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  • Trump calls for a "treason" investigation based on a Fox & Friends news brief

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday morning that his administration would review whether Google has committed “treason” after seeing a Fox & Friends news brief in which one of his biggest Silicon Valley supporters floated that baseless claim.

    Trump was responding to a Fox & Friends segment from earlier Tuesday morning, as he indicated by tagging the show’s Twitter handle and using quotes from its programming. An hour earlier, Fox news reader Jillian Mele began a news brief, “Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel believes China should be investigated for treason.” As she spoke, Fox’s chyron read, “Thiel accuses Google of working with Chinese Govt.”

    Trump regularly watches Fox News programs like Fox & Friends (often on delay using his “Super Tivo”) and tweets about segments that catch his attention. This creates a feedback loop between the president and his most avid propagandists which can swing both the national news cycle and federal policy

    Fox segments spur some of the president’s most inflammatory comments -- this morning’s tweet marks at least the fourth time the president has responded to the network’s coverage by promoting a treason charge against his perceived enemies.

    In this case, Trump was picking up on an accusation from Thiel, a wealthy tech investor and major Trump donor who spoke at the 2016 Republican convention. In a speech on Sunday, Thiel said that Google’s decision to work with the Chinese government to produce a censored version of its search while letting a Pentagon contract lapse was “seemingly treasonous,” and he suggested without evidence that Google’s executive corps had been “infiltrated” by foreign intelligence services. “These questions need to be asked by the FBI and the CIA,” he added. (Thiel sits on the board of Facebook, a Google competitor.)

    The Pentagon has previously alleged that Google’s work in China provides a “direct benefit to the Chinese military,” and Trump has echoed the point. The tech company responded that it is not working with the Chinese military. 

    Thiel returned to the subject during a Monday night appearance on Fox News host and sometime Trump adviser Tucker Carlson’s show, floating what he described as “a few different possibilities” while offering no evidence for his claim of Chinese infiltration of and treason by Google. 

    “If [Google CEO] Sundar Pinchai was sitting right here, what would you say to him?” Carlson asked at one point.

    “Well, I would say, answer my three questions,” Thiel replied. “How many foreign intelligence agencies have infiltrated Google? Have the Chinese in particular infiltrated? And why are you working with Communist China and not the U.S.? What is the reason you're doing that?”

    “The questions you raise, and this is not in any way to minimize their importance, are kind of obvious questions,” Carlson replied. “Why hasn't the U.S. government ascertained the answers?”

    “It's possible that there are people in the U.S. government looking into it and they haven't told us, but yeah, I think the FBI and CIA would be the natural places to look into it,” Thiel said.

    Mele aired a clip from that interview during her news brief the following morning. 

    Fox’s credulous coverage of Thiel’s speculation -- and Trump’s parroting of those claims -- is no surprise. Right-wing activists and journalists have treated tech companies as an emerging enemy force in recent years. By inflating claims of purported bias against conservatives on social media platforms, they sought to redeploy ref-working tactics previously used against news media outlets. 

    Fueled by Fox, Trump has adopted this campaign as his own. Last year, Trump claimed Google’s search engine was “suppressing voices of Conservatives” and promised to act against it, apparently in response to a conspiracy-minded segment he saw on Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight

    Last week, Trump took that accusation from Twitter to the White House Rose Garden. “We had a terrible bias,” Trump said at Thursday’s “Presidential Social Media Summit,” an event that sought to mainstream previously fringe pro-Trump figures. “We have censorship like nobody has any understanding or nobody can believe.” 

  • How the Trump-Fox feedback loop nationalized a local city council vote

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    In years past, Fox News needed several days of feverish coverage to push bogus stories from the right-wing universe into the mainstream press through a process we called the Fox Cycle. That mechanism has been supercharged by the Trump-Fox feedback loop: President Donald Trump frequently watches and tweets about segments that catch his eye, and because major news outlets treat his tweets as inherently newsworthy, he can with a single tweet drive mainstream coverage of the conservative network’s particular obsessions.

    This cycle has played out over and over again since Trump’s election, on topics from NFL protests to migrant caravans. The last 48 hours or so -- in which a Fox-fueled president turned a controversy involving the city council of St. Louis Park, MN, a community of 49,000 people, that had no impact on anyone’s material existence into a national story -- provide a perfect case study of this process.

    1. Fox News puts a dishonest spin on a culture war clash

    Fox & Friends devoted a news brief and a segment on Tuesday morning to the plight of St. Louis Park, where some residents had on Monday night protested the city council’s decision last month to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of meetings. Fox News frequently tries to nationalize such local news stories, framing them as battles in a broader culture war. The St. Louis Park story is catnip for Fox, allowing its right-wing hosts to frame their antagonists as insufficiently patriotic effete liberals. 

    Fox aired a chyron during the segment that falsely suggested there had been a “ban” on saying the pledge:

    2. Trump sees Fox's coverage and responds on Twitter

    Trump on Tuesday followed his typical morning ritual of watching Fox & Friends and tweeting about what he saw. Fox’s coverage of the pledge grabbed his attention, and he picked up the chyron’s dishonest framing and tweeted, “Outrage is growing in the Great State of Minnesota where our Patriots are now having to fight for the right to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I will be fighting for you!” This has the effect of both turning Trump into the protagonist of Fox’s narrative and nationalizing what had been a local news story.

    3. National news outlets cover Trump’s comment

    Trump’s tweet drove the story from Fox & Friends into major national news outlets. The Associated Press and The Washington Post both reported on his comment.

    4. Fox goes into overdrive

    Taking its cue from the president, Fox “opinion” hosts and “news” anchors alike devoted significant coverage to St. Louis Park’s city council throughout the day on Wednesday and into Thursday morning, at times deploying the same dishonest frame that the pledge had been “ban[ned].”

    5. Trump tweets about story again, dumping more fuel on the fire

    Amid a stream of tweets about Fox programming on Thursday morning, Trump suggested that St. Louis Park’s city council and its supporters are showing “disloyalty to our wonderful USA!”

    6. New Trump tweet gives mainstream outlets opportunity to revisit story

    The Hill picked up Trump’s Thursday comments. It remains to be seen how much further the story might spread.

    It’s absurd that the president of the United States is devoting his time and attention to the decisions of a city council that represents a population of 49,000 people. But Fox is constantly looking for new grievances for its audience to get angry about, and the president is both a constantly aggrieved member of that audience and a political benefactor from such stories. That set of factors keeps turning Fox’s obsessions into national news.

  • Fox has revived its fearmongering over Ebola and the southern border. Is Trump watching?

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Fox News hosts and guests have repeatedly warned the network’s audience in recent weeks that Congolese refugees crossing the U.S.-Mexico border may be carrying Ebola, despite statements to the contrary from health officials.

    It’s commonplace for Fox to stoke bigoted fears about the dire consequences the purported immigrant “invasion” will have on viewers’ physical security and political power. But invoking Ebola carries particular risks given President Donald Trump’s obsession with the network’s coverage and his reaction to a prior outbreak of the virus in 2014. Every such segment carries with it the possibility that a watching Trump might see it and begin issuing tweets that would needlessly panic the public or demand federal actions that threaten lives.

    In the summer and fall of 2014, Republican politicians and their right-wing media allies cynically deployed an Ebola outbreak in West Africa as a political weapon, denouncing President Barack Obama’s scientifically sound response and stoking public fears as a means of triumphing in the midterm elections.

    Trump played a central role in this panic-for-profit scheme, using appearances on Fox News and his widely followed Twitter feed to urge the government to take actions that public health experts said would have had dire repercussions if they had been implemented. Trump’s commentary had a huge impact -- the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy concluded that his unhinged tweets “represented a turning point, the moment when fear of the deadly virus began to infect the American public.”

    Obama’s actions were ultimately vindicated, but Trump’s entry into the political realm helped lay the groundwork for his successful presidential campaign two years later.

