Thursday night offered an interesting example of how Fox News’s opinion side drags the network’s reporting further to the right — and how President Trump uses it to amplify rhetoric targeting his enemies.
Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sent a letter to Attorney General William P. Barr this week requesting more information about text messages sent between then-FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. Strzok and Page have been a focus of attention since it was revealed that, as they carried on a romantic relationship, they had exchanged text messages disparaging then-candidate Trump over the course of the 2016 election. During that period, they also had roles involving investigations of Trump and his opponent Hillary Clinton. Those messages have been central to the president’s claims that the FBI investigation into possible links between his campaign and Russia was necessarily biased.
The Grassley-Johnson letter focused on an exchange shortly after the election, in which Strzok and Page discuss staffing for an upcoming meeting. At one point, Strzok mentions a “CI guy” — counterintelligence.
"He can assess if [there] are any [new] Qs” — presumably “questions” — “or different demeanor,” he wrote, apparently referring to the “CI guy.” “If Katie's husband is there, he can see if there are people we can develop for potential relationships.”
Grassley and Johnson note that “[t]he nature of these communications, and the precise purpose of any attempts to ‘develop relationships’ with Trump or Pence transition team staff are not immediately clear.”
That’s reflected in Fox News’s report on the letter, as well, with reporters Catherine Herridge and Gregg Re noting that the nature of the meeting itself wasn’t clear. The report also included a comment from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a fervent defender of the president, who concluded that the message was “yet more evidence that the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation was filled with irregularities.” Part of that quote made it into the story’s lead paragraph.
Fox News host Sean Hannity had an interview lined up with Trump and began by asking about the new reporting.
"Mr. President, our own Catherine Herridge, investigative reporter Sara Carter — big breaking news tonight: Senate Republican chairman submitted a letter Thursday to the Department of Justice, the attorney general,” Hannity said. “We have new texts from November of 2016 from Strzok and Page showing the pair had discussed attempts to recruit sources from within your White House to spy on your administration and reveal that they have one particular contact within the White House: The vice president's chief of staff whose wife was working as an analyst for Strzok on the FBI investigation on Hillary's private server.”
There’s an important move right at the top: Hannity blends Fox News’s reporting with that of Sara Carter, an independent reporter and frequent guest of Hannity’s who often provides fuel for his various theories. At her site, Carter made the connection to Vice President Pence: His former chief of staff Joshua Pitcock is married to a woman named Katherine who, Carter says, is the “Katie” mentioned by Strzok. It’s not clear, however, that this is the case. Update: Pitcock issued a statement denying that he or his wife were involved in any “spying.”
But Hannity runs with it. These “new texts” — actually released last year, as the Fox News story makes clear — show “the pair had discussed attempts to recruit sources from within your White House to spy on your administration.” That’s not what Grassley and Johnson determined and that’s not what Fox News’s reporters determined. But it’s what Nunes, Carter and Hannity argue.
Trump declared that the report, as presented by Hannity in his intro, was “very disconcerting.”
Strzok and Page, he said, “were going hog wild to find something about the administration which obviously wasn't there.”
"These were the two that talked about the insurance policy just in case Hillary loses,” he said. “If she loses, we’ve got an insurance policy. Well, that was the insurance policy.”
This is a reference to another text message exchange between Page and Strzok that has reached mythical status in the conservative media. Trump and his supporters suggest that the pair were developing a plan to stymie Trump if he were to win the election. In reality, the message reflects a discussion about how to proceed with the investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia with Strzok arguing that, even if it was unlikely that Trump won, it was still important to have ensured that his team was not compromised in the event that he did.
"She lost,” Trump continued, “and now they are trying to infiltrate the administration to — really, it's a coup. It's spying. It’s everything that you can imagine. It’s hard to believe in this country that we would have had that.” He later added: “This wasn't stealing information from an office in the Watergate apartments. This was an attempted coup. And it's inconceive — like a Third World country — and inconceivable.”
In recent months, Trump has increasingly referred to the investigation into Russian interference and possible coordination with his campaign as an attempted “coup” or “treason.”
He’s done so despite the probe beginning before he was in office and despite treason having a very specific definition that excludes anything such as this. They are, however, politically loaded words, and ones which Trump possibly deploys more for effect than to accurately capture reality, as when he decided to brand the FBI’s confidential informant Stefan Halper as a “spy” because he thought the implied skulduggery would have a stronger effect on the public.
He returned to that case with Hannity.
“I don’t know if you remember a long time ago, very early on, I used the word ‘wiretap’ and I put it in quotes, meaning surveillance, spying, you can sort of say whatever if you want,” he said. This was a reference to his March 2017 tweets about Trump Tower being under surveillance — tweets that didn’t always put “tapped” in quotes as Trump suggests. What he alleged then was quickly and robustly denied by the FBI, and no evidence has emerged to suggest that he or his campaign were wiretapped.
“You see now they are trying to infiltrate the White House,” Trump told Hannity. “This is long after the election. It’s a disgrace.” He said that he hoped Barr “will do what’s right, and I really believe he will.”
In short order, the Fox News report on the messages was updated to include Trump’s comment about Page and Strzok “trying to infiltrate the administration.”
The trajectory here is straightforward. Republican lawmakers raise a question. Fox News reports on it, adding comment from a pro-Trump lawmaker that presents a worst-case scenario. Hannity loops in an outside, partisan voice and presents the worst-case scenario to Trump. Trump reacts hyperbolically. The hyperbole is then added back to the straight news story. Trump and his supporters gain a new argument about how unfairly the FBI was treating him, with a Fox News story to point to as evidence.
That's the important thing about how all of this works. Fox News and conservative media outlets have built an extensive scaffolding around the idea that the FBI investigation into Trump was biased and flawed, constructing new points on old ones with which it assumes viewers or readers are already familiar.
As does Trump.
“The biggest problem with the Mueller report, he didn’t mention any of this,” he said to Hannity at another point. “He didn’t mention Strzok and Page and McCabe and Comey and the lies and the leaks and overthrow and the whole thing with the Hillary Clinton got a win 100 million to 1, two lovers, two sick lovers, especially the one.”
There are an enormous number of assumptions and shorthands packed into that quote that, for a casual reader of The Post, might make no sense. But for a Hannity viewer, and for Trump and Hannity in particular, it all makes perfect sense. It's a summary of a case about bias and personal flaws and unfairness that Fox News and Hannity have been making for a year.
Using the same loop demonstrated in Thursday’s article about a text message exchange the meaning of which elected officials and news reporters admit they aren’t sure.