The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s former press secretary states it flatly: Fox News let us say what we wanted

Sean Hannity speaks in November 2018 as President Donald Trump listens during a campaign rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

No one should at this point be surprised to learn about the extent of the symbiosis between Donald Trump and his friends at Fox News. Trump used to have a weekly gig on the network until he announced his presidential candidacy in 2015; in other words, he’s been a regular presence on the network without interruption for the past decade. As president, he watched Fox News and elevated its claims as the network amplified his own claims and allegations. He endorsed candidates and hired staffers he’d seen on Fox News, and Fox News hired staffers who had left the White House. It wasn’t that the line between the two organizations wasn’t blurry. In effect, there wasn’t a line.

So when Trump’s former press secretary appears on CNN, as Stephanie Grisham did Tuesday morning, we should not be surprised when her assessment of Fox News is that it was little more than an extension of the White House communications team.

“That’s just where we went to get what we wanted out,” Grisham said of the network on “New Day.” She said she looked forward to appearing on shows with hosts such as Lou Dobbs (eventually fired after elevating false claims about election fraud) “because Lou Dobbs would do all the talking about how great everything was and I would just nod and say, ‘Yes.’ ”

“They, you know, by and large, didn’t get tough with us,” Grisham said. “They just took what we were saying and disseminated it.”

At another point in the interview, she admitted that she “probably wasn’t” truthful during her appearances on Fox News — essentially the only network to which she granted interviews while in that role. When asked why that was the case, she responded at the time that it was simply because they asked.

It’s of course important to point out that we should be skeptical of a cable-news interview with someone who admits she probably lied during past cable-news interviews. Particularly when that someone is trying to sell a book — and had, in one sycophantic interview on “Fox & Friends” in 2019, disparaged reporters as all “writing books now” and “getting famous off of this presidency.” But that there are so many sycophantic interviews to which one can point, instances in which Grisham was treated with precisely the sort of red carpet that she described to “New Day,” certainly bolsters her assessments of Fox News.

Nor did she go as far as she could have, rejecting the idea that Fox was “state-run media” — with one exception.

“I think there are some legitimate journalists at Fox News who would ask some tough questions, so I don’t want to as a whole paint them,” Grisham said. “But I think certainly in the evening, yes, it was” — meaning the prime-time hosts such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

Grisham insisted that she felt “horribly guilty” for having gone on Fox so much, given that the network could have helped foster things such as the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Polling released last month by PRRI reinforces the idea that Republicans who watch Fox News are more likely to have a skewed view of that day’s events. Almost none of those who have the most trust in Fox News said that Trump bore a lot of responsibility for the day’s events, despite he having repeatedly made false claims about election fraud and then having encouraged people to come to D.C. A majority of that group thought that left-wing activists bore a lot of blame. (Viewers of far-right networks such as One America News, which Grisham argued were more obsequious to the administration, held even more divergent views of the day’s events.)

Over the course of Trump’s presidency, this pattern was consistent. He was broadly supported by Republicans, of course, but it was those Republicans who were Fox News viewers that were the most loyal to Trump. A PRRI poll in October found that more than half of Fox News-watching Republicans said they approved of Trump’s performance as president and almost nothing would change their minds.

Asked at another point who they trusted for information about the pandemic, that group was also most likely to express the most trust in Trump himself, instead of actual health experts or other government officials.

The emergence of the coronavirus presented a tangible demonstration of the Trump-Fox News ecosystem and does to this day. Trump sought to cast experts advocating for preventive measures as extremists in his urgent push to bolster the economy before Election Day. Fox News amplified that argument and elevated voices such as Scott Atlas, a doctor then tapped by Trump to join his coronavirus team, where he advocated for simply letting the virus spread. Trump has left office, but Fox News — particularly those late-night shows — continues to maintain the same dangerous drumbeat.

Asked if she thought her enabling of Trump contributed to the worst effects of the pandemic, Grisham said she thought it did.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself with respect to covid,” she said. “I don’t think I can ever redeem myself.”

At least she’s admitting the role such rhetoric possibly played.

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