    As president, Trump has been ultimately responsible for overseeing the federal government’s response to the second-largest outbreak of Ebola in history, which began last August in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has claimed more than 1,400 lives so far. This time around, there have been no Trump tweets on the subject, and Republicans and right-wing media have been largely uninterested in the disease, likely seeing little potential political gain in fearmongering about a potential pandemic when they control the executive branch.

    But that’s beginning to change.

    While the current outbreak has stretched on for more than a year, Fox’s biggest stars almost entirely ignored the story until earlier this month, after U.S. Customs and Border Protection began reporting that it had apprehended groups of central African migrants, including Congolese nationals, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

    Those migrants are typically seeking asylum, citing “horrific stories of government-sanctioned violence at home.” Many are then taken to San Antonio, TX, which houses the closest major bus depot near their main point of entry to the U.S., from which they can travel to stay with family members while going through the asylum process. While it is unusual to see such a surge of Africans seeking asylum at the border, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been the largest source of refugees to the U.S. in each of the last three years.

    It is not possible for the recently apprehended Congolese migrants to carry Ebola, as health officials have detailed. The migrants are not from the area of Congo that is experiencing the current outbreak. If they had been infected with Ebola, they would likely have died long before reaching the U.S., since the disease has a 21-day incubation period and is extremely debilitating. And if they had somehow managed to both catch Ebola and survive to reach the U.S. border, it would have been caught by the U.S. government medical personnel who screened them after being apprehended.

    But Fox is deeply committed to terrifying its audience about the physical threat to their safety that undocumented immigrants supposedly bring. And so over the last few weeks, the network’s personalities -- particularly virulently anti-immigrant prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham -- have repeatedly brought up the possibility of Ebola infection in discussing the migrants.

    In denouncing the U.S.’s lax borders on June 3, Carlson echoed right-wing websites like Gateway Pundit and Conservative Review in arguing that the Congolese migrants were particularly dangerous. “Across the world, it is now common knowledge that if you can make it to our border, odds are you will never have to go back,” he said. “And by the way, there's an Ebola outbreak happening in Congo right now. Maybe it isn't a great idea to let people from there enter our country illegally.”

    On Carlson’s program two nights later, conservative commentator Tammy Bruce similarly warned that “chaos” on the border threatened “American families and their health” because of the apprehension of migrants from Congo, which “is dealing with another outbreak of Ebola.”

    As the week went on, conspiracy theorist websites like The Gateway Pundit and Infowars began suggesting without evidence that Ebola-infected immigrants were roaming the streets of San Antonio. On June 10, that theory made it all the way to Ingraham’s Fox show.

    “Hundreds of illegals from the Congo apparently are applying for asylum and being deposited in San Antonio,” she said. “Now, this could clearly be a public health concern. Why? Well, according to Reuters, the number of cases of Ebola in eastern Congo has passed 2,000.”

    Ingraham went on to acknowledge that city officials had told her that it was impossible for the migrants to be carrying Ebola, citing its incubation period. But then she mocked their response: “I don't know, why would we even put that to chance? I'm not sure we're really tracking the travel patterns of everybody coming into the country, but they're telling us, ‘Don't worry tonight. It's OK.’"

    She connected the Congolese refugees to Ebola again in two different segments on Friday, during which she and one of her guests stated that the situation is worrisome even though the incubation period makes it unlikely that the migrants are actually carrying the disease.  

    Fox continued to link the central African migrants to the deadly virus on Saturday and Monday.

    The network has used this sort of reckless fearmongering as a core part of its brand since it launched in the 1990s. For decades, Fox’s hosts have sought to stampede their audience toward Republican politicians by making them fearful for their lives. But with one of their viewers ensconced in the Oval Office and often taking his cues from the network, the situation has gotten even more dangerous.

  • The Trump-Fox feedback loop could cause a war with Iran

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump tweeted about a Fox News segment Monday morning that urged a U.S. military strike against Iran, a worrisome development as experts warn that rising tensions between the two nations could quickly spiral out of control.

    Fox both serves as Trump’s personal propaganda outlet and shapes his worldview. The president regularly watches hours of Fox coverage and often tweets about segments that catch his eye. He has stocked his administration with former Fox personalities, the network’s most prominent figures serve as his outside advisers, and guests openly appeal to him during their on-air appearances. Fox segments have an immense influence over this White House, with the president acting based on what he sees on the network on everything from political strategy to pardons.

    On Monday morning at 11:49 a.m. ET, Trump tweeted, “Iran to defy Uranium Stockpile Limits.”

    That text matched the chyron of a Fox segment that aired just a few minutes earlier. The segment focused on Iran’s warning that it will soon exceed the limit on its stockpiling of uranium -- set by the 2015 nuclear deal the Trump administration withdrew from last year -- if it doesn’t receive additional aid from Europe to counteract the effect of U.S. sanctions.

    Trump’s tweet comes during a period of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, during which “an escalating tit-for-tat has pushed the two sides closer to a military confrontation,” as Politico put it on Friday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that “a full range of options” -- including a military strike -- are currently under discussion. If undertaken, a military response might prove disastrous; experts have warned that even a limited U.S. military strike could trigger an Iranian escalation, leading to a wider conflagration.

    “You could see the administration going down a path of limited military action against Iranian targets, … but the risk of miscalculation is much higher,” Ilan Goldenberg, who served in the Pentagon and the State Department during the Obama administration and is now at the Center for a New American Security, told Politico. “If President Trump is able to be convinced that he can do that without Iranian retaliation, he would be playing with fire.”

    The Fox segment Trump tweeted about hammered home that very message Goldenberg warned Trump might be influenced by, encouraging U.S. military action against Iran while arguing that such action would not lead to a broader war.

    “History will tell you Iran only responds to strength,” anchor Julie Banderas said during the segment, which Trump apparently watched. “Strength in numbers, strength in military action, is needed, according to Mike Pompeo, who says that the president would back that.”

    “Do you believe that military action is needed?” Banderas asked former CIA officer and Fox contributor Daniel Hoffman. “I agree with the secretary,” Hoffman replied.

    Banderas went on to air a clip of Jack Keane, a retired general and Fox senior strategic analyst, pushing back against claims from critics by arguing that military action would not result in a war and that the U.S. has “got to have enough resolve to stand up to” Iran “much as Ronald Reagan did in the late 1980s” when the U.S. attacked Iranian navy ships and oil platforms.

    Keane regularly advises Trump and has twice turned him down when asked to serve as secretary of defense, making his voice particularly important.

    Fox pushed the same message over the weekend, repeatedly informing the president that a military strike is necessary and will come without costs.

    On Sunday morning, for instance, Trump tweeted about two segments from roughly the first half hour of Fox & Friends Weekend.

    In between those segments, Fox hosted notorious anti-Muslim hawk Jim Hanson to respond to statements from the U.S. that Iran was responsible for attacks on two Japanese oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week. Hanson argued that the U.S. should retaliate against Iran, saying, “It's time to go ahead and turn some of the fast boats they are using to do this into oil slicks in the Gulf.”

    Hanson was also quick to push back against critics who argue that such a response could have dire repercussions, saying, “No serious person is calling for war with Iran, which is what the Iran apologists are [saying].”

    “So you’re suggesting, perhaps, not a full-scale war, perhaps an attack that gets Iran’s attention, retribution down the road, and gets them to the table and we deal from a position of strength,” co-host Ed Henry replied.

    If Trump tuned in on Saturday night to Fox’s Justice with Jeanine Pirro, as he typically does, he heard several of his hawkish political allies praise his actions, denounce Iran, and urge him to keep the pressure on.

    “Thank God for President Trump,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said when Pirro asked him about the situation with Iran. “They are feeling the pressure and pushing back. We got them in a corner. They are a wounded cage animal.” He went on to direct the following advice to Trump: “Do not let them take over the Strait of Hormuz, keep the pressure on, and if they continue to do this, sink their navy like Ronald Reagan did back in the 80s.”

    Iranians “only understand strength,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) similarly argued. “Iran is the individuals that fund the terrorism around the world, the attacks going into Israel, the attacks going into Saudi Arabia, the problems anywhere else around the world, nine times out of ten it's Iran that’s using it and a part of it.”

