There has been some debate among Democratic candidates for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination over whether to appear in town hall events hosted by Fox News.
There’s one argument, embraced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), that the network is inherently problematic, “designed to turn us against each other, risking life and death consequences, to provide cover for the corruption that’s rotting our government and hollowing out our middle class,” as she put it.
South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, by contrast, has argued that if candidates “unilaterally decide that [Fox viewers] shouldn’t hear my or other Democrats’ messages, then we shouldn’t act surprised if they have a distorted view of what we believe and who we are.”
Buttigieg’s argument makes sense in the abstract. But as we’ve seen in the past, the ability of candidates for the Democratic nomination — like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — to be heard without their views being distorted is limited. Sanders’s appearance on a Fox town hall in April was quickly swamped by the network’s conservative coverage, which rapidly disparaged or minimized points he’d made.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s a relatively minor example of how Fox News’s opinion-centric programming can blunt any off-message coverage. A much more significant example of how the system works was on display Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, after Robert S. Mueller III gave a public statement delineating what his team’s investigation into Russian interference and President Trump’s campaign had found.
We should be direct at the outset with what Mueller actually said. He pointed repeatedly to the report released last month as the definitive version of events, but picked out some key points. His team found insufficient evidence to prove a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s efforts. They couldn’t charge Trump with a crime because of Justice Department rules, but were unable to exonerate him on the question of whether he tried to obstruct the investigation. A key quote from Mueller’s report: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”
How did Fox cover the statement? We’ll start with host Tucker Carlson’s show, which airs at 8 p.m.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight”
Carlson focused on the idea that Mueller was speaking primarily to encourage Democrats to impeach the president.
“Why bother giving the speech in the first place?” he asked. “Well, Robert Mueller had a message he wanted to deliver. Not a message for you or me or the rest of the audience at home — but a message aimed at a very small group of elected officials in Washington. Years of investigation could not produce a criminal charge against Donald Trump, but, Mueller suggested, Congress could still step in.”
He claimed that the media was applauding Mueller and calls for impeachment. But, he wondered, what would the actual impeachment charges be?
“Would it be Russian collusion, the core charge?” Carlson said. “Well, as Mueller himself conceded, there’s no evidence that ever happened.”
He played a clip of Mueller speaking.
“Insufficient evidence: In other words, there was no crime,” Carlson said. “That’s how it works. The same is true for obstruction. By Mueller’s own admission, after two years, he and his subordinates were unable to find a criminal act.”
Another Mueller clip.
“Just to be clear, prosecutors in civilized countries don’t prove people innocent, that’s the standing presumption that all of us have by virtue of our citizenship,” Carlson said — pointedly including a reference to citizenship. “Instead prosecutors look for evidence of guilt. And if there is no evidence of guilt, a person is declared not guilty. That’s how our system works.”
Later, he interviewed a former Justice Department spokesman who expressed bafflement at Mueller’s statement.
“You know the saddest thing about this moment?” Carlson said as he concluded that interview. “All the people you sort of admire from afar, and then the more you learn, it turns out that they’re sleazy and dishonest.”
“And I hate to say it,” he added, “Robert Mueller winds up in that category. And it pains me to say that.”
Shortly before Sean Hannity’s show aired on Wednesday night, the president promoted it on Twitter, declaring the show to be “great” despite its not having been broadcast.
Hannity, of course, met Trump’s expectations.
“Robert Mueller is out,” he said at the beginning of his show. “The witch hunt has been dissolved. He said nothing today that wasn’t already said in the Mueller report.” Now, he claimed, the investigation would move on to a look at those who had initiated the Russia probe.
He disparaged the Democratic response to Mueller, much of which focused on pushing forward with impeachment.
“At this hour, what you are hearing from the Democrats [and] their, well, pet parrots in the media mob? Is nothing more than dumb, idiotic noise. Only noise, per usual, ongoing hysteria,” Hannity said. “Not about truth, not about facts. You’ve had two years of lies and hoaxes and conspiracy theories peddled every second, every minute of every hour of every day. And it’s just one more round of lying, tinfoil hat conspiracy theories, Trump-bashing over a narrative that is totally dead and buried.”
He declared that Trump had “for the fourth time” been cleared on both collusion and obstruction, which isn’t true. He aired a clip of Mueller’s comments, introducing the special counsel before viewers could hear from Mueller directly:
“Now today he officially resigned from the office of special counsel but not before showing the world of course what we already knew on this program: his partisan hackery, true colors, if you will,” Hannity said. “You have a career bureaucrat, nothing but a Trump-hating partisan, who is now all but cheering for impeachment based on nothing. And we were right the entire time. Watch this.”
The clip aired.
