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The FBI’s Monday raid of the residence and office of Michael D. Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, has created a new urgency in the president’s frequent threats to curtail special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump is reportedly considering firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who approved the raid and oversees Mueller’s probe in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the case. Following the raid, the president also left open the idea of firing Mueller, and the White House confirmed that he believes he has the power to do so directly. Democrats and some Republicans have warned that any effort by the president to stop Mueller’s investigation would be calamitous. But according to CNN, the president’s legal advisers think that he could weather the storm, believing that “they have successfully argued to the American public that the FBI is tainted and think they can make the same case against Rosenstein.” They own that past success in undermining the FBI -- and any future success in firing Rosenstein without a major backlash -- in no small part to the efforts by Fox News and the president’s other allies in the right-wing media to run down law enforcement agencies on Trump’s behalf.
While the president has claimed that the FBI’s reputation "is in tatters -- worst in history," the American public is broadly unconvinced. But the effort has succeeded in convincing the president’s base. A February poll found that 73 percent of Republicans agreed that “members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations.”
The president’s pitch is a fundamentally radical, authoritarian one. He claims that the purpose of law enforcement is to protect him and punish his enemies and if it fails to do this job, he can remove whomever he wants to fix that problem. House and Senate Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated that they are willing to bolster, or at least not hinder, that push, perceiving that their political standing depends on that of the president. And that effort has been relentlessly supported by -- and, indeed, is impossible to imagine succeeding without the help of -- Trump’s supporters at Fox News and in the conservative press more broadly. When the president’s allies tell his base that the FBI’s actions are comparable to those of Stalin or the Gestapo, the base comes to believe, as Trump’s legal advisers suggested in the CNN article, that the “FBI is tainted.”
Since the Mueller investigation began 11 months ago, Fox’s audience has been tuning in daily to an alternative narrative in which Trump and his associates are being unfairly pursued for crimes that never occurred, the victims of a vast conspiracy by Justice Department and FBI officials, Democrats, and the mainstream press. The entire network is responsible for turning its audience against the rule of law, and nearly every program has to some degree engaged in this activity. But a relative handful of players has been the dominating force in the effort, employing apocalyptic rhetoric that constantly finds new heights.
Sean Hannity, whose program is the network’s most popular, has done more than anyone else at Fox to prepare Trump’s base to cheer if he moves toward autocracy, devoting dozens of broadcasts to the supposed perfidy of the Russia investigation. He said this week that Mueller and Rosenstein have “declared what is a legal war” on Trump and argued that the “country is hanging by a thread.”
Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro, both vocal propagandists who have called for a purge of federal law enforcement agencies including the arrests of officials central to the Russia probe, are also important figures in the effort. Trump himself reportedly loves the programs of Hannity, Dobbs, and Pirro and consults them privately for advice about the Mueller probe and other issues. At times the president seems to have advance notice of what they will be talking about on their shows -- last night on Twitter, he promoted Hannity's broadcast, which kicked off with a "conspitatorial" monologue in which the Fox host described the "Deep State crime families" of Mueller, former FBI director James Comey, and Hillary Clinton.
The network’s morning show Fox & Friends is a ready platform for smears of the probe that often result in the president chiming in in real time (while in recent days the program’s hosts have warned that Trump taking action against the investigation could backfire on him, it's difficult to imagine them not stepping up to defend whatever he does, if anything).
Then there are the guests who regularly appear on these programs to slam Mueller and company: Gregg Jarrett, the Fox legal analyst who carved out a role explaining how the president and his associates didn’t commit crimes and all the investigators have; Jay Sekulow, who is a member of the president’s legal team, and Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova, who tried to join it, all of whom use their appearances to promote conspiracy theories; and John Solomon of The Hill and Fox News contributor Sara Carter, who produce reports that are largely indistinguishable from the talking points of the president’s legal team or Republican congressional investigators and then appear on the network to discuss them.