    And Anthony Scaramucci, the hedge funder who very briefly served as White House communications director, argued that Iran’s leaders “are expecting the president like other presidents to back down. They don't really know the guy, OK. So, the signal to those guys should be ‘OK, we are not backing down, you don’t understand this president, he’s very different from these other presidents.’” He added, “Ultimately, the theocracy of Iran will die and there will be a systemic change there for the better.”

    It remains unclear how the conflict between the U.S. and Iran will play out. But with the stakes this high, it’s unnerving that the president is wallowing in Fox’s spin.

  • Trump has referenced Fox News in 43% of his recent tweets about Mueller

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On March 25, just hours after Attorney General William Barr sent a letter to Congress giving his summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailing his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, President Donald Trump began his day by tweeting out an unsurprisingly rosy take on the news from Fox News’ Fox & Friends.

    The conservative propagandists at Fox had spent years concocting a perverse counternarrative about the probe, and over the subsequent weeks, as Barr’s letter was exposed as a deceptive gloss on the far more damning contents of the Mueller report, they rallied to the president’s defense. Trump, in turn, has repeatedly sought to shape the debate by promoting Fox commentary and urging his followers to tune in to its programs.

    Trump referenced Fox News or Fox Business in some way in 43 of the 100 tweets he sent about the Mueller probe between the release of Barr’s summary on March 24 and April 29, according to a Media Matters review. And this number likely undercounts the network’s influence on the president’s thinking, as I have not included cases in which Trump’s tweets about Mueller probably came in response to the network’s programming but he did not specifically indicate that’s what he was doing.

    In 17 of the tweets, Trump referenced a quote from a Fox show or otherwise indicated that he was responding to the network. In 20, he (or someone he employs) shared video clips from Fox programming about the investigation.

    He has also promoted Fox shows at least eight times in recent weeks, and he tweeted thanks to particular Fox personalities five times. In addition to posting his own tweets, the president retweeted Fox-related content about Mueller 16 times.

    The comments Trump elevated typically further the alternate-reality narratives that he and the network have been pushing for years: The investigation was a “hoax,” there was “no collusion” between the president’s associates and Russia or presidential obstruction of the investigation, the media were deliberately lying to the public in order to hurt Trump, and the real scandal was the probe itself.

    Trump has an unprecedented relationship with Fox, and there has long been a feedback loop between the president and the conservative cable network he loves to watch. But the sheer number of such instances over this period stands out, as Trump has sought to drive the national conversation into the alternate reality his Fox supporters have created.

    In 17 of the tweets over this period, Trump tweeted a quote from a Fox show or otherwise indicated that he was responding to the network. This typically indicates that the president was watching the program, either in real time or on tape delay, and decided to highlight a particular comment for his followers.

    Sometimes the president included his own comments in response to the Fox personalities he quoted.

    Other times, he promoted their quotes without additional context.

    On other occasions, Trump (or someone he employs to help run his Twitter account) shared video clips from Fox programming about the investigation, doing this 20 times over the period I studied. The president apparently trusts his followers to watch the clips, as these posts generally provide little or no context for videos that can run as long as 22 minutes.

    He has also served as a network promoter, urging his followers to watch Fox or praising its programs at least eight times in recent weeks.

    On several occasions, Trump has tweeted thanks to the personalities featured in the videos, doing this for Fox Business host Trish Regan, Fox News host Jesse Watters and contributor Dan Bongino, Fox News host Steve Hilton, Fox News host Mark Levin, and radio host Rush Limbaugh, who had made a guest appearance on Fox News’ The Story.

    Trump’s promotion of Fox’s programming has added the imprimatur of the president to particularly disturbing, conspiracy-minded content.

    After telling his followers to tune in to the April 20 edition of Levin’s broadcast, Trump tweeted video of the Fox host alleging during that broadcast that “our republic is at stake” because Trump is facing a “coup” by “the people who have set [the Mueller probe] up who despise their country and despise our election system.” The clip ends with Levin shouting, “This is a disgrace what's being done to this country by the Democrat Party and by the media -- one and the same. It is a disgrace!” Trump tweeted the clip with the note, “Thank you @MarkLevinShow! #MAGA.”

    Trump has amplified a wide array of Fox programs in his tweets about Mueller. Some shows received this treatment regularly -- the president tweeted about the Mueller coverage of favorite programs like Lou Dobbs Tonight seven times, Fox & Friends six times, and Tucker Carlson Tonight five times. But he also lifted up segments from America’s Newsroom; Cavuto Live; Fox News Sunday; Hannity; The Journal Editorial Report; Justice with Jeanine Pirro; Life, Liberty, and Levin; Special Report; Mornings with Maria; The Five; The Next Revolution; The Story; Trish Regan Primetime; Varney & Co.; and Watters World.

    The Fox narratives Trump is pushing diverge substantially from the facts Mueller laid out in his report. But according to a recent HuffPost-YouGov poll, the network’s viewers believe the story Fox has been telling them. The poll shows, for example, that Fox viewers were “more likely than Republicans overall to say that no one associated with Trump’s campaign committed any crimes -- a statement that seems to be at odds with several of the indictments obtained by Mueller’s team,” as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted.

    It's in Trump’s interest to ensure that as many of his supporters as possible get caught in that Fox news bubble.

  • Three ways GOP members of Congress use the Trump-Fox feedback loop

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump’s worldview is shaped by the Fox News programming he can reportedly spend hours watching each day. The network’s personalities are aware of the power Trump’s attention gives them and have used the network’s platform to influence the president’s actions on policy and political strategy, at times triggering major consequences. But the Fox hosts and contributors aren’t the only ones trying to take advantage of the fact that the most powerful man on the planet is the network’s regular viewer. Republican members of Congress are also aware of the power of the Trump-Fox feedback loop and have sought to use it to advance their own goals.

    In separate reports over the weekend, The Washington Post and The New York Times provided a glimpse of how GOP legislators have shifted their behavior in order to take advantage of the president’s binge-watching tendencies. The articles demonstrate how the conservative propaganda network and its biggest stars have increased their power and control over the Republican Party under the Trump administration. And those who ignore Fox’s primacy do so at their own peril -- per the Post, former Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) relationship with Trump suffered specifically because Trump would call Ryan to talk about what had aired on Fox & Friends that morning, and “Ryan was not usually watching or versed on the particulars of the show.”

    As the Post reports, “Republican lawmakers have grown accustomed to Trump’s predilection to obsess over TV and the coverage of him — and have adapted.” Here’s how they are using the Trump-Fox feedback loop.

    1. Pitching policy proposals directly to Trump on Fox

    Fox’s hosts and guests have realized that they can influence the president’s decisions by gearing their commentary to him directly. The Post reports that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) tried the tactic with some success.

    Paul “had aggressively tried to pitch White House staff on association health-care plans without luck in late 2017,” the Post reports. “So instead he went on Fox News on a Friday night and made his pitch.” Since the president was apparently watching, Paul was able to cut out the White House staffers who had been uninterested in the proposal. “Soon,” according to the Post, “Trump tried to call him, intrigued by the idea and endorsed the proposal after meeting with the senator.”

    2. Running policy proposals past Trump’s favorite Fox hosts

    When Trump triggered a partial government shutdown in December over southern border wall funding, and continued it longer than any other in U.S. history, he was taking the advice of his Fox allies.

    Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had reportedly hoped he could use the Fox’s influence to end the shutdown that the network had helped start. According to the Post, before sharing with the president details of a potential deal to reopen the government that he was negotiating with the Democrats, Graham pitched it to three Fox hosts -- Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, both of whom Trump was reportedly consulting on his shutdown strategy, and Laura Ingraham. “If they were on board, Graham said, Trump would be far more likely to support such a deal,” the Post reports. “If they weren’t, Trump would be unlikely to support it.”

