illuminating looks into Rove's tactics, they also raise significant questions about the media's complicity in pushing these smears. The Morning Joe panel laughed about Rove's remarks (host Joe Scarborough even questioned if Rove himself was "brain damaged,") but as Wallace noted, they were still discussing Rove's falsehood and giving it significant airtime. Similarly, Politico Playbook featured five separate paragraphs hyping "Rove vs. Clinton."
But if we're all just laughing at Rove's ridiculous, malicious attacks, does it matter? According to Peter Beinart at The Atlantic, it does; the media fixation not only proves Rove's tactics worked, but sets up a dangerous precedent where media become complicit in keeping the smear alive (emphasis added):
Why does Rove allegedly smear his opponents this way? Because it works. Consider the Clinton "brain damage" story. Right now, the press is slamming Rove for his vicious, outlandish comments. But they're also talking about Clinton's health problems as secretary of state, disrupting the story she wants to tell about her time in Foggy Bottom in her forthcoming memoir.
Assuming she runs, journalists will investigate Clinton's medical history and age. Now Rove has planted questions that will lurk in their minds as they report.
The idea of journalists and pundits entirely unable to distance their minds from a smear they know to be false is a frightening image -- but it's not as inevitable as Beinart implies. After all, in the same Morning Joe segment, Scarborough (himself a conservative) refused to legitimize Rove's comments by entertaining any discussion of Clinton's age more broadly. Instead, he accurately noted that the fact Clinton would be 69 when inaugurated (if she were to run in 2016 and win) should not be a factor, as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated at 69 and left office at 77. (And as The National Journal has pointed out, because Clinton is female her life expectancy is significantly longer than Reagan's, making any attacks on her age even more nonsensical.)
Media has a responsibility to report the facts, but they also have the ability to choose to not let smears influence how they go looking for those facts. They can laugh at Rove's absurd, desperate jabs without letting them "lurk," and without becoming complicit in his smear campaign. The question is, will they?
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has again dipped into the fringes of the conservative media for support. The Washington Post reported that Paul is building a national network to potentially support a 2016 presidential run, and is using Fritz Wenzel as his pollster.
Wenzel is a birther who has called President Obama an "imposter," and teamed up with conspiracy site WND to push dubious polling about the president's birth certificate. In addition to promoting conspiracy theories, Wenzel is also an objectively poor pollster. He has a long history of offering wild electoral predictions, prompting Slate reporter Dave Weigel to dub him the "pollster that's always wrong."
Wenzel's WND polling isn't limited to birtherism. WND articles about his polls carry headlines like, "AMERICANS WANT 'GAY' LESSONS BANISHED"; "POLL: SEEDS OF TYRANNY PRESENT IN AMERICA"; "ANSWER TO BENGHAZI OBFUSCATION? IMPEACHMENT"; and "POLL: PALIN WOULD STIR UP EVEN DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY" (a poll that claimed Palin would be competitive against Obama in a Democratic primary).
Wenzel's problematic history means the media should treat his polling and analysis skeptically as Paul ramps up his presidential efforts.
The website of Wenzel Strategies touts an endorsement from Paul, who states: "Fritz Wenzel and Wenzel Strategies played a crucial role in my [Senate] election victory ... He is smart, swift, great to work with, and provides top-quality work. I would recommend him to any political campaign." Wenzel was also the pollster for Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign.
Paul's birther pollster is his latest connection to fringe conservative media. Last year Jack Hunter resigned from Paul's Senate office after his "neo-Confederate" and "pro-secessionist" punditry (including defenses of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth) surfaced. Hunter co-wrote Paul's 2011 book, and also appeared in The Daily Caller and on Fox Business. Paul has also repeatedly appeared on the program of leading 9/11 conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Paul used Jones' program as a publicity and fundraising platform during his U.S. Senate campaign, and Jones was an enthusiastic and active supporter of his candidacy.
Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich is busy running for reelection, but that hasn't stopped his former Fox News colleagues from promoting him as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. Fox News has praised Kasich's tenure as governor, and touted him as "a serious potential candidate for president" with a record that gives progressives "reason to fear."
