The network’s internal strife offers the truest picture of how impeachment might play on the right.
I try to limit my intake of 24-hour cable TV news, because as a medium, on balance, I think it’s bad for America. Though Facebook has suffered more scrutiny and reputational damage for its role in 2016, it was cable, not social networks, that went gaga pumping up Trump during the campaign. Today, it’s the toxic feedback swirl of Twitter and cable — and a president and a press corps that spend all hours feeding on one another’s digital droppings in a dystopian circle of life — that has rendered our political culture so vulnerable to reflexive, narrow-minded conspiracies, tribalism and groupthink.
Lately, however, I’ve found myself gorging like a bear in salmon season on the worst, most brain-corroding corner of cable, the network I’ve called a “forked-tongue colossus” for its two-decades-long project of dismantling our collective hold on the truth. I refer, of course, to Fox News.
[Farhad Manjoo will answer your questions about this column on Friday at 1 p.m. Eastern on Twitter: @fmanjoo]
In the past week, it’s been riveting, and I can’t get enough. Forget “Succession” — as we descend into the hell pit of impeachment and a presidential election, there is no more engaging and consequential family drama on television right now than the one happening every day on Fox News.
I won’t lie to you: Watching Fox isn’t easy. Much of it is still a fetid sewer of venom that bears little resemblance to the real world, and I would hope that you have more enjoyable ways to spend your time, like elective dental surgery.
But when news breaks on television — as it will in an unending cascade of hearings, stump speeches, debates and grandstanding news conferences from now until at least January 2021 — Fox should be your go-to place to watch, especially if you are on the left.
There is a simple reason: While other organizations report the news, Fox News is the news. There is now a growing rift on Fox: Its news side is asking increasingly tough questions of Trump, while its opinion side pushes his raving conspiracies. The drama speaks to real tension on the right, and Fox will inform political reality. It is no exaggeration to say that what happens on Fox now — the way it decides to play impeachment and the twists and turns of the 2020 race — could well determine the fate of the republic.
Fox’s anchors, reporters, its far-flung network of guests and its many shaggy narratives — what Deadspin’s David Roth has called the “Fox News Cinematic Universe” — are now deeply embedded in the operations of the United States government.
Even before the Trump era, Fox exerted striking influence on the Republican Party. But with Trump, Fox has reached the zenith of its powers. Its anchors regularly advise the president about politics and policy. Its story lines inform his hourly moods and his strategic decisions, including his staffing. And its commitment to indulging the president’s conspiracy-fueled ravings has helped pull political culture ever farther from reality.In other words, Fox is now not just a reflection of what happens in the world; instead, how a piece of news plays on Fox determines what happens in the world.
Tucker Carlson didn’t think it was a good idea to bomb Iran, so we didn’t bomb Iran.
He didn’t like John Bolton, so shut the door on your way out, John!
Lou Dobbs thought Kirstjen Nielsen was weak. Bye bye, Kirstjen!
The connection between Trump and Fox runs so deep that you might wonder where one ends and the other begins. Is Trump rotting Fox’s brain, or is Fox rotting Trump’s?
But when it comes to politics, it doesn’t matter; whichever way the rot runs, watching Fox now is like getting a peek into Trump’s war room and, in a larger sense, into the future of the right in America, however ugly that picture may be.
Now there is an extra layer of intrigue. Suddenly Fox News feels like a nation up for grabs, and there is growing, palpable drama on its sets.
The network’s daytime anchors — people like Shep Smith and Chris Wallace, who fall on the news reporting side of Fox’s opinion-reporting divide — have always grumbled about the network’s nighttime pundits, talkers like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Now the two sides are at open war, sniping at each other daily over the seriousness of impeachment and the very legitimacy of any inquiry of the president.
On impeachment, Fox News’s news side has been excellent. There were many moments in the last week where I felt shocked and gratified by the seriousness with which Fox was taking impeachment.
On Friday, Wallace called the White House’s “spinning” on the Ukraine call “astonishing and deeply misleading.” On Sunday’s “Fox & Friends,” the reporter Ed Henry set about asking the conservative radio host Mark Levin a series of substantive questions about the propriety of the Ukraine call. Levin roared his response, earning Twitter praise from the president, but Henry’s sharp questioning stood out to me: There he was upsetting Trump’s narrative on Trump’s favorite show. That’s progress, right?