    The Post does not detail whether Hannity, Dobbs, and Ingraham liked Graham’s proposal, but it does give a fairly large hint: “The deal never went anywhere.” That’s not surprising. It’s difficult to imagine an immigration deal that could both attract Democratic votes and avoid a veto from the likes of Dobbs, who recently warned that immigration could “consign tens of thousands perhaps millions of Americans to their deaths.” Graham has long understood this, having warned Democratic senators in 2010 that they needed to move quickly on climate change negotiations “before Fox News got wind of” it and trashed the bipartisan legislation.

    In the end, Trump did sign legislation reopening the government that did not include the money he wanted for his wall. Hannity, Dobbs, and Ingraham all initially panned the deal, but after the White House reportedly reached out to Dobbs and Hannity, both hosts ultimately focused their attention on the need for Trump to declare a national emergency to obtain more wall funding, which the president eventually did.

    3. Building a relationship with Trump by defending him on Fox

    If the president didn’t spend so much time watching cable news, there would have been no reason for the Times to profile Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a second-term Florida congressman, as the paper did on Saturday. Gaetz has few accomplishments to speak of and little real power as a backbencher in the minority party. But by his own admission, Gaetz carved out a niche for himself (and attracted the Times’ attention) by deliberately cultivating a direct relationship with Trump through his TV set. Gaetz maintains “a near-constant presence on the president’s favorite network,” the Times reports, using those appearances to establish himself as one of Trump’s “fiercest and most frequent defenders.”

    “What are the things you can do to impact an outcome?” the congressman asked the Times. “Well, the most valuable real estate in the world lies between the president’s ears. And if I can be a good friend and ally and influencer in calling to the president, then I can impact outcomes without having to be a whore for special interests.”

    Likewise, the Post reports that Reps. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) “are frequently called by the president — partially because they are often on TV defending him,” which has made them “influential in shaping administration policies.”

    Unfortunately, neither the Post nor the Times detailed just how Gaetz, Meadows, and Jordan have been defending Trump. A cursory review reveals the dangerous arguments the trio have made in their cynical bid for political power.

    The three congressmen -- particularly Gaetz -- were reportedly at the center of Republican efforts to “fight back” against special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. That effort has involved not just denouncing Mueller himself but demanding a federal investigation of both Hillary Clinton and the investigators who began the FBI’s probe into contact between Russia and Trump’s associates. By pushing for these authoritarian responses to the Mueller probe, Gaetz, Jordan, and Meadows have helped turn them into regular Fox News talking points. And the president is watching and listening.

  • Fox commentators defend Trump for using executive time to tweet about their shows

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    In the wake of a report highlighting just how much time President Donald Trump devotes to sitting in front his television watching cable news every day, Fox News hosts have a message for the president: Keep it up!

    Axios reporters Alexi McCammond and Jonathan Swan sent shockwaves through the political and journalism worlds of Washington, D.C., on Sunday afternoon when they published President Donald Trump’s private White House schedules for nearly every day since the November midterm elections, revealing that nearly 60 percent of his working day was classified as unstructured “executive time.” Much of the ensuing conversation in the media revolved around who at the White House engaged in such a calculated leak that seemed intended to damage the president, and what exactly does the president do during all that executive time.

    As Axios and The Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out, the White House appears to be using “executive time” as an umbrella term covering two discrete types of presidential activity: morning stretches Trump largely spends in the White House residence watching Fox News and tweeting about it, and freewheeling but theoretically productive afternoon periods in which he holds meetings or makes phone calls that are either impromptu or hidden off his schedule. It’s the former periods, consistent with my own work on the Trump-Fox feedback loop, that led commentators like MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace to call Axios’ reporting a “truth bomb” demonstrating that Trump “doesn’t do much of anything as president” and CNN’s Chris Cuomo to claim it shows that his Oval Office desk is “more of a prop for photo-ops than anything else.”

    The president’s Fox propagandists have a very different take on the story, of course. If Trump tuned in to his favorite network since the report was published (and there’s little on his public schedule to suggest that he hasn’t), he may have heard its commentators explaining that it is actually a very good thing that he spends large portions of his day watching them. And when they weren't defending Trump's schedule, Fox hosts were redirecting attention to criticizing the leak itself.

    The day after the story’s publication, Greg Gutfeld led the charge on Fox’s afternoon panel show The Five, arguing that Trump actually needs more executive time, not less, because that approach works best for him. “We all knew this skill set is not a political skill set,” Gutfeld said, but rather one “almost entirely rooted” in “pursuing relationships, relentless persuasion and messaging.”

    Gutfeld went on to praise the president’s practice of watching Fox and tweeting about what he sees. “TV, Fox News -- it's his conduit to the American people, the way he sees the American people, his voters,” he said. “So he looks and he sees what's going and then he tweets.” According to Gutfeld, that strategy has succeeded on everything from North Korea to trade policy.

    Not everyone on The Five agreed with Gutfeld’s analysis. Juan Williams, the panel’s sole liberal, said the story made Trump look like “a big joke,” and that while the White House wants people to think the president is simply being “creative” during his unstructured time, “other people will have a much more derogatory term for people who aren't at work when they are supposed to be at work.”

    But Jesse Watters quickly shot Williams down, joking that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have executive time because she isn’t president. “Whatever the president needs to be president is fine,” he continued, before saying that the “real story” is the leak.

    These defenses of executive time permeated Fox’s coverage of the story for the rest of the night. On Special Report, Fox News Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt said the story was “not [a] big deal” because it didn’t actually show Trump behaving differently from past presidents (this is nonsense). “What do people think presidents do?” he continued. “The president's job is as a decider. That's what he is supposed to do. I don't think anybody was under the notion that Donald Trump was a wonk and that he was sitting at the Resolute Desk with charts and graphs.”

    Howard Kurtz, the network’s ostensible media critic, also claimed the Axios story was a nothingburger. “To me, and to the average American, I think, like -- basically, who cares how he runs his schedule, as long as he gets things done,” he claimed on The Story. The show’s host, Martha MacCaullum, replied that what struck her is “it sounds a lot like work” because “he's reading the papers” along with watching “probably almost every cable channel during the day.”

    Curiously quiet on the story were the hosts of Fox & Friends, the morning show that the president uses as his daily briefing. While Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade are certainly aware that Trump often starts his day by tweeting about their show, none of them seemed interested in taking a position on the Axios report on the extent of executive time.

    Instead, on Tuesday morning they served up the question to someone they knew would defend the president: Trump’s son Eric. He did not disappoint, repeatedly saying that his dad is “truly one of the hardest-working people in the world” and mocking Axios’ reporters. “Give me a break,” he added. "These people need to move on.”

  • Trump seems poised to take Fox cabinet’s advice and declare national emergency for border wall funding

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump is inching toward declaring a national emergency to secure funding for his long-sought wall on the southern border, repeatedly telling reporters late last week that he may take that step if Congress does not reach a border security compromise he approves of before government funding expires on February 15. If Trump does declare a national emergency, he will be prioritizing the advice of his trusted propagandists at Fox News, who have been urging him to do so for the last month, over the counsel of Republican legislators who have been warning him away from the tactic.  

    A national emergency declaration would be the strongest sign yet that the conservative propagandists at Fox are effectively running the federal government. Their programs and private counsel are fueling Trump’s decisions, raising dire questions about the nation’s governance and stability.

    The feedback loop between Trump and Fox played a key role in causing the partial government shutdown that lasted for a record 35 days between December 21 and January 25, as I noted Sunday in a piece for The Daily Beast:

    Trump’s incessant craving for validation from the network’s conservative commentators triggered his initial refusal to sign any legislation funding the government that did not include money for a border wall, and then that need sustained his intransigence over the following weeks. His eventual cave shows the limitations of prioritizing the whims of right-wing infotainers during congressional negotiations. But there is no evidence Trump has learned anything from the crushing defeat, suggesting that he will continue trying to make policy with respect to the wall and other issues, on the basis of whether it pleases Fox hosts.