Kasich is the quintessential Fox News candidate, having used a perch at the network to profitably stay in the public eye between runs for public office. He joined Fox in 2001 after serving nine terms in Congress and left in 2009 to run for Ohio governor. He was a frequent presence on the network as a guest host for The O'Reilly Factor, and the host of the programs From The Heartland and Heroes.
Fox News treated Kasich to numerous softball interviews during his successful 2010 run. Sean Hannity told Kasich: "You do me a favor. Go get elected governor" and "You can help us. Win the state of Ohio." During an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor, Kasich asked for donations while Fox News put his website address on-screen (which drew a complaint, later dismissed, from the Democratic Governors Association).
Kasich's gubernatorial campaign also received fundraising support from Fox News. Sean Hannity headlined a "high-dollar fund-raiser" for Kasich in October 2009. Mike Huckabee appeared at a 2009 Kasich campaign event. Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch and his then-wife contributed $20,000 to the campaign, and then-Fox News parent company News Corporation gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which helped elect Kasich.
Kasich has claimed he's not interested in running for president in 2016, telling an Ohio reporter that he "tried to run for president back at the end of the '90s and 2000 and no one was interested ... Now, I'm not interested." In his gubernatorial campaign, Kasich will likely face Democrat Ed FitzGerald, who has unsuccessfully asked Kasich to sign a pledge promising to serve a full term if reelected.
A 2016 Kasich campaign has been a popular topic of conversation for Fox News. While the network frequently applauds Ohio's economic performance during Kasich's tenure, the state's "rate of job growth was below the national average."
Just because Gov. Chris Christie, who was notably banned from the Conservative Political Action Conference last year, spoke at the event Thursday doesn't mean he is the conservative media's new darling.
While the New Jersey governor drew loud applause from the audience during his address, which focused on Republicans pushing for their ideas not against their opponents, right-wing media voices at the conference say that won't translate to support if he seeks the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Some pointed to his well-known embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy in the lead-up to the 2012 election, which may have played a role in the decision by CPAC organizers not to invite him last year. Others declared him insufficiently opposed to gay marriage to garner their support.
"I don't think he will be the nominee anyway," said Tim Constantine, a conservative radio talk show host. "There are ups and downs, it's the nature of politics that he will be knocked down. Chris Christie is the right guy for Republicans in a Northeast state, but not nationally."
Tea Party News Network's Scottie Nell Hughes agreed. She said he is hurt by the George Washington Bridge scandal, but was not her choice even before that.
"It hurt him completely," she said of the bridge controversy. "He is not going to get the conservative vote. It wasn't a non-issue, it was politics."
Hughes said the media coverage of the scandal does give Christie some sympathy, but not enough to overcome opposition within the right-wing movement. "If I am going to put him up against [Wisconsin governor] Scott Walker, I am going to take Scott Walker," she said, adding that Christie "is not going to get the vote. The [GOP] establishment has left him."
Several media commentators said they were surprised that CPAC had invited Christie and found no difference in his electability or conservative credentials since last year.
"You would think it would be the other way around," said Jon Moseley, a conservative talk radio host at Philadelphia's WNJC-AM, suggesting that Christie should be less palatable to CPAC in the wake of the bridge scandal. "A lot of people perceive it as an endorsement, they should not."
Rusty Humphries, the veteran talk radio host and newly-minted columnist at The Washington Times, also said inviting Christie was a mystery. "Would I have invited him? No. He isn't conservative. He is an establishment guy."
Breitbart News' John Sexton called CPAC "a refuge for" Christie. "I think last year he was more electable," Sexton added. "I don't think right now anybody is supporting him."
The Daily Caller currently has a "2016 Bombshell" splashed across its front page -- the conservative website claims that while the "chattering class" is certain that Hillary Clinton is planning to run for president in 2016, "whispers persist" that she will decline a run for office. Caller political reporter Alex Pappas amasses an array of slipshod claims from even less credible sources to string together his case.
The Caller often runs poorly-sourced hit-jobs aimed at damaging progressives and garnering traffic. Here's the evidence on which the Caller is basing its story, which puts a Clinton spokesman's statement that she is "100%" up against four uses of the word "rumors" and three uses of "skeptics" or "skeptical."