Hannity laid into Mueller, saying that “Mueller doesn’t know the law, he’s basically full of crap.” Why? Because it’s up to the attorney general to approve charges, which is a sort of misread of the special counsel regulations. To prove the point that Mueller didn’t know what he was talking about, Hannity pointed to “a statement from the DOJ tonight,” which stated that “despite the special counsel’s rhetoric,” Barr’s claims about why Trump didn’t face charges comported with what Mueller had said.
The statement, Hannity failed to mention, was issued jointly from the Justice Department and Mueller’s office itself.
“The Ingraham Angle”
After Hannity, Laura Ingraham had an hour. She began by disparaging Mueller’s speaking voice.
“Today the man behind the curtain, Robert Mueller, spoke for the first time,” Ingraham said. “Now if you expected him to have a booming, powerful voice and a reassuring presentation, you were sorely disappointed. He seemed and sounded older than his 74 years, almost tired, exasperated — and yet determined to throw elbows on his way out the door.”
She spent much of the first part of her show comparing Mueller’s comments to the public statement made by FBI Director James B. Comey in July 2016 addressing Hillary Clinton’s email server. She soon looped it back to the Mueller investigation.
“There’s nothing reasonable about a system of justice where at least half the country thinks the entire thing is rigged,” Ingraham said.
Without missing a beat, she delineated what she said had actually happened: “The deep state set candidate Trump up after it became obvious he was going to win the nomination because they were terrified of even the remote prospect of an outsider becoming president of the United States. Exonerating Ms. Clinton was an essential step to stopping Trump. But it didn’t work.”
“Once Trump won the presidency,” she continued, “they had to fire up the Russian collusion investigation via the phony dossier, the FISA Court and, of course, Agent Mueller helping along the way. And when that didn’t work, after a two-year-long investigation, they found no evidence of collusion and failed to get the obstruction goods on Trump. But now Mueller comes along in his final bow and is attempting to resuscitate the corpse that was his report.
There’s a lot that’s factually wrong there: the FISA warrant on Trump adviser Carter Page preceded Trump’s election and that there was evidence of both collusion and obstruction, though that evidence was insufficient to bring criminal charges. Her claim that exonerating Clinton was key skips over the not-unimportant fact that Clinton was un-exonerated (if you will) by Comey in late October, possibly shifting the campaign permanently in Trump’s favor.
That aside, don’t lose sight of the transition: Ingraham claimed that the legal system is flawed because half the country doesn’t trust it — and then launched into false framing of what happened, reinforcing the distrust she’d just pointed to.
Why did Comey and Mueller do what they did?
“Remember, both men are lifelong products of the Washington legal establishment that at its core reviles a man such as Trump,” Ingraham said. “Think about it, to be defeated or even embarrassed by a man that they believe is as uncouth and undignified as Trump and his supporters? Well, that’s unthinkable!”
Mueller doesn’t just hate Trump, she told her listeners. He hates you.
“Fox and Friends”
“So yesterday at 11 o’clock, Robert Mueller spoke,” host Brian Kilmeade said at the beginning of the morning show’s coverage. “You’ve already heard that already, so let’s talk about something else.”
Just kidding! The hosts all laughed — though they quickly made clear how they felt about Mueller’s statement.
Host Pete Hegseth (at one point rumored to be under consideration for a Cabinet position) said that Mueller’s comment about not being able to say Trump didn’t commit a crime “was effectively fodder, will be fodder for Democrats to say, ‘His hands were tied by the Justice Department; he couldn’t make a determination, but he also didn’t exonerate the president.’ That’s what they’re running with this morning.”
Kilmeade also took issue with Mueller’s phrase: Why include the word “not”? Why not say “if we had had confidence that the president clearly did commit a crime, we would have said so”?
“That one sentence is so bizarre,” host Ainsley Earhardt said. “The way he phrased it. And Alan Dershowitz said he did this with the motive to help the Democrats. Why didn’t he just say, we couldn’t determine if he, if he committed a crime?”
“Earlier in the statement, he went out of his way when talking about the Russians that have been indicted, that they are innocent until proven guilty,” Hegseth added. “The Russians! Which he never went out of his way to say about a sitting president.”
Kilmeade declared that Trump had been “brilliant” in his handling of Mueller’s statement. He read Trump’s initial tweet responding to the special counsel’s comments.
As the segment wrapped, Hegseth wanted to make one more point.
“And if he was obstructing, there should be an underlying crime, which of course there never was either,” Hegseth said. “So there’s a lot of holes in this.”
There doesn’t need to be an underlying crime, of course: Obstruction attempts to block an investigation, whether or not the investigation uncovers a criminal act. What’s more, there were plenty of criminal acts charged by Mueller with which Trump might have interfered.
Nothing, though, summarizes the network’s reaction to Mueller better than a comment made by Carlson.
“The left lives in, it’s this airless little world sustained by those two cable channels,” he said during his show. “And I think that they’re not even aware what reality is at this point. At all.”