    Trump first suggested in early January that he might declare a national emergency and reallocate funding appropriated for other purposes, such as military construction or disaster relief, to build the wall. Ever since, some congressional Republicans have objected on the grounds that the executive branch would be seizing legislative power, that the move could set a new precedent for when Democrats win the White House, that it would trigger a long legal struggle, or that it could be stymied by a congressional resolution disapproving the declaration.

    For a few weeks, those Republicans were successful, and the president backed down.

    But Trump is being pulled between them and the Fox advisers begging him to go through with it.  

    For much of his presidency, Trump has devoted hours of each day to watching cable news programs, frequently live-tweeted his favorite Fox shows, and treated the network’s stars like members of his cabinet. Now he is poised to take their advice and declare a national emergency.

    Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, Fox hosts whom the president reportedly leaned on for advice about how to manage the shutdown, seem to have played key roles in this drama. The pair of loyal propagandists, who each championed Trump's shutdown, had very different reactions when Trump agreed to sign a three-week continuing resolution without wall funding. Hannity claimed that anyone “thinking President Trump caved today, you don't really know the Donald Trump I know,” while Dobbs said it was a “victory for Nancy Pelosi” and anyone saying otherwise is “try[ing] to escape from reality.” But in the weeks before and after Trump’s decision, both used their programs to urge Trump to declare a national emergency, exhorting their audiences to support him if he did.

    Hannity, who regularly speaks with Trump and has been described by White House aides as the administration’s “shadow” chief of staff, said on his January 7 show, “Without a doubt, this is a national emergency. It's time to build the wall.” The next night he argued, “This is a national emergency. The situation is now dire. And whether or not we secure our border, it does have real life or death consequences.” He added on his January 9 broadcast that Trump had “the full authority and power to declare a national emergency and tackle this head on,” adding, “This is about protecting our homeland.”

    During an often incoherent January 10 softball interview with Hannity, Trump said he “most likely” would declare a national emergency if he “can’t make a deal with Congress.” He also said he had watched Hannity’s show the previous night and praised him for producing “real news,” not “fake news.”  

    Since then, Hannity has called for Trump to declare an emergency to secure wall funding on his January 11, January 15, January 16, January 23, January 24, January 25, January 28, January 29, January 30, and January 31 programs. “Now, the president holds all the cards. He gets no deal, February 15th, I'll give you odds,” Hannity argued on Wednesday night. “I'm 99 percent certain that he will lawfully declare a national emergency or just send down the military and start building the wall with defense funds.”

    Dobbs’ commentary has been even more over-the-top, with the Fox Business host using explicitly authoritarian language in urging Trump to seize more power and crush his enemies.

    “This is the president of the United States,” Dobbs said January 9. “He says a wall should be built; that it's a national emergency. At that point, the nation should rally behind him, Democrats as well as Republicans.”

    “I really believe,” he added the next night, “that the way forward here is for [Trump] to declare a national emergency and simply sweep aside the recalcitrant left in this country. They have -- they have obstructed, resisted, and subverted for far too long.”

    The drumbeat has continued, with Dobbs pushing for a national emergency declaration on January 11, January 14, January 15, January 23, January 24, January 25, January 28, January 29, January 30, January 31, and February 1. “There is only one way forward and that is an honest straightforward declaration of a national emergency, because that's where we are,” Dobbs said on one such broadcast. “This president has no choice but to act, and act I am confident he will.”

    Other Fox News hosts and personalities have called for the president to declare a national emergency on the network’s airwaves, including longtime Trump friend and confidante Jeanine Pirro and Fox & FriendsPete Hegseth and Steve Doocy.  

    There were some moments of dissent on the network, even on the president’s favored programs. Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade argued that the strategy is flawed because the courts have repeatedly “turned on the president,” while Fox senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano flatly warned the program’s audience that declaring a national emergency to get funding for his wall would be unconstitutional. But those moments were rare, and they were quickly washed away with more b-roll of border chaos and warnings about violent undocumented criminals.

    This same battle for the president’s ear between congressional Republicans and Fox hosts eventually ended with December’s partial government shutdown. Several times last year, spending bills that the White House and Congress had agreed to were nearly torpedoed at the last minute when the president heard someone on his television saying that he should oppose the bills and even shut down the government over them because they lacked wall funding. For a while, Republican leaders were able to talk him out of it, until eventually they couldn’t.

    Now it’s happening again.

  • Fox & Friends keeps cherry-picking polls to tell Trump he's winning the shutdown

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    If polls show President Donald Trump’s approval rating is down but Fox & Friends doesn’t report on them, do they really make an impact on the political landscape? That’s the contention we seem to be testing as the partial government shutdown enters its second month.

    Two new polls out Wednesday morning provide a litany of evidence that Trump’s decision to shut down the government to obtain funding for a border wall is having a devastating effect on his public image.

    CBS News’ survey shows Trump’s job approval dropping three points to 36 percent and his disapproval cresting to an all-time high of 59 percent, with seven in 10 Americans saying that the border wall isn’t worth shutting down the government and two-thirds urging the president to agree to a budget without the wall funding. A Politico/Morning Consult poll also has Trump with his highest disapproval on record, at 57 percent, compared to 40 percent who approve of his performance, with a solid majority blaming Republicans for the shutdown.

    But Trump’s worldview is largely shaped by Fox & Friends and other shows on the Fox propaganda network, as we've seen countless times over the past two years. And the hosts of the president’s favorite morning show in particular have been doing their best to focus on whatever cherry-picked numbers they can find to prop up his sagging ratings as they urge him to stand firm and keep the government shut down until he gets his way. Trump, in turn, has been highlighting their reports as he digs in.

    This morning, for instance, against the backdrop of the new CBS and Politico polls, Brian Kilmeade argued that “nothing’s changed” with Trump’s approval rating despite the “historic shutdown.” He pointed to a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll finding that 45 percent of voters support Trump’s performance.

    But that poll -- performed by Mark Penn, the former Clinton pollster who now spends his time shilling for his former client Trump -- is a clear outlier, as polling aggregators show a steady decline in the president’s approval since the shutdown began.

    Kilmeade was cherry-picking, and Democratic strategist David Morey called him out for it a few segments later. “It’s hurting the president politically, I think, more than your poll quote a couple minutes ago indicates. He’s getting really hurt here, particularly among independent voters,” Morey said. Put on the spot, Kilmeade acknowledged that another poll placed the president’s job approval at only 40 percent.

    Trump, meanwhile, spent the morning praising the GOP’s “Great unity” and testing a “new theme” of "Build a Wall & Crime Will Fall," which is built on falsehoods.

    Fox & Friends has repeatedly cherry-picked poll results like this in recent weeks.

    On Sunday and Tuesday, Trump highlighted a PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll’s finding that his approval among Latinos had shot up to 50 percent, in each case responding to a Fox & Friends segment that referenced that figure.

    But what those segments ignored was that the poll found Trump’s overall job approval plummeting to 39 percent, with 57 percent of respondents saying they would definitely vote against him in 2020. And after Trump’s tweets, PBS reported that the small sample of Latino respondents meant that the poll had a “wide” margin of error of 9.9 percentage points for that group.

    And earlier last week, Fox & Friends fixated on a Quinnipiac University poll finding that 54 percent of American voters say there is a “security crisis” on the Mexican border, which Steve Doocy argued “essentially supports what the president has been saying all along for about the last month.” Trump was watching, and he tweeted, “Polls are now showing that people are beginning to understand the Humanitarian Crisis and Crime at the Border.”

    But unmentioned by Fox & Friends, and so unheard by the president, were other key results from the poll: Respondents oppose shutting down the government to force funding for the wall (by nearly 2-to-1), blame Trump for the shutdown, and oppose building a border wall.

    The president’s closest allies keep telling him he’s winning. Is it any wonder that he refuses to accept that he’s not?

  • The Fox News shutdown is here, and Trump is tweeting through it

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    After shutting down the government to placate his allies at Fox News, President Donald Trump spent the holidays stuck in the White House, tweeting in response to the network’s programming.

    2018 was a tug of war for the president’s attention between his right-wing media allies, who wanted him to use a government shutdown as leverage to extract concessions on immigration policy, and Republican congressional leaders, who wanted to fund the government.