And later on Sunday, in one of the most devastating performances by a Trump official this week, the Trump aide Stephen Miller fell apart like a used tissue under Chris Wallace’s withering questions.
In those moments of truth on Fox, I couldn’t help feeling a rush of optimism for America. I’ve often wondered whether after the Trump era it will ever be possible to pull back from the conspiracy right. In the ravings of Trump’s Ukrainian call, we saw undeniable proof that Infowars has invaded the president’s brain.
Are we seeing some sign that the conspiracies have a limit — that as nutty as things have gotten, Rupert Murdoch isn’t willing to turn his air over to an even darker cast of characters and story lines, what NBC News’s Ben Collins calls the “4Chan Cinematic Universe”?
But then I watch Fox’s opinion side and my optimism vanishes. For much of the past week, on Fox’s prime-time lineup, the president’s narrative has held total sway. On Carlson, on Hannity, on Ingraham, on “The Five,” the big story has been much the same: The president did nothing wrong, impeachment is a witch hunt and a coup, they’re coming to take your guns, to corrupt your children and to ruin all that’s great about the country.
There were times, watching Carlson and Hannity, that I felt truly terrified for the nation. Fox’s most popular hosts are still framing Trump’s political battles in apocalyptic terms; if they keep that up, what hope is there for any of us?
But this, too, is important news about America: The president, quoting a Fox News guest, says that his impeachment could bring about civil war in America. Watching Fox’s prime-time lineup, I totally believe it.
Faced with impeachment proceedings, President Trump hasn’t set up a dedicated White House “war room” to guide his pushback against congressional Democrats running the investigation, instead making clear he is leading the charge.
As the House inquiry intensifies into whether Mr. Trump inappropriately used his office to pressure Ukraine’s president into investigating a political rival, the president has once again assumed the role of chief spokesman, blasting tweet after tweet, while also relying on his campaign, the Republican National Committee and outside attorneys. The loosely organized approach fits a freewheeling style Mr. Trump thrives on.
But while some allies defend his strategy, others question if more discipline is required in light of such a serious threat. Mr. Trump’s unpredictable side may keep adversaries off guard and drive news cycles, but it can leave his staff scrambling to react.
His recent tweets have put Republican lawmakers in a difficult position, with calls to expose and question the whistleblower at the center of the impeachment inquiry and the suggestion that a congressman leading the probe be arrested for treason. He has promoted talk of a civil war.
“He’s not taking full advantage of the White House’s ability to set and shape the daily narrative,” said GOP consultant Alex Conant, who led communications for Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign and served as a spokesman in the second Bush White House. “These are missed opportunities at a critical time.”
For now, Mr. Trump has made clear that he is embracing a no-holds-barred message, seeking to discredit the whistleblower and House Democrats and floating an extraordinary conspiracy theory. “As I learn more and more each day, I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People,
- their VOTE,
- their Freedoms,
- their Second Amendment,
- Border Wall,”
he wrote in a tweet Tuesday night.
During the special counsel’s investigation into 2016 Russian election interference, the White House beefed up its legal team and assigned a communications aide to the response effort. Mr. Trump continues to weigh his options, but his outside attorney Jay Sekulow said on his radio show this week that there was no call for a war room of political, legal and communications staff, like President Clinton had when he faced impeachment.
Mr. Sekulow said the White House handled the Russia probe “without the institutionalization of a war room,” adding that “this is a skirmish in comparison.”
Some people close to the president also suggested that establishing a formal strategy is akin to admitting they have a political problem.
Mr. Trump “has done nothing wrong,” White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said when asked about the strategy, adding the administration wouldn’t “let partisan games and the media’s hysteria take away from President Trump and his administration’s work on behalf of the American people.”
Democrats defend the impeachment effort as a necessary check on presidential power.
Mr. Trump and his allies are “lying through their teeth to distract from a gross abuse of power,” Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said. “The evidence is his own words. We hope Trump’s strategy continues to be one that incriminates himself.”
Ari Fleischer, who was press secretary to President George W. Bush, said Mr. Trump is his best spokesman and credited response efforts from the Republican National Committee, but added the overall effort should be enhanced and the message more focused.
“At the end of the day, the Clinton people said you can’t impeach somebody who lied about sex. Pretty simple, straightforward and easy to remember,” Mr. Fleischer said. “With Trump, I think the story is Democrats are trying to impeach somebody because he won. This is not about the Ukraine call. This is about who he is.”
