It may not be new, but it’s still remarkable that one of President Trump’s regular tweets complaining about the news media sitting atop a clip of Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity. Hannity is, by all accounts, an overt supporter of Trump, having introduced him at rallies and being treated like staff during official presidential outings. Hannity endorsed Trump before 2016. Were Hannity the host of a competing network who had endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump would devote 45 percent of his waking hours to disparaging him on Twitter and to every passing microphone. But he isn’t.
Trump spent Monday evening doing something that in retrospect seems like his Twitter account’s inevitable destination: sharing, without context, clips from Hannity and Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Carlson was included in Trump’s sweeping defense of Fox News over the weekend, after coming under fire for past radio interviews in which he made sexist and racist comments. Those two clips were followed by his tweet about the “fake news” media.
He then called the husband of a key adviser a “total loser.” But that’s a story for another time.
Let’s instead focus on the tweet above, the claim that the “Fake News Media” has never been more “Dishonest” or “Corrupt.” That purveyors of what Trump calls “fake news” are enemies of the people and the country.
What does fake news look like? Well, coincidentally, it looks like that Carlson clip Trump shared.
Let’s walk through how Carlson — deliberately — sets up and then knocks down various straw men in service of his goal: bolstering Trump’s argument that the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and possible links to the Trump campaign are invalid, biased and damaging.
Carlson begins his riff.
“First tonight, the Mueller report. Coming any day now. ... And when it does, there will be chaos in the news business. Every interested party will work to spin it to their own ends. Before that happens, let’s pause to put this in perspective and remember how the Russia hoax began in the first place.”
In other words: Before the spin begins, allow Carlson to spin the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
“Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton and her surrogates in the media attacked Donald Trump for his role in pushing the birther story. They didn’t just argue that it was dumb to think Barack Obama was born in Kenya. They said it hurt America. They said it delegitimized Obama as a leader by casting him as an illegitimate president.”
“Those are fair points. If you can’t prove something is true you shouldn’t claim that it is. If you don’t like the president’s policies, argue you against them. Offer a better alternative. Don’t claim that he isn’t really the president. That doesn’t help the country.”
This is, of course, not what happened. Perhaps these points were made, but the actual complaints about Trump’s embrace of birtherism were twofold: That he peddled obviously, indefensibly untrue information and that he did so to leverage racial hostility against former president Barack Obama for his own political benefit.
The birther effort by Trump began in 2011, when he was thinking about running for president. It was inextricably linked to his political ambitions. Trump’s willingness to use racial tension to build political support was also central to his 2016 effort as he embraced the issue of immigration. Trump may have believed the birther nonsense for the same reason that many did, but it’s clear he also understood its political value.
You can see what Carlson is doing, though. He’s going to set up the Democrats as hypocrites, excoriating Trump for embracing a false claim while themselves embracing a false claim. Except that, again, that wasn’t the central complaint about Trump and birtherism.
“Somehow, though, Democrats learned the opposite lesson. And so for three years they have pushed their own far more harmful conspiracy theory of Russian collusion. This was all invented, as you know, by the Clinton campaign for short term political gain during the race."
The idea that Trump’s relationship with Russia was unusual was stoked by his odd habit of giving Russian President Vladimir Putin a pass on egregious issues. When Trump, during 2015, offered to cede the conflict in Syria to Russia or when he waved away Putin’s alleged habit of having opponents killed. That was why questions first arose.
Carlson’s claim that the theory of Russian collusion, which we’ll get into more in a moment, is more damaging than the birtherism effort is precisely the sort of thing you might expect to hear from a guy who we learned last week had questioned Obama’s racial heritage and suggested he must be good at basketball because he’s black. Birtherism was rooted in a wholly untrue and easily disproved claim about Obama that leveraged racial suspicion. The Russian collusion investigation stems from multiple investigatory angles and has not been definitively debunked — as Carlson’s own insistence on waiting for the Mueller report to come out makes clear.
"Newly unsealed court documents show how Fusion GPS, working on behalf of the Clintons, worked to publicize the fraudulent Steele dossier. The dossier was never more than gossip. No responsible news outlet would publish it -- even those that hated Trump.”
