As president, he spends hours each week in the mornings and evenings tuning in to Fox News. He and Fox News host Sean Hannity reportedly speak regularly. Through July 25 of this year, more than a third of all of the interviews he has granted as president were to Fox-parent News Corp. companies. Eight of the nine people who have interviewed Trump most frequently work for Fox News or Fox Business Network. (The ninth works for News Corp.’s Wall Street Journal.) By that point, he had given six fewer interviews to the two Fox networks than he had to every other television network and local television station combined.
Trump constantly lifts up Fox News’s coverage — or, really, its opinion segments. In the past week, Trump’s personal account has shared 29 videos. Seven were made by Trump’s team, his campaign or supporters. Two were news clips from non-Fox networks. The other 22 were from Fox News or Fox Business. As president, Trump has mentioned or retweeted Fox properties more than 500 times.
Staffers move between Fox and the White House regularly. As of late August, according to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, 18 current or former administration staffers had previously worked at a Fox property. Five current Fox staffers came from the Trump administration.
Trump’s strategy in winning the 2016 election and as president has been to echo and drive what’s being talked about on Fox News in particular, recognizing that his political success derives from fervent support among those conservative voters. During the 2018 midterm campaign, he on several occasions rolled Fox News interviews into campaign rallies. Fox News, in return, has helped spin or ignore unflattering news stories. When Fox has dared to interview Democrats or release objective polls showing Trump’s unpopularity, Trump has lashed out.
To put a fine point on it: Trump lives in and relies upon a conservative-media and Fox News presidency. Which brings us to Attorney General William P. Barr.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Barr was personally engaging with foreign leaders in an effort to get assistance in an investigation being conducted by the Justice Department. In the abstract, that’s understandable; the federal government relies on international assistance with investigations regularly.
In this case, though, Barr’s efforts are in service to a sprawling conspiracy theory targeting Barr’s own organization along with other components of the U.S. intelligence community. In other words, Barr is asking foreign countries to dig around for evidence of malfeasance by U.S. agencies.
Why? Fox News. Not entirely or exclusively Fox News but mostly Fox News.
For months, Fox News and Fox Business Network — ostensibly a business-centered channel — have embraced the idea that the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election was predicated on bias by anti-Trump actors. That the investigation was predicated on undermining Trump specifically.
To call this theory “sprawling” is to undersell it. But if you were curious about why Trump was talking servers with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in their now-infamous July 25 call, it’s because Trump has long embraced a claim that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s network in 2016 wasn’t a function of Russian interference but instead — maybe something else. Maybe some rich guy in Ukraine, given that a rich Ukrainian guy gives money to an organization for which another guy works and the other guy’s company did initial analysis of the DNC hack. Trump’s been on this long enough that he reportedly got then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo to talk to one of the proponents of the theory — a guy who had of course appeared on Fox News numerous times.
This whole theory was rendered moot by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and indictment of a dozen Russian intelligence agents. But Trump starts from a position of “undermining the Russian interference narrative” and ends up at “ask Ukraine’s president if he can maybe dig something up.” That Trump himself reportedly told Russian officials directly that he didn’t care about their interference is irrelevant to the politics at play.
This server thing shows one direction of sprawl, and a narrow one. But it shows the flow: Start from a position of exonerating Trump and work backward, introducing whatever viable rhetoric you can. The linchpin of this effort is a warrant obtained in October 2016 targeting a guy named Carter Page for surveillance. The theory around this is that biased FBI agents and other officials used faulty information to target Page to spy on the campaign. There are a number of ways in which this quickly falls apart, including that 1) targeting an ancillary adviser to the campaign is a weird way to spy on “the campaign”; 2) Page had already been on the FBI’s radar before joining the campaign; 3) he wasn’t on the campaign at the time the warrant was obtained; and 4) information about the Russia probe wasn’t used to try to impede Trump’s election. But Fox News personalities such as Hannity and his cadre of guests were simply walking backward, trying to find a hole in the wall. This is the hole they found, and they ran with it.
Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the DNC hack wasn’t committed by Russia. What changes? Russia still accessed Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman’s email account, the hack that provided weeks of fodder (particularly for Fox News) right before the 2016 election. Russians were still deeply involved in the effort to sow disruption on social media. Russian actors still reached out to and engaged with Trump campaign officials. What Trump gets out of Ukraine stumbling onto something that Mueller missed is — bragging rights? Vindication, if only partial? Evidence that the FBI was at best incompetent and at worst employed agents who acted on bias?
For this, Barr and Trump are leveraging the United States’ relationships with other countries. Because Fox News has been talking for months about former FBI agent Peter Strzok and misinterpreting his text messages, and because Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) keeps showing up on Fox News to offer up smoking guns that aren’t actually smoking.
Two years ago, I spoke with an expert on conspiracy theories to figure out why Trump’s allies were so eager to embrace them.
“Powerful people can’t use conspiracy theories very well. They’re tools of the weak to attack the powerful,” Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and the co-author of “American Conspiracy Theories,” told me. “But what we’ve seen in this instance is: Because Trump has built his entire machine on conspiracy theories, that’s why we have dueling conspiracy theories.”
It’s Trump lashing out at the establishment he still sees as trying to hold him down. It’s Fox News embracing its ongoing role as the political underdog. That the former is president and the latter the best-rated network on television doesn’t change the calculus. Together, and with Barr’s help, they’re taking on the world.
Or, at least, taking on their enemies with whatever arguments they can gin up.