    Time after time, the same pattern unfolded: Congressional leaders would negotiate a spending bill and move it through the legislative process, Fox commentators would declare the bill a betrayal of the president’s base because it didn’t fulfill his immigration priorities, Trump would tweet something suggesting he agreed with the commentators, and Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan would press him to back the legislation again.

    But as I warned in September, this cycle could not continue forever -- it was inevitable that the president would give in to his closest, most devoted allies at some point.

    In December, after the White House signaled that it would back off its demand for $5 billion to fund a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border as its price to keep the federal government funded until the next year, the network’s airwaves were filled with right-wing media figures urging Trump to reconsider. They warned the president that giving in would fracture his relationship with his closest supporters and let the Democrats win.

    Trump “alternately seethed and panicked about the stream of invective he’s hearing from allies on television,” Politico reported. Then, he took their advice, kicking off the Fox News shutdown.

    Trump usually spends the holidays at his Mar-A-Lago resort, where he golfs, schmoozes, and attends a lavish New Year’s Eve party for club members willing to shell out $1,000 apiece. When his shutdown made that politically untenable, he canceled his planned 16-day vacation and stayed in Washington. But as The Washington Post reported, he didn’t spend the time burning up the phones trying to negotiate a solution with congressional leaders, or trying to sell his position to the press or the public. Instead, “he has filled the silence with a rash of tweets that have blamed Democrats for the shutdown and cast illegal immigration as a threat to the country.”

    Put another way, the president spent the holidays as he has spent so many days of his presidency: watching Fox coverage and tweeting about what he saw. By my count, roughly 20 of his tweets since December 21 came in response to the network’s programming -- and there were almost certainly more.

    Sometimes, Trump’s Fox live-tweeting has kept him on topic, attacking the purported scourge of illegal immigration and the Democrats who refuse to support his border wall. But cable news coverage is built on covering a host of different stories, and letting the network dictate his tweets has at times led him far afield from the issues central to the shutdown. Trump tweeted about commentators who praised his foreign policy and his stewardship of the economy. When the network fearmongered about a new caravan of migrants, he did too. The president tweeted the network’s conspiracy theories and myths about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. And he shilled for the new book from Fox-commentator-turned-White-House-aide-turned-Fox-commentator Sebastian Gorka after Gorka appeared on the network to peddle it.

    While negotiations with Democrats will be crucial in bringing the shutdown to a close, the decisive factor could be the advice and feedback Trump gets from his most trusted adviser: his television.

  • Fox News wanted to exploit a caravan of migrants as a midterm election issue, so that's what Trump is doing

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump responded on Thursday morning to reports of a caravan of migrants moving through Central America toward the U.S. border by blaming Democrats for their purported “assault on our country.” The president was mimicking the commentators he was likely watching on Fox News, who urged Republicans to weaponize the caravan as an election issue ahead of next month’s midterms.

    A caravan of as many as 4,000 Honduran migrants has entered Guatemala, leading Fox hosts to spend much of the week trying to stoke fears that the migrants are “heading this way” with plans “to storm our border.” None of this makes much sense -- the caravan would still need to make it through all of Guatemala and Mexico, and the Mexican government is currently deploying its own resources to stop the migrants. But because Trump’s worldview is shaped by the hours of Fox he consumes each day, that coverage is having an impact on U.S. policy -- and now, the topics of discussion in the midterm elections.

    Trump entered the fray on Tuesday morning, warning that the U.S. would cut off aid to Honduras if the caravan isn’t turned back:

    Trump frequently spends his mornings live-tweeting Fox & Friends, and his tweet almost certainly came in response to the show's coverage of the story that day:

    With Trump weighing in, the story’s coverage escalated. And on Wednesday night, Fox contributor and presidential confidant Newt Gingrich urged Republicans to make the caravan a key voting issue:

    “I think two words are going to define the night of the 2018 election in the next three weeks,” he told Sean Hannity. “One is Kavanaugh and the other is caravan.” Claiming that “the left is eager” for the caravan to enter the United States, Gingrich argued that “the American people are going to reject ... the way they are dealing with the border, and I think those will end up being the reasons the Republicans keep the House and dramatically increase the number of senators they have.”

    The next morning, Fox & Friends repeatedly urged Republicans to take Gingrich’s advice.

    During the show’s lead segment, after several minutes of dire warnings about the caravan, the hosts replayed portions of Gingrich’s comment. “So it comes down to a simple question regarding the Republicans and the Democrats, because it’s clear,” said host Steve Doocy. "If you think that our southern border should be open, support the Democrat. If you think the southern border should actually be a border with security, and stopping people, and processing them accordingly, then you’ve got to vote for Republicans, the Republicans say.”

    In a second segment that hour, Fox contributor and former ICE Acting Director Tom Homan said, “This caravan issue lays at the feet of the Democratic Party up on the Hill” for not closing loopholes in immigration law. “I hope the American people are paying attention because this isn’t the president’s failure, this isn’t the secretary’s failure; this is the Democrats’ failure because they know the issue and they refuse to fix it. They’re putting their political ambitions ahead of public safety, national security, and border control.”

    During a third segment, Doocy said that the election is “going to come down to” voters asking each other, “Hey, did you see that story this morning on Fox & Friends about the caravan? Can you believe that the Democrats want open borders?”

    And at 7 a.m., the hosts again highlighted the migrant caravan, with Doocy arguing that “these images do get the base on the Republican side interested in voting because, clearly, it's a choice. Do you want a southern border with security or not?”

    The president apparently got the message. In a series of tweets beginning at 7:25 a.m., he used the caravan to attack Democrats, saying they had “led (because they want Open Borders and existing weak laws)” an “assault on our country.” He also threatened to stop "all payments” to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and said he would “call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER” if Mexico could not “stop this onslaught.”

    This is not the first time Fox’s migrant coverage has triggered Trump to erupt on Twitter. In the spring, he similarly lashed out in response to Fox’s coverage of a caravan of migrants moving through Central America.

    This Fox-Trump feedback loop presents a problem for journalists, as the president drives the network’s fearmongering coverage into the mainstream policy debate.

  • What Fox is telling Trump about Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh's hearing

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump said during Wednesday’s press conference that he planned to watch professor Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing and that he could “be convinced” Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had attempted to rape her when they were in high school in the early 1980s.

    If the president has been watching the hearing on Fox News, the conservative network that frequently influences his behavior, this is some of the commentary he’s been seeing amid the testimony.

    This post will be updated throughout the day.
  • What Trump’s Fox News cabinet wants him to do about Rod Rosenstein

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    When news breaks and you want to know how President Donald Trump might respond, it’s always a good idea to tune in to Fox News. On that network, a flock of pro-Trump propagandists compete for the president’s favor, describing him in increasingly lofty terms and his political enemies in increasingly dire ones, building semicoherent alternative narratives across their programs. Trump watches Fox shows, responds in real time on Twitter, and maintains personal relationships with several of the network’s leading commentators, consulting them for advice on policy and politics. Fox’s hosts hold as much influence on the president as his official cabinet does -- but the former broadcast their advice to the entire nation.

    Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is scheduled to meet with Trump Thursday to discuss whether he will remain in that position. The president’s Fox cabinet waged a brutal campaign against him for months, arguing that Trump could hamstring special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation by replacing Rosenstein, who oversees the probe, with a more Trump-friendly replacement. But while the president’s favorite commentators all have Trump’s best interests firmly in mind, they are now divided about whether the president should fire Rosenstein. That may influence his decision this week -- even as he reportedly intends to eventually take their advice and remove Rosenstein after the midterm elections.

    At issue is The New York Times’ Friday afternoon report that Rosenstein, in meetings with Justice Department and FBI officials in May 2017, suggested secretly recording Trump and seeking his removal from office via the 25th Amendment. It’s an open question whether he was being serious or sarcastic. But because the president and his propagandists have been attacking Rosenstein for months due to Trump’s authoritarian view that the Justice Department should protect his personal and political interests, it seemed plausible that the Times could have become the excuse Trump needed to get rid of the deputy attorney general.