“Instead, Fusion pitched its lies to government officials. Fusion founder Glenn Simpson met with Bruce Ohr at the Department of Justice. Christopher Steele met with Jonathan Winer at the State Department. Weiner spread the information to his colleagues. Eventually even President Obama and Jim Comey were briefed on the dossier. Never has unverified opposition research in a presidential campaign reached higher levels of government.”
This dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele has been a remarkably resilient and effective whipping boy for Trump and his supporters. A collection of information passed to Steele from informants, it was never meant to be considered verified and vetted.
Imagine you’re a spy talking to a Russian government official and you’re told that Putin plans to invade Alaska in two weeks. Maybe you’ve heard something similar from someone else; maybe you haven’t. If you have connections to the FBI, as Steele did, why would you not pass that information along? In this case, it wasn’t something as severe as an invasion that Steele heard but, instead, that Russia had leverage over Trump. In either case, the intelligence might not be true — but Steele nonetheless passed along that information. It’s understandable, in that light, why government officials would be looped in: It’s a potential national security issue!
It’s important to remember that investigations begin with leads. You don’t start an inquiry with rock-solid evidence, but with questions and hints. The dossier’s reports were hints — that were joined by other evidence and other hints, which Carlson blithely skips over.
After a brief interlude in which he disparages those who published the dossier, Carlson returned to the theme of the damage it did.
“It was a ploy to defame a political opponent. Everyone knew that. And, in fact, in the years since no evidence has ever emerged to verify the dossier’s main claims. It was fake then. It is fake now. But it still caused an awful lot of damage.”
“That fraudulent dossier was used to justify the grotesque civil rights violations perpetrated on Naval Academy graduate Carter Page. It justified multiple congressional investigations which ground government to a halt. It helped destroy our relationship with Russia. That didn’t need to happen, but it did, thanks to this hoax.”
He’s correct that much of the dossier remains unverified. But, interestingly, one of the places where it hits closest to the mark centers on Page, once an adviser to Trump’s campaign.
Page had been on the FBI’s radar for years, after he was identified by a suspected Russian spy as a possible mark. Early in 2016, the FBI interviewed Page, not for the first time, although it’s not clear why.
While working for the Trump campaign, he traveled to Russia. While there, he participated in a forum and had encounters with various Russians, including someone who was a deputy prime minister. In congressional testimony, Page played down that encounter, though he’d sent an email to the campaign while in Moscow noting that the conversation included an expression of “strong support” for Trump from the official. It also included a reference to meeting with “senior members” of the Putin administration.
That email came out only under questioning from the House Intelligence Committee. Rumors that Page had high-level meetings with Russian officials were first reported during the campaign itself, though — apparently after reporters were tipped off about possible meetings by Steele. The dossier includes names of two officials, neither of whom have been shown to have met with Page. But the dossier suggested that Page’s trip was more involved than he at first represented, which appears to be true.
Those reports about his trip spurred Page to leave the campaign, after which point the FBI obtained a surveillance warrant against him to track possible communications with foreign actors. This, it seems, was the “grotesque civil rights violation” he faced.
As for the investigations grinding government to a halt? The only time the government came close to grinding to a halt recently was during the shutdown, which was not a function of the Russia investigation.
Carlson goes on to call out the hyperbole of Democratic elected officials, which is broadly fair — but also an ironic criticism coming from Carlson.
“When the report does drop, whenever it drops, how will these people explain to their followers -- the people who take them seriously, the NPR listeners, the people who read The New Yorker, the entire audience at CNN -- why there’s no proof of collusion in the document?”
This comes near the end of Carlson’s riff, and it’s an important point. Collusion, as we’ve noted, is in the eye of the beholder. For many of those Carlson refers to, it already has been established: the Trump Tower meeting or Roger Stone claiming links to WikiLeaks or what have you. There is enough overlap between the Trump campaign and Russian actors that, if you want to see collusion as having taken place, you can.
Carlson and Trump use a definition that’s far more restrictive, which is their right. In fact, Fox News Channel has been leading the charge on narrowing the scope of what counts as “collusion,” even as it helps foment distrust of Mueller’s inquiry broadly.
It raises an interesting countervailing question for Carlson: What if, when the report drops, it does show overt collusion? How, in that unlikely event, would he explain it to his followers — especially the powerful viewer sitting in the White House?