Mr. Trump’s campaign is trying to turn the attention on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. During the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mr. Trump raised a discredited claim that while vice president, Mr. Biden sought the removal of Ukraine’s prosecutor general to protect his son, who was on the board of a company whose owner the prosecutor had investigated.
Flush with recent donations—$8.5 million alone in the 48 hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry—the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee spent $10 million in the past week on television ads about the Bidens and impeachment, targeting House Democrats who won in districts carried by Mr. Trump in 2016. Online ads are pushing similar messages.
Ever focused on his news coverage, the president was generally pleased with his surrogates on Sunday news shows this week, said people familiar with his thinking. One said that Mr. Trump was less focused on internal White House organizational charts and more interested in an aggressive messaging effort on television, saying he wants to see “who’s on TV defending our position and fighting to level out the playing field and get our message across.”
A former White House official put it more bluntly, saying the response was “a disorganized mess, and it seems that’s what Trump wants.”
If Justice Department guidelines had been otherwise—if federal charges could be brought against a sitting president—would Mr. Mueller have recommended them? That’s the question. Instead we get “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” Oh.
Independent counsel Ken Starr wasn’t so shy with Bill Clinton: His 1998 report outlined to Congress 11 possible grounds for impeachment.
I’m sure Mr. Mueller was trying to demonstrate probity. But it looked to me like a loss of nerve. You can have probity plus clarity, and clarity was what was needed.
The spirit of impeachment is now given a boost.
It is still a terrible idea.
It is a grave matter to overturn an election result. Why more cuttingly divide an already divided country? There is no argument that impeachment would enhance America’s position in the world, and no reason to believe it would not have some negative impact on the economy, meaning jobs. The presidential election is in 2020. What is gained from devoting the coming year to an effort that will fail in the Senate? There’s no reason to believe the public is for it. It won’t move the needle—those who like President Trump, like him; those who do not, do not; everyone already knows what they think. For Democrats it could backfire, alienating moderates and rousing those of the president’s supporters who care little for him personally but appreciate his policy achievements, such as his appointment of judges. Why rouse their wrath? If Mr. Trump is acquitted he will pose as the innocent but unstoppable victor over a witch hunt led by a liberal elite.
At this point, could Democrats even do it? Impeachment is “a heavy lift,” as Chris Matthews said on MSNBC the other day. It takes time and focus to organize it politically and legally, to get the committee chairmen on board and investigators mobilized.
Rachael Bade on the impeachment divide among Democrats. Loveday Morris reports on why Israel will hold a second parliamentary election. Plus, Brady Dennis explains why dead puffins in Alaska may be a harbinger for climate change.
There was only one side of the dais at Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing that mentioned impeachment — and it wasn’t the Democratic side.
There was only one side that hollered and sputtered, one side that lobbed insults at the other and impugned colleagues’ motives — and it wasn’t the majority.
Indeed, Tuesday’s hearing was a study in the asymmetric combat that defines our politics in the Trump era. Some on the left see this asymmetry as a sign of Democratic weakness. I see it as the nation’s best hope for recovery.
At Tuesday’s session, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), spoke in a calm, steady voice about the absence of former White House counsel Donald McGahn, a no-show after President Trump ordered him not to comply with a subpoena. “Mr. McGahn has a legal obligation to be here for this scheduled appearance. If he does not immediately correct his mistake, this committee will have no choice but to enforce the subpoena against him,” Nadler intoned.
Nadler mentioned neither impeachment nor contempt, and he managed to keep the Democratic side — including the gadfly who brought fried chicken to a previous hearing as a prop — quiet.
Then came Nadler’s Republican counterpart, Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia, who practically yelled out his statement and fired off taunts so quickly that those of us in the room struggled to understand him, and the transcript designated several sections as unintelligible. The words that did come through were mostly caustic and personal. Nadler “rushed to maximize headlines,” was “politically expedient,” issued an “illegal subpoena,” “orchestrated” a “spectacle” and a “drama,” and is “more interested in the fight than fact-finding.” Collins further accused Nadler and the Democrats of “harangues,” “innuendo” and warned of“running roughshod over the Constitution.”
“The theater is open,” Collins said of the sedate proceedings. Because Democrats can’t find anything to “hang their I-word, impeachment, on. . . . We’re here again, with the circus in full force.”
