President Donald Trump’s latest call-in interview with Sean Hannity illustrated just how mainstream absurd conspiracy theories about Russia have become during Fox News’s primetime lineup.
Minutes before the Trump interview began, Hannity, gloating over the fact that former special counsel Robert Mueller refused to engage with conspiracy theories about the Steele dossier during his congressional testimony on Wednesday, set the stage by making his now-familiar case that it was actually Hillary Clinton, not Trump, who colluded with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
Alluding to a New York Times report from April about how some of the unverified claims in the dossier — such as unsubstantiated ones that Trump cavorted with prostitutes during a 2013 trip to Moscow — could possibly be “Russian disinformation,” Hannity turned Russiagate on its head.
“They were trying to screw over Donald Trump and get Hillary elected,” he claimed.
Ahead of his interview with Trump, Hannity is out here trying to convince people that the Kremlin tried to help Clinton & hurt Trump during the 2016 election -- as though we all didn't live through WikiLeaks destroying Clinton with stolen emails while Trump cheered it on. pic.twitter.com/HT92qJqMrN— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 26, 2019
Put briefly, Hannity’s theory is that the Steele dossier — an unverified document prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele (whose work on behalf of Fusion GPS was funded in part by the Clinton campaign) that makes a number of salacious, unproven claims about the Trump campaign’s dealings with people in the sphere of the Kremlin during the 2016 campaign — contains kernels of misinformation that were intentionally fed to Steele by Russians. Per Hannity’s telling, these bits of misinformation were intended to serve as land mines to take out Trump, and were exploited by anti-Trump officials in the FBI and intelligence agencies to pursue an investigation of the Trump campaign that eventually became the Mueller investigation. Hence, Hannity views the Mueller investigation as the result of collusion between Russians and the “deep state.”
But there’s a factual inaccuracy at the core of this conspiracy theory. The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign actually started in July 2016, before the Steele dossier even existed. It was initiated after an Australian diplomat informed the FBI that then-Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had bragged to him about having inside knowledge that Russia was in possession of Clinton’s hacked emails. This fact has even by acknowledged by former House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA), Trump’s staunchest congressional ally when it comes to the Russia investigation.
Yet, as I’ve previously written, Fox News has normalized the lie that the origins of the Russia investigation can be traced back to the Steele dossier through sheer pushback-free repetition.
But even more significant than that particular piece of gaslighting is the glaring hole at the core of Hannity’s conspiracy theory. For if the “deep state” was in fact trying “trying to screw over Donald Trump,” then why did they wait until after the election to get to work? Hannity can’t account for the fact that there were no FBI leaks about the counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign began when it started in July 2016 and Election Day 2016 in November. Had an FBI official working the case alerted the media to its existence, the news could’ve derailed the Trump presidency before it even began. But instead of leaking about the Trump investigation, FBI officials, including then-Director James Comey, repeatedly publicized the investigation of Clinton’s emails in ways that were highly damaging to her campaign.
But Fox News in general, and Hannity’s show in particular, aren’t interested in the facts when it comes to Mueller’s investigation. So after Hannity set the table, Trump called in and ranted about the Russia investigation with impunity, going as far as to characterize it as “treason” and “a coup attempt.”
TRUMP on the Russia investigation: "This was a coup attempt ... we have some very great people, but we also have some very bad people. And I think we caught them." pic.twitter.com/KwguCflCQe— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 26, 2019
Trump also got in on the gaslighting. Alluding to Russian hackers, he claimed they “had nothing to do with us.” In fact, as the Mueller report details, just hours after Trump publicly encouraged Russian hacks to obtain Clinton’s emails during the last press conference he would give during the 2016 campaign, “GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office.”
Trump and Republican members of Congress have made far-fetched conspiracy theories mainstream
It might be tempting to downplay the significance of conspiracy theories like the ones Hannity regularly pushes about the Russia investigation. But Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress has made them part of mainstream American politics.
Consider, for instance, the line of questioning pursued by House Republicans during the aforementioned Mueller hearing. As I explained on Wednesday, Nunes, who now serves as the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, used his opening statement and questioning time to push basically the same conspiracy theory as Hannity: that “there is collusion in plain sight — collusion between Russia and the Democratic Party.”
NUNES accuses Democrats of colluding with Russia to .... [checks notes] ... defeat Hillary Clinton and .... [squints at notes] ... make Trump president? pic.twitter.com/A9jiFngsy4— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 24, 2019
During his interview with Hannity on Thursday, Trump praised Nunes as “a star” and suggested Attorney General William Barr is sharing classified documents about the Russia investigation with Nunes as part of an ongoing effort to discredit the investigation as “a scam” and an “illegal takeover” that failed.
It’s not just Nunes. As Media Matters wrote, no fewer than 10 House Republicans asked Mueller questions on Wednesday that were steeped in conspiracy theories that have flourished on Fox News about how the Russia investigation was purportedly a product of anti-Trump bias among Obama-era FBI and intelligence community officials. Fox News even pushed conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation during its live coverage of Mueller’s testimony.
These theories are far-fetched, to say the least. Americans lived through the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign in 2016, and the ensuing WikiLeaks propaganda campaigns. Even before intelligence community officials publicly said Russia was trying to help Trump, there was little doubt the hacks and strategic publication of purloined emails were intended to do maximum damage to Clinton, and thereby help Trump’s prospects. But Fox News and House Republicans are turning reality on its head in an effort to support the president.
These conspiracy theories could leave casual news consumers feeling gaslit about what really happened in 2016. They also distract attention from what Mueller said on Wednesday about how Russian interference is an ongoing concern.
Robert Mueller on Russian interference: "They're doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during he next campaign." pic.twitter.com/NbYNUxypMZ— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 24, 2019
In an ironic twist, media outlets in Russia actually did a more accurate job covering Mueller’s testimony and its fallout than Fox News. While Hannity and other Fox News hosts twisted Mueller’s words to support his pet conspiracy theory, coverage on Russian TV was at least at times more rooted in the facts. As Julia Davis wrote for the Daily Beast:
The anchor of Russia’s leading TV channel, Rossiya-24, dryly stated: “Robert Mueller testified that his report did not exonerate President Donald Trump of possible crimes and acknowledged the possibility that Trump might be prosecuted in the future. Additionally, Mueller reaffirmed the charges against Russia for its election interference.”
Compare Rossiya-24’s approach with that of Trump’s favorite morning show, Fox & Friends, where host Ainsley Earhardt on Thursday attacked ABC and CBS for accurately reporting what Mueller said, including that Trump could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice after he leaves office.
Ainsley Earhardt is mad at ABC and CBS for accurately reporting Mueller's statements pic.twitter.com/MWN9CVt1X8— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 25, 2019
In a stark example of how the feedback loop works, Trump posted a tweet on Thursday morning quoting Earhardt’s commentary about Mueller’s testimony.
Yet in Trump’s estimation, Fox News still isn’t working hard enough to propagandize for him. On Friday morning, the president posted tweets attacking Fox News for allegedly being “[s]o different from what they used to be during the 2016 Primaries, & before - Proud Warriors!” Trump cited a new Fox News poll that shows him losing by 10 points to Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden — the implication being that Fox News is somehow betraying him by reporting on polling that doesn’t look good for his reelection prospects.