All of these players exist in an ecosystem with virulently pro-Trump Republican members of Congress, who have been using their oversight powers to try to undermine Mueller’s investigation and then appearing on Fox to promote those efforts. We’ve seen legislative efforts to demand Mueller’s removal, calls for the appointments of other special counsels to investigate aspects of his probe, and congressional Republicans painting newly released Justice Department and FBI documents in the worst possible light.
Fox and other pro-Trump media, Republican congressional investigators, the president, and the president’s lawyers are all playing off each other’s efforts, constantly trying to convince their base that the FBI and DOJ are just trying to destroy Trump. When their individual conspiracy theories collapse -- and they often do, in spectacular fashion -- the parties involved simply move on to the next one. And nothing -- not the series of guilty pleas and indictments Mueller’s investigation has racked up, nor the fact that he and every other senior person involved in the probe is a Republican -- will stop them.
The Rosenstein attacks are simply the latest case in which these Trump allies are moving as one to try to achieve their ends.
Trump’s legal advisers told CNN on Tuesday that the deputy attorney general has “crossed the line in what he can and cannot pursue” and claimed that he has conflicts of interest with regard to Mueller’s investigation. On their shows the same night, Hannity said Rosenstein is “out of control himself and conflicted out of this case,” while Dobbs hosted Jarrett to make a similar argument, then argued that Rosenstein himself should be under investigation.
Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes threatened during a Fox News appearance to move to impeach Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray if they don’t turn over certain documents to his committee. His comments came just a day after diGenova suggested that strategy as a “no-brainer” during an appearance on Dobbs’ show.
Then Wednesday morning, apparently reacting to a Fox & Friends segment critical of Rosenstein, Trump tweeted this:
Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama. Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
The president and his allies have decided that there’s no way for them to go too far, that ensuring that Trump and his closest associates escape the investigation unscathed justifies anything they might do along the way. Firing Rosenstein in order to curtail Mueller's investigation would be a dangerous step down an authoritarian path. But Trump and his legal advisers know that at least they'll still have Fox's propaganda apparatus behind them. And that might be enough.
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Donald Trump and his conservative media allies throw themselves a little premature celebration
Today the Justice Department announced the indictment of 13 Russian individuals accused of breaking a whole panoply of laws as part of the Russian effort to disrupt the 2016 presidential election. The indictment itself is a hell of read -- it details a sophisticated and multilayered operation spanning several years that waged information warfare as part of a conspiracy to sow discord and chaos within the American political system. The Russians stole identities, created fake social media accounts, staged protests, bought political ads, and attempted to coordinate with political groups within the U.S.
“By early to mid-2016,” the indictment reads, the Russian defendants’ “operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump … and disparaging Hillary Clinton.” Some of the defendants, the indictment notes, “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”
For Trump’s most slavish defenders in the conservative press, one little word in that passage -- “unwitting” -- is prompting a good deal of celebration. It proves, they argue, that no one in the Trump campaign “colluded” with Russia in the 2016 election, and that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is a farce that needs to be shut down.
Sean Hannity tweeted “No collusion” and linked to an article on his website with the blaring headline: “NO COLLUSION: Mueller Indictment Says TRUMP CAMPAIGN Unaware of Russian Meddling.” Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton tweeted: “Big Mueller indictment of Russians confirms ‘unwitting’ involvement of Trump campaign with disguised Russian operatives. No collusion. Shut it down.”
Republicans are also eagerly jumping on this line of argument. The White House put out a statement saying the special counsel’s investigation indicates “there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia.” During an appearance on Fox News, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said, “Today marks the day that the Democrats’ Russia collusion conspiracy theory unraveled.”
Of course, the indictment doesn’t demonstrate that at all, and the Justice Department was very careful in how it addressed the issue of American involvement in the Russian election conspiracy. In fact, everyone celebrating the exoneration of Trump very well may be spiking the football on the 25-yard line.
