The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fox News spins desperately to shield lawless president from accountability

High-profile appointments and departures in President Trump’s administration have one thing in common: Fox News. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Now that President Trump is heading into a new period of intensified scrutiny from congressional Democrats, even as the special counsel’s investigation approaches its climax, Trump’s political health — and, possibly, his survival as well — depends more than ever on the massive propaganda apparatus that is busily toiling away on his behalf.

Central to this effort is Fox News. Fox personalities are now responding to the new Democratic investigative push, and the true dimensions of their efforts are coming into clearer focus: Precisely because Trump has committed extremely serious misconduct and wrongdoing on so many fronts, some of Fox’s leading voices are resorting to portraying any and all oversight directed at the president as fundamentally illegitimate.

Another way of putting this is that Fox personalities are arguing that Trump should be above accountability — that is, above the law. They don’t put it this way, but this is what they’re really saying.

This is going to get quite hairy in coming days. Watch this segment that Trump tweeted out hours ago:

The sheer Orwellian up-is-downism here is remarkable. Lou Dobbs claimed Democrats are engaged in a “search for a crime” and are “following the lead of Robert Mueller and the radical Dem corruption of both the FBI and the Department of Justice.” One guest scoffed that Mueller had been empowered to investigate crimes he came across “in the process of investigating whatever the heck it was he was authorized to investigate.”

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Let me help here: Mueller was authorized to investigate a hostile foreign power’s massive and deliberate subversion of U.S. democracy, which it undertook to get Trump elected president. In service of that end, Mueller has already created a remarkably detailed portrait of the scope and reach of this sabotage effort. In addition to this, Mueller was authorized to investigate whether the Trump campaign colluded with that subversion effort, and other matters that arose in the process.

What these folks are really saying, then, is that investigating this attack on our democracy — regardless of whether conspiracy happened — is itself corrupt and illegitimate. That Trump benefited from illicit help in getting elected — whether or not he would have won without it is irrelevant — must not be acknowledged. Needless to say, nor can the fact that Trump’s top campaign officials eagerly tried to conspire in that effort (which Trump subsequently tried to conceal from the American people).

No congressional investigations of Trump are legitimate

The other argument Trump’s allies are making is essentially that no congressional investigations of any kind directed at the president are legitimate. Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch claims in the above clip that it is a “remarkable abuse of power” that Democrats launched investigations without knowing beforehand whether there will be evidence of a “crime warranting impeachment.”

Trump approvingly quoted Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) on Fox making a similar point. And Matthew Gertz notes that on “Fox & Friends,” there was even discussion that witnesses should decline to cooperate with Democrats for this same reason.

Behold the circular logic: No investigations that might lead to impeachment hearings later are legitimate because Democrats haven’t gathered sufficient evidence of impeachable offenses before launching their investigations, which conveniently rules out any investigations. In reality, not only is Congress supposed to exercise oversight; gathering facts before determining whether impeachment hearings are warranted is the correct order in which to do things.

Similarly, Trump also quoted Fox’s Sean Hannity claiming that due to Democratic investigations, “we the people will now be subjected” to “modern-day McCarthyism.” The “we the people” is interesting, since in 2018 a sizable popular majority elected Democrats to control the House and thus exercise oversight on Trump.

But making that fact disappear is central to Trumpian propaganda: Trump also quoted the buffoonish Ari Fleischer literally describing the 2016 campaign as the “last election," the verdict of which Democrats should heed by … not launching investigations.

What Fox personalities don’t want investigated

The materials released by Judiciary Committee Democrats detail the documents they are seeking, as well as listing out the people in Trump’s orbit who are being asked to provide them. Thus, these materials provide a guide to what Fox’s personalities do not want investigated (that is, in addition to sabotage of our democracy, as noted above). A partial list:

  • Materials relating to any foreign government payments to Trump’s businesses, which might constitute violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
  • Materials that might shed light on Trump’s negotiations over the duration of a real estate project in Moscow, which Trump concealed from the voters even as the GOP primaries were underway.
  • Materials that might show whether Trump’s lawyers had a hand in rewriting former lawyer Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress falsifying the timeline of those negotiations.
  • Materials that might illuminate more detail about Trump’s numerous efforts to obstruct the FBI/Mueller investigation.
  • Materials that would shed more light on the criminal hush-money scheme that Cohen carried out, allegedly at Trump’s direction, and on Trump’s reimbursement of those payments.

To sum up: Fox personalities don’t think it’s legitimate to examine whether Trump corruptly enriched himself in violation of the Constitution; deceived Republican primary voters about the financial motives behind his foreign policy agenda; directed his personal lawyer to lie to Congress to cover that up; obstructed an investigation into a foreign attack on our democracy that his own top advisers eagerly tried to conspire with; or participated in a criminal scheme that concealed from voters massive campaign finance expenditures designed to cover up alleged affairs, while lying to the American people about it.

Trump’s long-term political prospects depend upon keeping millions and millions of his voters in thrall to the idea that investigations into all of these matters are at their core illegitimate efforts to overturn the 2016 election. But precisely because of the immense amount of wrongdoing, misconduct and lawlessness that has already been documented on Trump’s part, this in effect requires arguing that the president should be immune from accountability entirely.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Report: Trump has a loyalty scale for Fox News hosts

Jennifer Rubin: Congress is obligated to follow the facts

Greg Sargent: Democrats are set to take a big step toward impeaching Trump

James Comey: Republicans are wrong. Transparency is possible in the Mueller investigation.

David Ignatius: Michael Cohen’s testimony reminds us that Trump’s investigations are far from over