Conservative media’s attack on special counsel Robert Mueller was in the works far before Mueller brought indictments against high-level Trump campaign officials.
But despite top conservative voices, like Sean Hannity and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, calling for Mueller’s resignation, other pundits on Fox News have shied away from talking explicitly about removing Mueller from his post. Rather, they’ve spent the past week making his investigation about Hillary Clinton and the FBI — and, ultimately, questioning Mueller’s credibility in carrying forward these inquiries.
To put it bluntly: As Mueller brings charges against top Trump officials, Fox News is trying to plant doubt in its viewers’ minds.
We analyzed the past week of Fox News transcripts, measuring them against those of Fox’s cable news rivals CNN and MSNBC.
What we found was striking:
- Fox News was unable to talk about the Mueller investigation without bringing up Hillary Clinton, even as federal indictments were being brought against top Trump campaign officials.
- Fox also talked significantly less about George Papadopoulos — the Trump campaign adviser whose plea deal with Mueller provides the most explicit evidence thus far that the campaign knew of the Russian government’s efforts to help Trump — than its competitors.
- Fox News repeatedly called Mueller’s credibility into question, while shying away from talking about the possibility that Trump might fire Mueller.
Fox News started early in questioning Mueller’s credibility
As early as last Tuesday, days before we learned Mueller would bring indictments later in the week, Fox News’s Hannity called for Mueller’s resignation.
“Back in 2009, he was the FBI director. This was when the bureau, the FBI, so clearly had this information [about Uranium One.] He had conflicts of interest. There’s no way the American people can trust Robert Mueller to investigate anything Russian-related,” he said.
Hannity was, of course, referring to a report in the Hill questioning why the Obama administration approved the sale of a Canadian uranium company to Russia, despite the FBI previously uncovering misconduct by the Russian nuclear industry. The story also asserts that Russian nuclear officials gave millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation, perhaps to sway then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who served in the group that approved the deal. The story stems from an anti-Hillary Clinton book published during the election called Clinton Cash, and many experts say it has been presented in a misleading manner.
Also fanning the fire was the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. In an editorial that ran last Wednesday, they wrote:
It is no slur against Mr. Mueller’s integrity to say that he lacks the critical distance to conduct a credible probe of the bureau he ran for a dozen years. He could best serve the country by resigning to prevent further political turmoil over that conflict of interest.
They were referring to a story in the Washington Post that reported that Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and eventually the FBI paid Christopher Steele, the former British spy who penned the infamous and salacious “Steele dossier” on Trump.
Both of these stories were used by Fox News to say the Mueller investigation is really about Clinton and the FBI. Conservative news outlets bought into this framing and ran with it. In fact, even as Mueller was about to bring indictments, Fox News couldn’t stop talking about the investigation in the context of Clinton:
This let Fox News broach the question: Is Mueller credible?
On several Fox News segments, the story was Mueller’s credibility, not the findings of Mueller’s investigation or the alleged wrongdoing of top Trump campaign officials.
In fact, on Monday, the day we found out former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates had been indicted by a federal grand jury, a good portion of Fox News was spent talking about Mueller’s credibility.
Fox News is now running a segment targeting Robert Mueller. pic.twitter.com/sJSfOv9hF2— Alexander Panetta (@Alex_Panetta) October 30, 2017
This might seem out of the blue if you’re just tuning in to Fox News, but for the past week they had been sowing this seed. They had been painting a picture of a man who was running the FBI when it was involved in a shady Uranium sale to Russia, which also involved a Hillary Clinton scandal; and a man who has connections to the agency that paid money to the person who produced the Steele dossier.
In the Fox News world, this wasn’t out of the blue. This was the natural question to ask.
Fox News knew talking about removing Mueller could be a third rail
When Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, it superpowered a story that had started to fade. It brought the Russia investigation back into the spotlight and triggered the appointment of Mueller as special counsel, and that’s partly how we’re here today.
So to suggest that Trump might fire Mueller was off limits on many Fox News shows. There was an interesting exchange Monday morning on Fox News’s America’s Newsroom that illustrated this dynamic.
Mary Anne Marsh, a former senior adviser to John Kerry, talked to host Bill Hemmer about Mueller potentially being fired — and here’s how that went:
MARSH: The bigger concern for the country is whether Donald Trump will now fire Robert Mueller. That would be a disaster, and he ended up in this situation because he fired James Comey.
HEMMER: You're guessing at that. There is no evidence to even suggest that.
MARSH: You asked me to speculate, but there hasn't been…
HEMMER: I didn't ask you to speculate.
MARSH: Okay, I think one of the things we have to look at is whether he will do that. There has been plenty of reporting about the fact that he has considered that. And I think if that happened, that would put this country into a constitutional crisis, and certainly you would expect articles of impeachment to be filed after that.
[Hemmer eventually cuts off Marsh and his other guest to go to break.]
HEMMER: Listen, I want to get this right for our viewers, okay?
MARSH: Yup, so do I.
In fact, few people want to even explore the idea of removing Mueller or pushing him to resign. Sure, Hannity and the Journal’s editorial board went that far, as did Michael Goodwin of the New York Post. But others were hesitant to touch the subject. Meanwhile, on CNN and MSNBC, there was much speculation about this possibility, given Trump’s previous actions.
There were some who were willing to say Mueller should resign, but only in the context of saying they agree with the Journal’s editorial. Both Larry Elder of the Salem Radio Network and Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA said on Fox News, “I agree with the Wall Street Journal.” But even after Mueller brought the indictments, talk of him somehow being fired or pushed to resign was kept to a minimum on Fox News.
Let’s take a step back and observe the needle conservative pundits are threading here: They know removing Mueller would turn this story into something even bigger, so they know they need to leave him in his post — and then call his motives into question.
Fox News didn’t know how to cover Papadopoulos
The plea deal former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos took with Mueller provides the most explicit evidence thus far that the Trump campaign knew the Russian government was trying to help Trump win.
This news was unexpected. It didn’t fit into the storyline of discrediting Mueller. So Fox News did what they often do with stories they are uncomfortable with: They mostly ignored it, especially in the evening shows.
Before we learned about Papadopoulos, conservative pundits on both FoxNews.com and Breitbart argued that the charges against Manafort had little to do with Trump’s campaign. But once the news about Papadopoulos broke, which was largely about the Trump campaign’s knowledge of Russia involvement, they pivoted away from this angle of the piece.
Update: On Tuesday, October 31, Fox News continued to avoid this story. The spike at the end here is Laura Ingraham’s show, where Pat Buchanan, among other things, says there was no “underlying crime” with Papadopoulos.
I’ve stressed this in previous pieces, but it’s worth mentioning again: Fox News is the main source of news for 19 percent of 2016 voters, including 40 percent of Trump voters. There’s academic evidence that Fox News is more powerful than we ever imagined. It is quite possibly the main news source for President Trump. There is evidence that the hosts see their jobs as advising Trump — talking directly to him.
Many journalists live by the phrase, “Sunlight is the best bleach.” It’s the idea that the more information we take out of the shadows, the better we are as a society. But Fox News, with its great influence on and responsibility to this nation, is using its platform to make viewers question whether the sunlight can be trusted.