The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump and Fox News told the ‘big lie’ for profit

A video of Bill Stepien, former campaign manager for Donald Trump, on a screen Monday during the second public hearing held by the House committee on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
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The claim that the 2020 election was stolen was a lie from the very beginning. Donald Trump knew that. Fox News knew it, too.

It is bad enough that this lie led to the violent mob attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. But as the House select committee investigating the insurrection laid out on Monday, this assault was in service of not just political power but also Trump’s grubby, unrelenting pursuit of profit.

The second public hearing, as committee member Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) said Sunday, aimed to prove that Trump “knew privately that he had lost, yet he decided to go out in the public and continue to say that he won.”

Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, could not appear at the hearing in person because his wife had gone into labor. But in a taped interview, Stepien said he had explained to Trump, well in advance and in considerable detail, that on the night of the election there would be a “red mirage”: the GOP-trending vote cast in person would be tallied before the Democratic-trending vote cast by mail, giving Trump an early, ephemeral lead.

That mirage pattern is well-known and “happens all the time,” Chris Stirewalt, then a politics editor at Fox News, told the committee. He led the team of analysts at Fox that called the state of Arizona for Joe Biden before other networks were ready to do so.

The red mirage is a concept that explains how in-person voting in the 2020 election initially appeared to give Republicans a lead before all votes were counted. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

In fact, that is what happened. On election night, Stepien testified, he told the president that his chances of victory were down to “5, maybe, maybe, 10 percent.” But according to testimony the committee revealed Monday, an “apparently inebriated” Rudy Giuliani barged in and urged Trump to go ahead with a preexisting plan to preemptively claim victory.

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Rather than defending Stirewalt’s work, Fox repeatedly welcomed Giuliani and other Trump-cult liars to its airwaves to make what then-Attorney General William P. Barr called “completely bogus and silly” claims of massive fraud in Arizona and other states. Stirewalt was fired in January 2021 as part of a purported “restructuring.”

Barr told committee investigators that after he announced publicly that the Justice Department had found no evidence of fraud that could possibly change the election’s outcome, Trump accused him of disloyalty in an Oval Office meeting, saying, “You hate Trump! You hate Trump!”

Barr resigned in December 2020. Jeffrey Rosen, who took over as acting attorney general after Barr left, told the committee that he, too, explained to Trump that the claims he was making about voter fraud had no basis in fact.

One of two things has to be true. Trump completely lost touch with reality. Or he decided to lie in an attempt to cling to power.

The committee has already made a powerful case for that second scenario. Last Thursday, in prime time, the panel showed how Trump used the “big lie” to draw a big crowd to Washington on Jan. 6 and send those followers to the Capitol, where Congress and Vice President Mike Pence were to certify Biden’s electoral college victory. What ensued was the gravest attack on our democracy since the Civil War. As the violence at the Capitol raged, Fox hosts Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade all texted Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, imploring the president to send his followers home.

Yet for both Trump and Fox News, profit triumphed over patriotism.

Trump’s campaign used the “big lie” to raise $250 million after the election, according to the committee’s findings. Much of the money was supposed to go to an “Official Election Defense Fund,” but no such fund existed. Instead, the big beneficiary was the Save America political action committee that Trump controls. According to Jan. 6 committee researchers, more than $200,000 found its way to the bottom line of the Trump Hotel Collection.

Who could have guessed that a big pot of money would be found at the heart of this whole sordid affair? Anyone remotely familiar with Trump’s modus operandi over his entire career, that’s who.

As for Fox, the network at least covered Monday’s hearing — unlike Thursday, when the network not only ignored the committee’s curtain-raiser but also went so far as to eliminate commercial breaks, when viewers might have been tempted to change the channel. All the other major cable news and broadcast channels covered Thursday’s session wall to wall. The “big lie” business is so big that it’s apparently worth sacrificing a night’s worth of prime-time advertising revenue to maintain it.

The House select committee might not be able to reach the Trumpists who appear to regard being grifted by their leader as a mark of honor. But sane Americans will see what bad business this is for the country.

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