Conservatives from Hannity and the RNC on down are conveniently ignoring the fact that this is just one indictment from an investigation that is still ongoing. The indictment indicates that Trump-associated political operatives were unwitting participants in this specific series of alleged criminal activities. It does not say that the illegal actions it describes encompass the entirety of the Russian election-meddling campaign. There very well may be more indictments on the way, and they could be related to known instances of Russian interference that today’s indictment didn’t touch on at all: the hacking of the DNC’s emails, the July 2016 Trump Tower meeting, etc.
During his press conference announcing today’s indictment, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was extremely careful and unfailingly precise in how he described the involvement by Americans in the alleged Russian criminal conspiracy. “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” Rosenstein said (emphasis added). When asked what relationship Trump campaign officials had to the Russian conspiracy, Rosenstein again applied the same precise language. “There’s no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge.”
And that’s to say nothing of the possibility that Trump-associated people could still be charged with other crimes discovered in the course of Mueller’s investigation: money laundering, obstruction, fraud, etc. Mueller is reportedly on the verge of flipping another senior Trump campaign official, which certainly indicates that Trumpworld could still be in for a whole lot of legal trouble.
Of course, no one has any real concrete idea of what will happen. Well, no one except Robert Mueller and his team, who are still investigating. Regardless, the president hopped onto Twitter this afternoon to join the (possibly premature) celebration and proudly transmit the fact that Russia’s “anti-US campaign” -- the existence of which he’d refused to acknowledge up to this point -- got rolling long before he even became a presidential candidate:
Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2018
So, Trump is touting as good news the fact that Russia’s election interference campaign didn’t start with him, but rather identified his candidacy as an asset to be exploited. One starts to think that the president and his allies don’t really think too far in advance before they begin celebrating.
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Fox spent under 10 minutes covering Russia sanctions while CNN and MSNBC devoted over three hours to it
Over the course of nine days, Fox News devoted less than 10 minutes to the news that President Donald Trump’s administration refused to enact sanctions on Russia, which Congress mandated last year with overwhelming bipartisan support in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. In contrast, CNN and MSNBC gave this development significant coverage, with CNN devoting nearly two hours and MSNBC covering it for well over an hour during the same time period.
In July 2017, Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), with bipartisan, veto-proof support. The bill mandated “new measures targeting key Russian officials in retaliation for that country’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.” Though Trump signed the bill into law, he was vocal in opposing it and called it “seriously flawed.”
January 29 was the deadline for the Treasury Department to issue sanctions against entities doing business with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors. On that day, however, the Trump administration announced it would not implement the sanctions, with a State Department official claiming that “the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent.”
A Media Matters analysis of cable news coverage from January 29, when the administration announced it would not impose the sanctions, through February 6 revealed that CNN devoted an hour and 47 minutes to the news, MSNBC covered it for an hour and 24 minutes, and Fox spent a paltry nine minutes and change on the news:
The Treasury Department did publish a list of senior Russian political figures and wealthy oligarchs just before the deadline, which CAATSA mandated, but “underlined that those named aren’t being targeted for new sanctions.” After questioning by BuzzFeed News, a Treasury official admitted that the list “was derived from Forbes’ ranking of the ‘200 richest businessmen in Russia 2017.’” Although Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told the Senate banking committee on January 30 that “there will be sanctions that come out of this report,” the Trump administration faced congressional criticism for its refusal to enact sanctions by the deadline.
Fox’s failure to adequately cover the Trump administration’s refusal to hold Russia responsible for its interference in the 2016 election comes amid a growing campaign by Fox News figures to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign worked with Russia during the election.
Media Matters searched closed captioning in the video database service SnapStream for discussion of the Trump administration's refusal to enforce sanctions on Russia between January 29 and February 6, 2018. We searched for combinations of the following terms within the same 20-second clip: "Russia," "Trump," "administration," "president," "White House," "sanction," "sanctions," "oligarch," "oligarchs," "oligarchy," "list," or "treasury."
We included all-day original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC between 4 a.m. and midnight each day. We did not include reruns of weekday programming that aired on weekends or early in the morning.
