clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Man arrested for threatening Adam Schiff was likely under the influence of Fox News

Incendiary rhetoric combined with coverage that amplifies it can have real-life consequences.

Rep. Adam Schiff during the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump at the US Capitol on January 29, 2020.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

A 52-year-old Arizona resident accused of leaving a death threat on the voicemail of Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff was likely angry about something he had just seen on Fox News, according to a recent court document.

Jan Peter Meister allegedly called Schiff’s office on October 1, the same day President Donald Trump had called for Schiff to be arrested for treason. Schiff was one of the leading prosecutors in the impeachment proceedings against the president.

Court filings make clear that Meister has a lot of issues. He’s a registered sex offender. His lawyers said he made the threats in a drunken stupor. And officers say that when they arrested him two days after the incident, “he smelled of alcohol, cursed at agents, and stated, ‘fuck [Adam Schiff].” Fox News isn’t the only variable at play in Meister’s alleged behavior.

Still, the episode illustrates how the network’s coverage of Trump’s remarks, including the most incendiary, has the potential for real-world consequences. (Fox News didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Meister’s alleged threat came as Trump was upping his ugliness toward Schiff

Meister allegedly placed the call to Schiff’s congressional office on October 1 and went on a profanity-filled tirade that included him threatening to “blow your brains out.”

A court filing provides some details:

Following an investigation, Meister was arrested on October 3. He was indicted on October 23 on a host of charges, including illegal possession of a number of firearms.

Meister is pleading not guilty to all the charges. Now, in a court filing filed last Friday, lawyers representing Meister say the threatening voicemail was likely influenced by something he saw on Fox News.

From the filing, which was first reported by the Informant:

Agents explained [to investigators] that the call was to Congressman Adam Schiff.

MEISTER responded that he watches Fox News and likely was upset at something that he saw on the news. He stated that he strongly dislikes the Democrats, and feels they are to blame for the country’s political issues.

In short, Meister appears to have bought what Fox News has been selling.

Fox News normalizes Trump’s abusive language

As chair of the Intelligence Committee, Schiff played a leading role in Democratic efforts to start investigating the Ukraine scandal in earnest last September. As he did so, Trump dramatically escalated his attacks, demeaning Schiff at various points as “a sick man,” “Liddle,’” and “lowlife,” and calling on him to resign from Congress and “be investigated.”

Trump escalated things even further on September 29, saying Schiff should be “questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason” (Schiff had paraphrased Trump’s comments to the Ukrainian president in an unflattering light during a congressional hearing). Then, on both September 30 and October 1, Trump came right up to the brink of calling for Schiff to be arrested — tweets that capped off a week in which Trump posted some of his most bizarre tweets to date.

As I detailed back then, Fox News at that time was somewhat split between network personalities who seemed to be taking the Ukraine scandal seriously and those who continued to bash Trump’s opponents and push conspiracy theories aimed at exonerating him. Top-rated primetime host Sean Hannity, for instance, amplified Trump’s authoritarian and extrajudicial threats.

Court filings don’t indicate which specific segment motivated Meister’s threat. But the general approach Fox News has taken to covering Trump’s attacks on his enemies gives you a sense of how they fan the flames of resentment.

At a rally last March, for instance, Trump debuted a new smear of Schiff, calling him “Little pencil-neck Adam Schiff” — comments that I noted at the time represented a new low for Trump. Fox News covered Trump’s insult with an article that made it seem as though it was somehow justified by his frustrations over the Russia investigation, and even provided free promotion for shirts the Trump campaign was selling to profit on it.

Meanwhile, Fox News’s on-air personalities had a laugh over Trump’s crude insults, with America’s Newsroom anchor Julie Banderas saying, “I’m sorry, that was funny.”

The day before Meister’s arrest, Fox News published a piece about one of Trump’s baseless attacks on Schiff that framed it as though it were true.

“Trump says Schiff ‘helped write’ whistleblower complaint, after House panel admits advance knowledge,” the headline says — even though there’s no evidence Schiff did any such thing.

Two days before Meister allegedly placed his threatening phone call to Schiff, Trump amplified commentary made on Fox News by Pastor Robert Jeffress that threatened the outbreak of civil war if Democrats succeeded in impeaching him.

And things haven’t improved much in the months since then. Just last month, for instance, I wrote about how Trump’s first rally of 2020 featured insults of Schiff that were like a parody of a playground bully.

“You little pencil neck,” Trump said, prompting his audience in Toledo to break out in wild cheers. “He has the smallest shirt collar you can get, and it is loose.”

Trump’s comments were undeniably distasteful, but Fox News covered them online as though they were normal and glorified them on the air by following Trump’s lead and mocking Schiff’s physical appearance.

In a Politico report about Meister’s arrest, Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio write that the situation serves as “a harrowing example of the routine threats facing high-profile lawmakers and other officials” amid the impeachment process.

Schiff, along with at least some of the other six House Democrats prosecuting the case against Trump, has been seen with permanent police details in recent months as he walks through the Capitol complex.

This isn’t the first time Trump’s rhetoric has been connected with threats his fans have made against his enemies in politics or the media. But the specific circumstances surrounding Meister’s arrest allude to the danger involved in the country’s top-rated cable network normalizing the president’s rhetorical excesses.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.