The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fox News’s Durham narrative survives the emergence of inconvenient details

(Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)
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On Friday, special counsel John Durham, tasked by former attorney general William P. Barr with evaluating the legitimacy of the investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 election, filed a document as part of an indictment targeting attorney Michael Sussmann. In it, Durham hinted at evidence related to a story that percolated briefly before Election Day that year: that a server affiliated with Donald Trump’s private company had been in regular contact with a server associated with a Russian bank.

That story was quickly debunked, but now Durham hinted that it was a function of something broader, an effort by Sussmann, whose firm had been retained by the campaign of Hillary Clinton, to use analysis of data from various computer networks to find connections between Trump and Russia. Among the data sets included in that analysis were ones from Trump Tower and, provocatively, “the Executive Office of the President of the United States.”

In short order, a narrative crystallized on the right pushed forward by a statement from former Trump staffer Kash Patel that was amplified by Fox News: Clinton’s campaign did something fishy with computers to spy on Trump’s campaign and his White House. Over the weekend, the cable channel and other right-wing outlets and voices echoed and amplified this idea.

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Then reality finished getting its boots on. The Washington Post’s fact-checkers submerged the story in cold water, as did the New York Times. A filing from Sussmann’s legal team and statements from others involved in the situation like the researchers who analyzed the data state, for example, that the period in which the White House (to shorthand the “executive office” descriptor) was included in the analysis ended before Trump took office. Durham’s filing doesn’t suggest otherwise. Also, the data being evaluated were not a function of anything having been hacked or stolen; instead, it was an analysis of a particular, limited kind of data file that had been shared by both the White House and outside Internet service providers as part of standard practice for detecting illicit online activity. (In fact, this appears to be why the White House was sharing the data; it was a response to a Russian infiltration in 2015.)

What’s more, the question of whether Sussmann was working for Clinton’s campaign is at the heart of the indictment against him. Here, again, Durham draws an inferred, not a direct, line that Sussmann contests. Regardless, the indication from Durham’s filing is not that Clinton’s team pushed downward for a probe into possible electronic links between Trump and Russia but, instead, that a technology executive who had retained Sussmann independently raised the possibility to his attention and from there it moved up. Remember the timing here: This was just as material stolen from the Democratic Party by Russian hackers was being leaked and questions about Trump’s ties to Russia were being elevated (even before Clinton’s team did so publicly).

So this was the state of play as of Tuesday morning. The original story line that Clinton’s team had overseen some sort of electronic spying on Trump including while he was president was badly undercut, leading conscientious observers to understandably want to pepper their assessments with qualifiers and caveats.

And then Fox News’s prime time programming began.

Host Sean Hannity dived into the story with both feet, running forward rapidly not with the new developments but the initial, undercut ones.

“As we first reported last night,” he said, “a bombshell filing from the Durham probe details how the Clinton campaign and their associates actively — according to, of course, John Durham — exploited Internet data mined from Trump Tower and even the Trump White House to smear Donald Trump.” This, Hannity argued, was being suppressed by a “media mob” terrified of the implications — the go-to explanation from Fox hosts to transform cautious assessments of the allegations by other outlets into proof that they were trying to bury the truth.

Hannity quoted several lines from Durham’s filing, offering none of the qualifications that had emerged since Friday. Hannity also quoted from Sussmann’s response — though only the part in which it describes the Durham filing as being “irrelevant to the charged offense and are plainly intended to politicize this case, inflame media coverage and taint the jury pool.”

To discuss the case, Hannity interviewed two guests: former California congressman Devin Nunes (for whom Patel had once worked); and Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett. Jarrett, I will note, is not a dispassionate observer of the overlap of politics and the law; he has written books titled, “The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump” and “Witch Hunt: The Plot to Destroy Trump and Undo His Election.”

It was also Jarrett who offered the more reality-detached assessment of Durham’s filing. He alleged that a number of laws had been broken, from defrauding the United States (perhaps Durham’s ultimate target) to racketeering to computer crimes.