In the story's third graph, Pappas unveils what is apparently his most compelling evidence that Clinton's health is in jeopardy -- two supermarket tabloids have reported it:
These ubiquitous rumors of her health have been fueled in part by the supermarket tabloids. The National Enquirer wrote in 2012 that Clinton had brain cancer, something a spokesman dismissed then as "absolute nonsense." In January of this year, the Globe claimed that Clinton secretly had a brain tumor.
That Globe story cites a "close source" saying that Bill Clinton has been telling Hillary that "they need to think long and hard about" her doctors' supposed warnings that she would not survive a presidential campaign. Which is weird, because back in September The Globe was reporting that Hillary was going to divorce Bill -- who, according to the story, is "dying" -- after he recently tried to "hook up" with Gennifer Flowers. And because in August, The Globe was reporting that Hillary's presidential plans were doomed after video emerged of her "steamy romps -- with another woman!"
In any case, the supermarket tabloids are old news -- they came out one month and fourteen months ago. So why is the Caller running the story now? The closest thing Pappas has to a news hook -- the only data point in the story from within the last month -- is a February 24 tweet from Roger Stone, identified as a "GOP consultant," claiming that Clinton is "not running for health reasons." Stone, who has been called a "professional dirty trickster and high priest of political hijinks" by the conservative Weekly Standard, is not someone to be taken seriously where Clinton is concerned -- in 2008 he founded the anti-Hillary Clinton 527 group Citizens United Not Timid, which emphasized its acronym on its website and on T-shirts.
The balance of the story goes back over Clinton's health scare in December 2012, when she suffered a concussion and doctors subsequently found a blood clot in her head, from which they said she made a "full recovery." At the time, conservatives claimed that she had fabricated her "immaculate concussion" as a means of avoiding scheduled congressional hearings on Benghazi. Since then, Clinton has stepped down as Secretary of State, begun a campaign to accelerate global progress for women and girls at the foundation her husband founded, and embarked on a vigorous series of speeches around the world.
The phony concussion "rumor" has faded away, so the Caller has made up a new one. And Pappas apparently did the job his employer is looking for - his story got a Drudge Report link, and Caller reporters are paid in part based on traffic. This brand of conservative rumormongering is shoddy, but apparently it pays.
This post has been updated for clarity.
Megyn Kelly To Interview Woman Who Suggested Clintons Killed Her Husband -- And Vince Foster
Fox News will host discredited smear merchant Kathleen Willey tonight to attack Hillary Clinton. Willey is not credible -- she has repeatedly been caught contradicting her own sworn testimony and has pushed absurd conspiracies that the Clintons killed her husband and former White House aide Vince Foster.
The website for Fox's The Kelly File currently features the following tease for tonight's episode: "She claimed Bill Clinton sexually harassed her, but former aide Kathleen Willey now says Hillary is the bigger danger to women! Don't miss this explosive interview." Megyn Kelly's interview will likely cover the same ground as an appearance Willey made on WND reporter Aaron Klein's radio program, during which she claimed that "Hillary Clinton is the war on women."
Willey's claims about Bill Clinton's supposed harassment have been thoroughly discredited. In 1998, Willey alleged on CBS' 60 Minutes that President Clinton fondled her against her will in 1993 during a private White House meeting in which she asked for a paid position in the administration (she was working as a volunteer at the time). Clinton denied making any sexual advance toward Willey, both at the time and in his memoir. The allegations were explored during discovery of Jones v. Clinton, the lawsuit in which Paula Jones claimed that Clinton sexually harassed her, and reviewed by Independent Counsel Robert Ray.
Ray's report found that "Willey's Jones deposition testimony differed from her grand jury testimony on material aspects of the alleged incident," noting that Willey "said at her deposition ... that [Clinton] did not fondle her." Ray also pointed out that -- despite Willey's subsequent claims that she had been intimidated near her home shortly before giving her Jones deposition in 1998 -- in her Jones deposition, she "testified no one had tried to discourage her from testifying."
Ray also found that Willey contradicted herself on whether she had told others about the alleged incident; that Willey had sent repeated letters to Clinton after she claims he harassed her in which she "sought help or expressed gratitude"; that a Willey friend said Willey had instructed her to falsely support her story; and that Willey gave false information to the FBI. The Independent Counsel declined to prosecute Clinton due to "insufficient evidence."
Since her initial 60 Minutes interview, Willey has offered a series of implausible and conspiratorial claims about the Clintons' alleged efforts to silence her.