    Several staunch members of Trump’s Fox cabinet clearly viewed the article that way at first. Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Laura Ingraham, Gregg Jarrett, Sara Carter, and Joseph diGenova were among the commentators to call for Rosenstein’s firing.

    But as afternoon turned to evening, several Trump loyalists -- including Hannity -- began arguing that the Times article might be part of a trap by the president’s enemies, intended to goad him into firing Rosenstein and cause a scandal that could hurt GOP prospects in the midterm elections. As a result, some have been arguing that Rosenstein should not be fired, but should be stripped of his oversight of the Mueller probe -- a key sign that their actual goal is to damage that investigation.

    The situation on Fox has been fluid, with commentators moving from one camp to another, and at times synthesizing the two positions to argue that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should be the one to fire his deputy.

    This split among the Fox cabinet, and their warnings that he may be walking into a trap, may be influencing Trump to avoid immediately canning Rosenstein. Recent reports suggest that the deputy attorney general may escape unscathed from Thursday’s meeting, which was scheduled after Monday’s chaos, as dueling reports suggested that Rosenstein was either about to resign or be fired. But if Trump grants Rosenstein a respite, it is clear that it will be only a temporary one, with the day of his firing simply delayed until after the midterms, when the political risk is lessened. Eventually, the Fox cabinet will get its way.

    Here’s where Trump’s Fox allies stand right now.

    Sean Hannity: After originally arguing that Trump should fire Rosenstein, he now argues that Sessions should do it to avoid a trap.

    Hannity, the Fox figure closest to the president, has swung wildly on this topic depending on his interpretation of Trump’s best interest. Immediately after the Times story broke on Friday, and consistent with his campaign against Rosenstein and Mueller over the past year, Hannity argued on his radio program that Trump firing Rosenstein “would be the right thing to do, in my opinion.” But that night, the Fox host made headlines by saying on air, “I have a message for the president tonight: Under zero circumstances should the president fire anybody.” According to Hannity, the Times story was a “deep state” plot “designed to set up the president,” with Trump’s enemies provoking him to fire Rosenstein in order to “turn this politically into their equivalent of a Friday night massacre.” In order to avoid that trap, Hannity pressured Sessions to fire Rosenstein. “Now, it’s time tonight for the attorney general to now do his job. Mr. Sessions, this is your Department of Justice,” he said.

    Hannity returned to this point on Monday, repeatedly asking his guests why the attorney general hadn’t taken action, while stressing again that “the president should not be the one firing” Rosenstein.

    Lou Dobbs: Leave Rosenstein hanging to face Congress.

    Dobbs, another close confidant of the president -- who regularly watches Dobbs’ Fox Business show -- had previously called for Rosenstein’s impeachment, and on Friday he suggested that what the Times reported of Rosenstein “looks to be, if not treason, about as close to it as you can get.” But he has not called for Rosenstein’s firing since the story broke, arguing that night that the report “may be a ploy by the left-wing” newspaper “to get the president” to do so. Instead, Dobbs has supported calls Republican congressman have made on his program for Rosenstein to appear before their committees and testify about the story.

    Jeanine Pirro: After initially calling for Rosenstein’s firing, she now says it’s a trap.

    Pirro, a longtime friend of the president who interviewed for the Justice Department position that eventually went to Rosenstein, has supported his removal since at least January. The Fox host stuck with this position immediately after the Times story broke, tweeting, “Rod rosenstein shld have been fired long ago for being part of the ‘resistance’ and not providing documents to congress in order to save his corrupt pals. NOW HE MUST BE FIRED.”

    But by the time her show aired the next night -- and notably, after Fox appearances from Hannity and others who warned against Trump firing Rosenstein -- she pulled back from that position. On Saturday afternoon, she tweeted, “Is it possible Rod Rosenstein leaked the story to the @nytimes himself to force @realDonaldTrump to fire him?” And on her Saturday night show she stuck with that message, suggesting that the deputy attorney general may have “plant[ed] the story” himself because “he’s looking to be fired” in order to “bring on a Saturday night massacre and give the Dems a leg up.”

    “I don’t want him fired,” she added during a Monday appearance on The Five. “I don’t want the president firing him.”

    Fox & Friends weekday crew: The hosts provided minimal discussion of what Trump should do.

    The president regularly begins his work days by watching Fox & Friends and tweeting about what he sees. As this phenomenon has become more clear, the program’s effusively pro-Trump hosts and guests have increasingly aimed their commentary directly to him. But if Trump has been watching this week, show hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade haven’t been giving him much advice about how to handle Rosenstein. The trio really haven’t engaged with the topic much, though Doocy did at one point on Tuesday float the theory that the allegation had been leaked in an effort to “provoke the president” into firing Rosenstein so that “chaos will ensue.”

    On Wednesday, the program hosted Ian Prior, a former DOJ colleague of Rosenstein, for an interview that seemed geared toward mollifying Trump. Prior argued that Rosenstein “actually has a ton of respect for the president” and “enjoys the working relationship they’ve had,” adding that the Mueller probe will end up being “a colossal disappointment to Democrats and the never Trump Republican crowd.”

    Fox & Friends weekend crew: This is an effort to provoke Trump, and he shouldn’t fall for it.

    By contrast, Fox & Friends’ weekend crew -- whom the president also watches frequently -- spent much of their Saturday and Sunday editions running with the theory that Trump could be walking into a trap. At the top of the program, co-host Pete Hegseth -- a Trump sycophant who has been considered for a cabinet post -- argued that it was time for Rosenstein to go, but he swiftly agreed after correspondent Ed Henry raised the possibility that the president’s enemies were trying to get Trump to fire him and provoke a constitutional crisis. The next time the subject came up, Hegseth said that if Trump fired Rosenstein it would cause “a cascading effect that the media will run with forever.”

    The hosts stuck with that argument the rest of the weekend, including in an interview with Prior, who argued that Rosenstein’s remark was sarcastic; that Rosenstein was actually doing a favor for Trump by naming a special counsel because it took the investigation out of the hands of senior DOJ official Andrew McCabe, whom Prior suggested was biased against the president; and that a McCabe associate subsequently leaked Rosenstein’s remarks to set up Trump.

    Gregg Jarrett: Fire Rosenstein if possible, but at least relieve him of overseeing the Mueller probe.

    Jarrett, the Fox legal analyst who adds a lawyer’s imprimatur to the network’s anti-Mueller conspiracy theories, has gradually pulled back on the maximalist call for Rosenstein’s removal over tactical concerns. He called for Rosenstein’s immediate firing on Twitter, FoxNews.com, and Hannity’s radio show shortly after the Times story dropped. “I don't care who fires him, whether it's Sessions or the president. It may not be politically expedient at this time, but he certainly deserves to be fired,” Jarrett added on Hannity’s Fox show that night. But on the Sunday edition of Fox & Friends, he acknowledged that while “Rosenstein deserves to be fired,” Trump “realizes that it’s politically unwise to do it right now.”

    By Monday’s Hannity, he had adopted the position that because the story could be a “setup,” the better move was “to simply relieve Rod Rosenstein of oversight of the special counsel case pending an investigation into these very serious charges.”  

    Tucker Carlson: It’s a trap.

    Carlson, whose Fox program has driven the president to start international incidents, suggested on Friday night that McCabe had leaked Rosenstein’s remarks “knowing that the story might cause the president to fire Rod Rosenstein” and set off a constitutional crisis. "If you were laying a trap for Donald Trump, this might be exactly how you'd do it," Carlson warned. "Before moving forward, the president might ask himself, 'why do McCabe and the New York Times want me to fire Rod Rosenstein? And why do they want me to do it now, rather than a year ago?'"

    Carlson stuck with that theory on Monday night, arguing that the president’s best tactical move was to keep Rosenstein in place.

    Laura Ingraham: She’s no longer saying “fire him,” but she’s also not on board with the “setup” theory.

