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Opinion Fox News’s Chris Wallace hounds GOP lawmaker over the ‘big lie’

Chris Wallace in his office near Capitol Hill in July 2015. (T.J. Kirkpatrick for The Washington Post)

CNN reporter Donie O’Sullivan recently posted video of an interview with two people in Florida who believe the lies that the November 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump. When O’Sullivan pointed out that the nonsense about stuffed ballot boxes and other shenanigans has been proven false, a woman responded, “It has not — I watched it on TV.”

Let that comment stand as a reminder to people who work on TV: Your actions matter.

During his weekly show Sunday, Fox News host Chris Wallace faced off with one of the less famous faces of the “big lie” — Rep. Jim Banks. The Indiana Republican not only backed the Texas attorney general’s lawsuit that sought to overturn the election results in four pivotal states, but he also voted to decertify the results in Pennsylvania after a group of Trump supporters ransacked the Capitol in the belief that Trump had been robbed. Those are impeccable “big lie” credentials.

Banks’s appearance was pegged to the drama over Rep. Liz Cheney’s likely ouster from House Republican leadership. The Wyoming congresswoman currently serves as GOP conference chair, the No. 3 spot in the Republican House hierarchy, but her insistence on saying that the election was not stolen from Trump has created tensions with her colleagues. The top two House Republicans — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) — favor replacing Cheney with Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.). Cheney may be demoted as early as this Wednesday.

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In his interrogation of Banks, Wallace started out by asking Banks what his problem was with Cheney, a solid conservative who supported Trump’s legislative agenda top to bottom. But since the “big lie” went down four or five months ago, its proponents have had some time to perfect their on-the-spot defenses. And so, Banks responded smoothly with talking points about Republicans being united against the “radical dangerous Biden agenda.”

After a few rounds, Wallace signaled a change in tactics: “All right, let me try to get at this a different way. Is Joe Biden the legitimate president of the United States?” Banks response was typical of his cohort: “Yes, Joe Biden was elected. He was — he was inaugurated on January 20th. And he — he’s — he’s the — our focus. As — as the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, we meet on a weekly basis to counter the radical Biden agenda and — and push back with policies, talking points and we — at this point, the Republican Study Committee is — is filling the void and providing our members in the House Republican conference with what they need to push back against the Biden agenda.”

Unsatisfied with that tripe, Wallace circled back, citing the lawmaker’s participation in “big lie” actions and then putting the question in stark terms:

Wallace: Do you still question whether or not Joe Biden won the election fair and square and got over 270 electoral votes fair and square?
Banks: Yes, Chris, I — I stand by my vote to object on January 6th. I stand by the Texas lawsuit because I have serious concerns about how the election in November was — was carried out. That’s why I wrote a bill that’s co-sponsored by nearly a hundred of my colleagues to strengthen voter identification laws at the federal level and support those measures nationwide. And it’s — it’s — it’s why I’m — I’m — I’m even more concerned about HR 1, the radical Democrat — their — their bill to nationalize and federalize elections, a very dangerous move forward. And — and that’s what we should be focused on.

At that point, Wallace went after Banks on Trump’s complicity in the Capitol riot and remained fixated on the only topic that matters in contemporary American politics: “Is it a lie that the election was stolen? Did he contribute to the insurrection on the Capitol?” Banks responded, “Yes, Chris, I’ve — I’ve — I’ve never said that the election was stolen. I’ve said I have very serious concerns with — with how the election was conducted in last November because of covid rules that loosened voter identification laws. That — that’s why I — I — I objected on January 6th. I’ll never — I’ll never apologize for that. I represented my district in doing so."

Last month, the Erik Wemple Blog dinged Wallace for falling a bit short in an interview on the similar topics with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Wallace’s clash with Banks had a notably harder edge, which we interpret as hard-and-fast evidence that the renowned anchor is taking marching orders directly from this blog, and nowhere else.

Whatever its inspiration, the segment still pointed to the perils of sharing air time with Big Liars. Twice during the interview, Banks claimed to have “serious concerns” about the integrity of the 2020 presidential election. That phrase, in itself, has much of the heft of a factual statement, yet just enough opinion to avoid fact-checking. As the Trump campaign’s miserable court challenges against the election made clear, all those “serious concerns” were just part of the lie. People acting in bad faith can have “serious concerns” about anything.

There’s some debate as to whether election deniers should be allowed into green rooms. “Don’t book them, as long as they haven’t publicly retracted,” Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse recently told The Post’s Margaret Sullivan. Matt Negrin of “The Daily Show” has dedicated himself to tracking — and slamming — the interviews of Big Liars on major journalism platforms. And CNN host Jake Tapper blasted away on the same topic: "If they’re willing to lie about Joe Biden wanting to steal your hamburgers, and QAnon and the ‘big lie’ about the election, what are they not willing to lie about? Why should I put any of them on TV?”

We’ve proposed a solution that marries the journalistic imperative of holding everyone accountable with the need to keep disinformation off the air: Sure, invite Big Liars onto your show, but ask them up front about their support for overturning democracy. If they don’t retract their positions, move to the next segment.

Read more:

Max Boot: Think Republicans in Washington are bad? They’re far worse at the state level.

Greg Sargent: Stop saying Republicans are ‘cowards’ who fear Trump. The truth is far worse.

Jennifer Rubin: Liz Cheney’s other problem

Erik Wemple: On ABC and Fox, a big day for the Big Lie caucus

Greg Sargent: The Big Lie has gotten so bad that even some Republicans are running from it