During Fox News’s 8 and 9 o’clock hours Monday night — the heart of the prime-time lineup, featuring hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity — there was a theme. According to automated transcripts from TVEyes, the two hosts and their guests mentioned the FBI nearly 80 times over the course of the two hours. The word “Trump” was said 62 times, and the word “Hillary” 60 times. The next two most commonly discussed people were former national security adviser Michael Flynn (“Flynn,” said 44 times) and a newcomer to the national conversation, FBI agent Peter Strzok (“Strzok,” said 36 times).
Who’s Strzok? He’s the agent who earned several excoriating tweets from President Trump over the weekend. As here, from Sunday morning:
Strzok was a member of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election (and any assistance that Trump’s campaign might have provided) until July. At that point, he was reassigned to the FBI’s human resources department after the discovery of text messages he’d sent last year that were interpreted as critical of Trump. The recipient was bureau attorney Lisa Page — also at one point a member of Mueller’s team — with whom Strzok was involved romantically. Before working for Mueller’s team, Strzok was involved with investigations including the one looking into Hillary Clinton’s email server.
And that is why Strzok managed an unwilling star turn on Fox News.
There are two layers to the way Trump tries to undercut his critics. He will insist that the critic is corrupt or lying and will then seize on any even tangential indicator that this might be the case. Trump didn’t invent this tactic, but he has elevated it to a position of prominence in the national political conversation. His defenders in politics and the media pick up on the refrain, as Hannity in particular has shown.
Trump’s dismissal of the FBI began in July 2016 after then-Director James B. Comey announced that the bureau would not recommend charges against Clinton. Shortly afterward, Trump tweeted: “FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow! #RiggedSystem.”
As the campaign moved forward, Trump consistently cited the FBI as a way to reveal corruption in Washington and to remind voters of the investigation into Clinton, which he claimed gave her an unwarranted pass. (Trump made the same claim this week in defense of Flynn, claiming without evidence that Clinton lied repeatedly to the FBI without facing repercussions while Flynn’s life was “destroyed.”)
Trump seized on a story about how the wife of a senior FBI official, Andrew McCabe, was running for office and received political contributions from an ally of Clinton’s. Many other candidates in Virginia got similar support, but Trump clearly saw it as the sort of tangential indicator that could bolster his case for impropriety.
This, it seems, was the environment in which Strzok’s texts were sent.
When Comey sent a letter to Congress shortly before Election Day announcing newly discovered emails from Clinton’s server, Trump’s tune changed.
“It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made,” Trump said at a rally in Michigan in late October 2016, “ . . . It took a lot of guts, I really disagreed with him, I was not his fan. But I’ll you what he did, he brought back his reputation — he brought it back. He’s got to hang tough, because there’s a lot of — a lot of people want him to do the wrong thing.”
Trump’s flip on Comey barely registered. It was, in many ways, expected. Very few people attributed rhetorical consistency to Trump by then and saw his disparagement of his opponents as a rhetorical tool. After all, he’d gone from bashing his GOP rivals Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) and his former opponents in the most dire terms to embracing their endorsements and their support in the general election. It’s how it worked with Trump. The FBI was an enemy until it was helpful.
The FBI is now once again an enemy of Trump’s as an arm of the Department of Justice that Mueller’s team can leverage in its investigation of Russian meddling. Two former members of Trump’s campaign team face criminal charges for lying to the FBI and, in at least one case, the former campaign aide has helped the investigation directly.
Earlier this year, Trump tried to resuscitate the McCabe story on Twitter as a way to call the FBI’s integrity into question. Strzok, by touching both the Mueller probe and the Clinton email investigation, serves as a much more effective foil. Although it’s not clear how strong Strzok’s personal views were or to what extent they might have influenced the teams conducting either the Clinton or Russia investigation — if at all — he is poised to become Trump and his supporters’ favorite FBI agent. (We’ve seen this play out before, when economist Jonathan Gruber became the human embodiment of what conservatives loathed about the Affordable Care Act.)
For Trump, part of his relationship with the FBI is also colored by his broader skepticism about objective analysis. His administration and allies have repeatedly demonstrated a distrust of what were once mostly uncontroversial government actors. His aide Stephen Miller rejected a report showing that immigrants were a net asset to the country. His treasury secretary promised an independent analysis showing that tax cuts would pay for themselves; that report either didn’t exist or was suppressed after it didn’t show what Secretary Steven Mnuchin had hoped. Republicans on Capitol Hill objected to the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the effects of repealing Obamacare and then the Joint Committee on Taxation math showing that the tax cuts would add $1 trillion to the national debt over 10 years.
Before his inauguration, Trump got into an odd fight with the country’s national security infrastructure. Frustrated at a series of leaks about the investigation into Russian meddling (and possible campaign collusion), Trump on Twitter compared leaks from intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany. The day after his inauguration, he went to the CIA for an event intended to make nice, but it’s clear that the president continues to harbor frustration about those agencies. It also overlaps with questions about Trump’s relationship with Russia, because he and his team apparently chose not to debrief President Barack Obama’s State Department about its discussions with Russia last December despite a State Department request.
On Monday, the Intercept reported that Trump was considering establishing an intelligence-gathering operation that would sidestep the existing national security infrastructure — replete, as it is, with people who once worked for the distrusted Obama (and George W. Bush before him and Bill Clinton before him) — and instead report to Trump and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The Washington Post hasn’t confirmed this report, but an exploration of such an idea certainly fits with Trump’s view of the institutions he inherited.
Trump’s view that only those loyal to him can be trusted is reinforced by the stark partisanship of the moment. Before Trump took office, conservative leaders and media were stoking skepticism about the media and other institutions predicated on objective analysis. (You can see the Trump strategy play out in criticism of the media over the past decade: sweeping disparagement of its trustworthiness bolstered by individual examples of mistakes.) Fox News positioned itself against Washington and the so-called mainstream media to its great benefit for years before Trump was an actual political candidate.
Most Republicans in positions of power, though, avoided embracing the strategy, worried about the repercussions. Trump is not similarly worried, in part because his embrace of it contributed to his surprising victory in November 2016 — a victory that he clearly sees a validation.
So we get Monday night on Fox News: an FBI agent implicated in a nefarious conspiracy to take down the president based on reports about unseen text messages he sent.
During Hannity’s show, Jeanine Pirro — a former judge, prosecutor and fellow Fox News host — was asked about Comey.
“He ran his office very well, and then he turned into a political whore,” Pirro said. “He changed the nature of the FBI. Shame on him. At the end of the day, everyone working — from McCabe to this guy Strzok — they are an embarrassment to the agency.”
“It’s the people at the top with an agenda that think they are smarter than the American people,” Hannity replied.