We timed any segment where the topic of discussion was the administration's refusal to enforce sanctions. We also included segments where there was “significant discussion” of sanctions. We defined “significant discussion” as two or more speakers in the same segment discussing sanctions with one another. In segments where multiple topics were discussed, we only timed the portion of discussion relevant to sanctions. We also timed teasers for upcoming segments on the sanctions and “passing mentions” about the sanctions during segments on other topics. We defined “passing mentions” as one speaker mentioning sanctions and no other speakers in the segment engaging in discussion from the comment.
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President Donald Trump is newly frustrated with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, according to several recent reports, some of which suggest the president is contemplating firing him. While the president fumes, an array of his closest allies at Fox News are encouraging him to remove or even imprison the Republican longtime federal prosecutor who currently oversees special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
The pro-Trump media’s attacks on Rosenstein are not new -- his appointment of Mueller last May and his refusal to countenance removing the special counsel has made him a regular target. Sean Hannity called for Rosenstein's resignation as early as June, while other network figures have described him as part of a Justice Department “cartel, the equivalent of the mob” engaged in “what essentially amounts to a coup d'etat” against Trump.
But the tempo of the criticisms has dramatically increased over the past 10 days, as Trump’s propagandists have focused on the need to release a memo drafted by Republicans on the House intelligence committee. GOP members claim the memo shows the FBI and DOJ were biased against the president during the early phases of their investigation into improper communications between Trump associates and Russia, while Democratic members call it a cherry-picked weapon aimed at dismantling Mueller’s investigation.
According to The New York Times, the memo focuses in part on Rosenstein’s actions, which the paper reports “indicates that Republicans may be moving to seize on his role as they seek to undermine the inquiry.” That could give Trump cover to fire Rosenstein and replace him with someone more amenable to either ending or curbing the special counsel’s investigation.
Since Republican members of Congress first began discussing the memo on January 18, the president’s friends at Fox have engaged in a withering drumbeat of Rosenstein criticism, at times calling for his firing or even his arrest.
Hannity, a sometime presidential adviser who has turned his show into a nightly assault on the rule of law in an effort to protect Trump from the Russia investigation, said the night after the memo story first gained credence: “Rod Rosenstein, you need to explain your role in all of this and specifically if you were involved in extending this FISA warrant. And, frankly, Rod Rosenstein needs to be fired.” Hannity again called for Rosenstein to be “fired and investigated” on January 22. He has described the deputy attorney general as “corrupt,” suggesting he was part of a “rogue group of Obama administration holdovers that despise Donald Trump” that were “abus[ing] the powerful, unmatched tools of intelligence that we give our government to protect us” in order to “influence first the election and then undermine the choice of the American people.” He also questioned whether Rosenstein might be part of a non-existent anti-Trump “secret society.”
Gregg Jarrett, a low-profile Fox News anchor who emerged last year as the network’s leading legal defender of the president, told Hannity on Wednesday night that Rosenstein had approved an “illegal investigation.” In an appearance on Lou Dobbs’ Fox Business show the same evening, he claimed that Rosenstein has “serious political bias” and may have committed a federal crime that carries a 10-year prison sentence. Dobbs, who frequently suggests that various people have broken the law by not being sufficiently supportive of the president, replied, “So when do the arrests start?” After Jarrett said that should have happened long ago but “it was hidden for a long time,” Dobbs replied, “I hope that’s also a federal crime.”
Discussing the memo on Justice with Jeanine Pirro on Saturday, Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton claimed that there needs to be “pressure on the FBI to clean out its ranks at the leadership level,” adding, “If Rod Rosenstein isn’t going to do it, they should find someone who will.” Pirro, who has repeatedly called for the arrests of DOJ and FBI leaders and met with Trump in the White House in November, responded, “I got to tell you I couldn’t agree with you more. That place is dirty.”
And in an appearance on Fox’s The Ingraham Angle, former Trump adviser Roger Stone said that Rosenstein “is not on the level” and should be fired.
