What Trump’s Fox News cabinet wants him to do about Rod Rosenstein

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.”