Though accusing Democrats of theatrics by having the empty-seat hearing, Republicans attempted to continue bickering by voting against adjournment. “This is disgraceful!” cried out Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).
Watching this disparity in demeanor, I tried to imagine how things might look if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, and, two years later:
• Five of her campaign advisers had been convicted of crimes — one of them implicating her — and a sixth indicted.
• A prosecutor documented numerous instances in which Clinton had interfered with investigators.
• Clinton refused to let aides cooperate with subpoenas and dismissed an unfavorable court ruling as “crazy” and partisan.
• She directed the Justice Department to investigate the front-runner for the Republicans’ 2020 nomination.
• She directed the White House counsel to lie about her deceit, then ordered him not to testify.
Can anybody imagine, in those circumstances, a Republican speaker of the House and the Republican presidential front-runner (the one Clinton ordered investigated) steadfastly resisting calls for impeachment?
There is long-standing tension among Democratic lawmakers and 2020 presidential candidates about whether to answer Trump’s aggression and insults in kind (Republican lawmakers long ago internalized his style) or whether to be the grown-ups in the room. On the campaign trail, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala Harris(Calif.) have called for impeachment, and a growing number of Democrats in Congress, from fiery Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) to Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), a member of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) leadership team, have joined the cause. Liberal activists rage against Pelosi “meeting fire with fecklessness,” as New York magazine’s Eric Levitz put it.
But the mass of voters side with restraint, and even anti-establishment Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said impeachment “works to Trump’s advantage.” Certainly, Trump has earned impeachment; Republican Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) has said as much. But with no chance of removing Trump, Democrats can instead show the country that our problem isn’t polarization; it’s that one side has gone bonkers, and the other side is trying to restore adult supervision.
Americans, even reluctant Trump supporters, hunger to end the madness. This is likely why former vice president Joe Biden holds a commanding lead, even though he’s out of sync with the party base ideologically and demographically. And generally, the 2020 Democrats seem to grasp the country’s need for normal. I had feared that, after Trump, Democrats would conclude there’s no penalty for lying. Instead, “anecdotally, I think they are trying to harder to be more factually accurate,” The Post’s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, tells me.
This is an encouraging sign, as is party leadership’s efforts to resist an impeachment stampede. Impeachment may be inevitable if Trump continues to stiff-arm all inquiries. But Democrats are right not to emulate Trump’s insults, falsehoods and extreme partisanship as they go about their legitimate inquiries.
Maybe such restraint will be proved wrong in 2020, and voters will reward the insult hurlers. But if Americans don’t desire a return to stability, honesty and decency, our democracy is already lost.
- A substantial part of that base voted for Trump as a rebuke to the very people who hate him so much.
- Another sizeable faction doesn’t particularly care for Trump but likes to see him appointing conservative judges and being more assertive with China.
- A third faction is made up of staunch party loyalists who think they should stand by their team. As long as those three factions line up against impeachment — and right now, they overwhelmingly do — Trump will stay firmly seated in the Oval Office.
So the question for impeachophiles is “how many of those voters can be moved?” The die-hard Trump supporters probably can’t be, but the other groups are potentially at least persuadable. That brings us to the question of how to persuade them. And to Justin Amash, the Michigan representative who just broke ranks with his party by calling for Trump’s impeachment.
“What we are going to have to decide as a caucus is: What is the best thing for the country?” Representative Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Is the best thing for the country to
- take up an impeachment proceeding because to do otherwise sends a message that this conduct is somehow compatible with office? Or is it in the best interest of the country
- not to take up an impeachment that we know will not be successful in the Senate?”
.. And even as the president and his allies trumpeted their vindication — “I have never been happier or more content,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday morning — they also lashed out at their perceived enemies.
“The Trump Haters and Angry Democrats who wrote the Mueller Report were devastated by the No Collusion finding!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, less than two hours after wishing the country a happy Easter. “Nothing but a total ‘hit job’ which should never have been allowed to start in the first place!”
They also singled out the testimony of certain aides who testified before Mr. Mueller’s team and conservative lawmakers who criticized Mr. Trump’s behavior as outlined in the report.
On Saturday night, Mr. Trump, ostensibly in response to a scathing statement from Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, shared a video mocking Mr. Romney’s unsuccessful presidential run in 2012.
Mr. Giuliani added to the criticism of the Utah senator, calling Mr. Romney a “hypocrite” for his statement. Mr. Romney had said he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection” from administration officials, “including the president.”