Here is how Jarrett described what happened: “In this particular case, a tech company being paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign is using cyber sleuths to penetrate in an unauthorized way the servers to collect data without permission, without knowledge of Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, the Trump transition and allegedly the Trump White House. I mean, it’s absolutely breathtaking and stunning.”

So the research was being conducted in part by a researcher at a university, not by a tech company, and the company at issue, Neustar, was not known to have been paid by Clinton’s campaign. It’s not clear that it was being paid at all for the research, in fact. The “cyber sleuths” — a phrase so cringe-inducing that it’s worth pointing out as cringe-inducing — are not understood to have “penetrated” any servers to collect data; instead, they analyzed log files that had been shared with them. Shared with them meaning “not collected without permission.” It did occur without Trump’s knowledge, certainly, but, again, lawyers for the research team that had possession of the White House data write that “to our knowledge all of the data they used was nonprivate … data from before Trump took office.” Again, Durham’s filing does not conflict with this.

In other words, Jarrett’s claims were not only not supported by the Durham filing, but he also actively had to ignore a multitude of information undercutting the Fox News narrative about the filing to gin up his purported list of crimes.

Hannity’s response? “Unbelievable,” which is true, but not in the way he meant it.

Nunes’s contributions were similarly misinformed. “Clearly anyone able to get into the White House, no matter who the president is, is something that is unprecedented. Those should be the most guarded communications in this country,” he said, suggesting that the data had been obtained illicitly, which no one, including Durham, has alleged. Nunes later wondered how contractors could have communications of Americans all over the country, including the sitting president. Beyond the apparent inaccuracy of the “in the White House” part, this is not any collection of “communications.” It is, instead, log files of domain name lookups that contractors and researchers use to track bad behavior online. (I wrote more about this on Monday.)

Again, this is what Fox News is airing well after any responsible news outlet and responsible journalists should know better.

Part of what’s undergirding this is that the allegations are both complicated and rooted in obscure technology practices, a realm that’s both little understood and easy to misrepresent. The average American hears “exploited data” and thinks “hacked,” which isn’t the case. (Hannity himself admitted that he didn’t know much about technology, an admission meant to endear him to his audience, not to qualify his insistences.) Part of it, too, is Fox News’s ongoing interest in talking about Hillary Clinton to rile up its viewers.

But this situation illustrates the acute challenge of ensuring a well-informed public. The network, the most-watched news channel on cable television and a driver of right-wing commentary elsewhere, has no robust mechanism in place for self-correction. It’s hard to correct television in the first place, but Fox News’s hosts have no demonstrated track record of revising their false assertions. Hannity’s segment on Tuesday night was riddled with shorthand references to his misrepresentations of the Russia investigation itself, a good hint of how this Durham stuff will eventually be concreted. (This despite at least one prominent voice in the Russia probe skepticism universe urging caution on the Durham story line.)

What’s useful to remember, though, isn’t just that viewers are being misinformed about what’s happening. It’s also that they’re being convinced that they’re more informed. That’s why Hannity began by insisting that other networks were afraid of covering the story. He wants to reinforce the sense among viewers that they are being given exclusive access to reality, that they stand as a collective counterweight to the deceptive elites who are undercutting the country. A story line is created and propped up with all sorts of (often unfounded) claims, with no one around to offer a skeptical assessment. Those who buy in see themselves as having more insight into what’s happening, not less.

It has been less than a week, but it will now forever be the case that some portion of the public — some large portion — will eternally believe that the Clinton campaign paid hackers to infiltrate Trump Tower and the Trump White House. This belief will be reinforced when people like me say this is not rooted in any available evidence, because of who I am and where I work but also because of the various things that narrative reinforces. Clinton bad; Trump victim; hacking insidious.

Fox News hosts and experts will not try hard to present some other story.