Is Trump angry at Rosenstein and contemplating firing him because of Fox’s coverage? Is Fox providing so much negative coverage about Rosenstein because its hosts know the president wants him out? Are the two efforts happening entirely in parallel? Fox’s dual role as the president’s news source and the propaganda megaphone trumpeting his message to his base, as well as the propensity of several Fox figures to advise him privately, makes it difficult to draw causality arrows. But what’s clear is that if Trump does move against Rosenstein, his most loyal followers will already be primed to accept the effort as the logical response to a purportedly disloyal Justice Department official.
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“I have a message tonight for the special counsel, Robert Mueller,” Fox News host and sometime adviser to President Donald Trump Sean Hannity said at the top of last night’s broadcast. “Your witch hunt is now over. Time to close the doors."
With those words, Hannity signaled a new phase in the campaign against Mueller, which is uniting Republican members of Congress, pro-Trump pundits and journalists, alt-right figures, and suspected Russian-linked bot networks in a full-fledged effort to torpedo the special counsel’s investigation.
The president’s allies have been calling for the termination of Mueller’s investigation almost since its launch, seeing it as a grave danger to the Trump administration. The new line of attack revolves around a four-page classified memo drafted by Republicans on the House intelligence committee that GOP members claim shows malfeasance on the part of the FBI and Justice Department during the early phases of their investigation into improper communications between Trump associates and Russia. The implication is that information from a dossier -- paid for by anti-Trump Republicans and then Democrats and compiled by the intelligence firm Fusion GPS -- was used as the basis for warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on the communications of Trump associates, somehow showing bad faith on the part of law enforcement and invalidating the special counsel’s investigation.
After the intelligence committee voted to allow all members of the House to review the memo, several said publicly that it contained damning information that should be released to the public, using the Twitter hashtag “#releasethememo” to promote that action. “Alt-right” and traditional pro-Trump media figures, along with suspected Russian-linked Twitter networks, amplified that call, sending the hashtag to the top of Twitter’s trending list.
Hannity, who has one of the highest-rated shows on cable news and who has spent months waging an all-out campaign against Mueller, catapulted the story last night, devoting multiple segments to discussing how the memo shows “the systematic abuse of power” that is “far bigger than Watergate” and is in fact “the biggest national scandal by far in our lifetime.” Fox & Friends picked up the torch this morning and Fox seems poised to devote coverage to the memo throughout the day.
All of this is best understood within the framework of a systematic effort by the president’s allies to undermine the Mueller investigation at all costs. The underlying charges don’t make much sense.
The Russia investigation was reportedly first sparked not by the dossier, but after Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that Russia had damaging information about Hillary Clinton and that diplomat passed the information along to U.S. sources.
The most damning public revelations -- that top Trump campaign aides met with self-described Russian government agents to discuss damaging information those sources said they had about Clinton, and Trump firing the FBI director over his handling of the Russia investigation -- are acknowledged by all sides.
It’s unclear how the dossier’s use would somehow invalidate the results of the investigation or necessitate Mueller’s firing, except that all the people making those charges would really like that to be true.
Declassifying the memo for release would require an extensive process, making this all a very obvious stunt.
I have no clue what game Nunes is playing at but this has nothing to do with 702. Furthermore, no one is "releasing" anything without a executive branch classification review. Even for four pages, that's a multi-week endeavor.
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) January 19, 2018
Source with knowledge tells me the Nunes memo is "a level of irresponsible stupidity that I cannot fathom. Purposefully misconstrues facts and leaves out important details." https://t.co/YmzmrHvpYG
— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) January 19, 2018
Moreover, if the FISA warrant is so damaging, why aren’t Republicans demanding the president declassify and release it, instead of asking for the release of what amounts to Nunes’ op-ed on the topic?
The easiest explanation is that the parties involved are mainly interested in undermining the Mueller investigation and protecting the president. Over the past months, we’ve seen a drumbeat demanding new investigations into the president’s enemies and purges of purported anti-Trump elements at DOJ and the FBI.
As those efforts have borne fruit, they have emboldened the president’s allies, who now may believe they can use this memo to prep the political landscape for Mueller’s firing.