    Ingraham has gradually moved closer to her prime-time colleagues’ position, while not yet adopting their take on what is happening. Immediately after the Times story broke, she tweeted, “Rod Rosenstein must be fired today.” That night on Fox, she added that Trump “tonight should seriously consider whether Rod Rosenstein should remain on the job.” But the next morning, as journalists pointed out that her opinion diverged from the “trap” theory of Hannity and Carlson, she deleted her tweet.

    Ingraham disparaged her colleagues’ theory on Monday night, saying, “I don’t buy this whole thing, ‘It’s a big setup for Trump,’ I really don’t.” But she’s stopped calling for Rosenstein’s outright firing, instead suggesting that he should be moved to a different position in the administration.

    Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing: They’ve gone from “Fire the SOB tonight” to wait till after the election.

    Toensing and diGenova are a married legal team who are mainstays in the right-wing legal community (at one point it was announced they were joining Trump’s legal team) and regularly appear on Fox programs to disparage the Mueller probe. During a joint appearance on Hannity’s radio show immediately after the article dropped, diGenova argued, “Jeff Sessions should fire [Rosenstein] today, he should be out of that building, the U.S. marshals should escort him out of the building, if he stays one more day -- I just can’t imagine that he can stay any longer.” He added, “Fire the SOB tonight.” But on Tuesday’s Dobbs show, Toensing argued, “The president should not fire him. He should not do diddly squat before the election. It would be such a political distraction. Republicans are not good at handling it, and the mainstream media is great at generating it. No, do not fire him before then. The day after the election, yes.” DiGenova agreed.

    Tom Fitton: Fire him or otherwise “take him out of the equation.”

    Fitton is a Trump ally who uses his conservative Judicial Watch organization to obtain and distribute government documents he claims undermine the Mueller probe. He argued on Tuesday’s Dobbs show that Trump “has got a choice to make on Thursday,” which is to either “remove Rosenstein or, in the least, take him out of the equation in the sense of having the [inspector general] investigate everything he's been doing.”

    Sara Carter: Sessions should fire Rosenstein, but it’s “up to” Trump.

    Carter, a Fox contributor who publishes her anti-Mueller reporting on her personal blog, originally argued on Friday that Trump should fire Rosenstein, but she changed her tune later that afternoon to adopt Hannity’s position that Sessions should do it. But she has also exposed the hollowness of that argument by tweeting that whether Rosenstein will stay or go is “up to” Trump.

    Dan Bongino: Rosenstein has to be fired.

    Bongino, an NRATV contributor who regularly appears on Fox, argued on Saturday’s Fox & Friends that Rosenstein “has to be fired” whether or not the Times story is a “setup.”

    Jesse Watters: The Times article is “Rosenstein’s pink slip.”

    Fox host Jesse Watters said Saturday, “This New York Times article is Rod Rosenstein's pink slip. There's no way he can recover from this. The writing is on the wall -- Rosenstein is done. He's out of there.”

  • The looming Fox News government shutdown

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Maybe it won’t be this time. Maybe it won’t be next time. But at some point in the future, it seems inevitable that President Donald Trump will take the advice of his supporters at Fox News and shut down the federal government.

    With the September 30 expiration of government funding swiftly approaching, the Senate on Tuesday voted 93-7 to pass a carefully negotiated short-term spending bill that would keep the federal lights on until December 7, after the midterm elections. The legislation gives all parties some of what they want but none of them all of what they want -- including the president, as it does not provide the funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border that he has demanded.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) portrayed the bill as a breakthrough, evidence that the Senate “is getting its appropriations process back on track.” The House of Representatives was expected to take up the legislation next week, raising hopes that federal funding could be swiftly secured.

    But then the president watched television.

    On Thursday morning, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), one of the handful of Republicans to oppose the legislation, went on Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite morning news program, to condemn the bill. Host Brian Kilmeade chimed in, arguing that the lack of wall funding was “a thumb in the eye to the president.”

    And minutes later, Trump, who was watching the show, began angrily tweeting his displeasure with the legislation, calling into question whether he will sign it if it comes to his desk.

    Trump has been threatening a government shutdown for more than a month, explicitly citing right-wing Fox News and talk radio hosts as his inspiration for the tactic.

    His latest tweets are part of an alarming pattern: Federal policy has increasingly been influenced by the president’s television habits and the “shadow cabinet” of cable news personalities he privately consults for advice.

    Trump threw the Capitol into chaos in January by appearing to withdraw his support for major surveillance legislation after watching a Fox contributor turn to the camera and say, “Mr. President, this is not the way to go.”

    In March, he threatened to veto an omnibus spending bill, perhaps because one of his favorite pundits was savaging the legislation on Fox & Friends.

    Last month, the president criticized Google after watching his sycophants attack the company’s “tyranny” on Fox host Lou Dobbs’ show. Hours later, his top economic advisor told reporters that the administration was considering new regulations on the company.

    And earlier this week, he admitted that he had demanded the declassification of sensitive Justice Department documents that he had not read -- and that experts warn could endanger U.S. intelligence sources and methods -- because he had been urged to do so by Fox hosts.

    Republican congressional leaders, worried about the impact of a shutdown on their hopes of retaining power after midterm elections, may be able to talk the president down. But sooner or later, the Fox government shutdown is coming.

  • Trump’s Puerto Rico conspiracy theory appears to have been set off by a CNN segment

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On CNN Thursday morning, as Hurricane Florence barrelled toward the Carolina coast, discussion turned to the White House’s response to Hurricane Maria last year -- and President Donald Trump’s praise for that effort the day before. The Category 4 storm caused catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico, crippling its power grid and resulting in an estimated 2,975 deaths, according to a recent study, but Trump had touted the federal response as “an unappreciated great job.”

    “We’ve seen two years of the president rewriting history,” anchor Alisyn Camerota noted on CNN. Citing Bob Woodward’s new book and other reports, she posited that many of Trump’s aides “don't think that the president is rooted in reality and that he's often amoral when it comes to decisions like this, like not mentioning the 3,000 victims in Puerto Rico.”

    CNN senior political analyst John Avlon agreed, contrasting the president’s sunny tweet about the administration’s success in responding to Hurricane Maria with the reality that there were “nearly 3,000 humans dead.” “And that lack of focus on that fact and the fact there hasn't been an inquest -- an official inquest -- there hasn't been a full lesson learned, is itself a scandal,” he added.

    Roughly seven minutes later, the segment appeared to draw an unhinged response from the president, who denied that 3,000 had died in Puerto Rico as a result of the hurricane, baselessly blaming the evidence to the contrary on a conspiracy by Democrats to deny him credit for an effective response.

    Trump’s furious tweets had the hallmarks of executive time, the regular phenomenon in which the idle president watches hours of cable news coverage of his presidency and responds on Twitter in near real time. Indeed, in a series of tweets earlier that morning, Trump had made clear that he was planted in front of the television. When the president’s morning tweets seem to come out of left field, the reason is almost always that he’s reacting to what he sees there.

    The president’s top aides have struggled to curtail the president’s exposure to cable news, concerned that it affects his mood and that the resulting tweets take the White House off message. As might be expected in a case where Trump is responding in real time to critical media coverage, there’s little apparent strategy or forethought on display with today’s Puerto Rico tweets. Instead, we see the convergence of two of the president’s unsettling but persistent character traits: He is incapable of ignoring perceived slights, and he is a conspiracy theorist. The CNN segment notwithstanding, the deaths of thousands in Puerto Rico has drawn shamelessly little media attention and minimal scrutiny from the Republicans who control Congress. By lashing out on Twitter, the president has now put that tragedy on the national news agenda. His comments are unhinged, baseless nonsense because that’s who he is, the birther president, the guy who goes on 9/11 truther Alex Jones’ show and praises his “amazing” reputation.

    “[H]e's got to guard against his natural impulse, which is to puff himself up while other people are in pain,” Avlon said this morning. The problem is that the president is little more than a sum of those impulses, and expecting rational, measured behavior is hoping for the impossible. Minutes later, he proved it.