President Donald Trump explained on Friday that he had studied the fall of former president Richard Nixon for clues about how to avoid his predecessor’s disgrace. “I learned a lot from Richard Nixon -- don't fire people,” he said in an interview. “Of course,” he added, dubiously, “there was one big difference: Number one, he may have been guilty, and number two, he had tapes all over the place."
But there’s another “big difference” between the presidencies of Trump and Nixon that was mentioned only implicitly: Fox News, the network hosting the interview, didn’t exist in the 1970s. Nixon aides blamed the purportedly liberal press for his downfall, and one of those Nixon acolytes, Roger Ailes, founded Fox as a corrective, with incredibly successful results. During Trump’s presidency, the network emerged as a full-fledged propaganda outlet that spun up an alternate reality in which those investigating the president’s associates were the real criminals.
While Nixon resigned because press scrutiny led to Justice Department investigation and eventually his abandonment by congressional Republicans, Fox’s conspiracy theories capture both Trump’s Justice Department and the rest of his party. There’s now a feedback loop between the pro-Trump propaganda network; the president it supports; the Justice Department, which under Attorney General William Barr increasingly seems to use the network’s rants as a blueprint for official actions; and congressional Republicans, who help generate and promote the Fox alternative narratives in network appearances and hearing rooms.
Thursday’s alarming news that the Justice Department had called for former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI to be thrown out, and the reaction that followed from congressional Republicans to that hammer blow to the rule of law, shows how Fox’s conspiracy theories have consumed the GOP. And what’s next may be worse, as the investigations into the investigators that the network demanded the DOJ initiate begin bearing fruit and Fox’s propagandists set their sights on former President Barack Obama.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to charges of lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition. Flynn had discussed on one of those calls the possible lifting of sanctions that President Barack Obama had just placed on Russia. He was subsequently fired after it became clear he also lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the conversation, making him potentially susceptible to blackmail. Flynn got a generous deal that secured his cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and allowed him to avoid legal liability related to, among other things, his alleged service as an unregistered agent of the Turkish government while working for the Trump campaign, for which prosecutors say they could have sought up to 15 years in prison.
But in Fox’s alternate reality, all the Trump associates who have been charged or pleaded guilty to crimes due to the Mueller probe are innocent victims, and the real villains in need of investigation are their investigators. In the days surrounding Flynn’s guilty plea, the network’s propagandists alleged that he had been “trying to promote U.S. interests” and nothing “untoward even occurred, let alone illegal.” Instead, they focused their ire on the FBI, which had supposedly walked Flynn into a “setup” and thus “become America's secret police”; Mueller’s team, an “illegal syndicate” and “renegade rogue deep state” that was turning the country into a “banana republic”; and reporters, who were supposedly serving as “willful vassals of an intelligence apparatus.”
These attacks continued for months, with Fox personalities denying that Flynn had lied to the FBI, demanding that charges against him be dropped, promoting his legal defense fund, urging him to reverse his guilty plea, and calling on Trump to pardon him.
At first, this campaign had little effect. As late as December 2018, Flynn again acknowledged under withering questioning from Judge Emmet Sullivan that he was guilty, and asked for more time to cooperate with prosecutors to avoid a harsher sentence. But then in June 2019, Flynn replaced his legal team with Sidney Powell, a Fox regular and conspiracy theorist who had argued that his prosecution had been a “horrific injustice” and described Mueller’s team as “creeps on a mission to destabilize and destroy this president.” Flynn promptly stopped cooperating with prosecutors, and in January he asked the court to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea.
Beginning in late April, things came to a head. First, Powell released documents she claimed showed that when Flynn lied to the FBI he had been the victim of a perjury trap. Fox stepped up and served as a megaphone, citing the documents to declare that Flynn was innocent and his prosecution had been illegitimate. And then Barr’s Justice Department filed a motion abandoning its case, stating that the documents showed that the investigation into Flynn was no longer justified at the time of his FBI interview, that his statements at that interview were not “material,” and that his calls with the Russian ambassador had been “entirely appropriate.” The brief was signed only by Timothy Shea, the acting U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., who was hand-picked by Barr and drew controversy in February after he quarterbacked a reduced sentencing request for Trump crony Roger Stone. Congressional Republicans, who have long played a key role in shepherding and amplifying Fox’s Mueller-related conspiracy theories, responded by declaring victory.
There are reams of reasons to be dubious of the right-wing victory lap, including that the DOJ had already had access to almost all of the “new” documents; Flynn himself had sworn under oath that he was not challenging the circumstances of his FBI interview; Judge Sullivan had rejected the idea that Flynn’s lies were not material; the notion that the Flynn interview lacked a proper foundation is obviously nonsensical; the Barr DOJ is trying to establish a standard for the president’s friends that differs wildly from that for everyone else; and the Shea filing twists the meaning of a key document in making its case.
But Fox, Trump, Barr’s DOJ, and congressional Republicans are already gearing up for their next salvo -- politicized investigations and perhaps prosecutions of those they claim are responsible for Flynn’s prosecution, including Obama himself.
Starting from their conclusion that the FBI investigation into Flynn was corrupt, Fox personalities are renewing their calls for investigations and prosecutions of the law enforcement officials involved in the probe. But they’ve also set their sights higher than former FBI or DOJ officials. They are suggesting that Obama himself was part of a nefarious and potentially illegal conspiracy, citing former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates’ testimony that Obama said during a meeting a few weeks before Flynn’s FBI interview that he had “learned information about Flynn.”
“Who would have told Barack Obama? And I'd like to know what he knew and when he knew it,” Fox host and sometime Trump adviser Sean Hannity said in one such segment.
There’s already a DOJ criminal investigation -- helmed by U.S. Attorney John Durham but closely overseen by Barr himself -- underway into the origins of the Russia probe, one that Trump’s own press secretary has attributed to Hannity’s conspiracy-mongering. During an interview last week, Barr hinted that it could result in prosecutions. But at the very least, as Trump’s reelection bout against former Vice President Joe Biden approaches, we can expect the attorney general to release documents spun to promote Fox’s conspiracy theories.
A White House aide wrote Nixon’s “Enemies List.” But Trump has Fox to do that work for him, along with a compliant Justice Department willing to target its members and a congressional Republican caucus eager to cheer it on. And it will be up to the press -- the very institution Nixon’s cronies blamed for his resignation -- to learn from their past failures to put Barr’s statements in proper context and carefully assess the claims coming out of the Justice Department.