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:
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.