On Saturday night, the high court of Fox News came to order, Judge Jeanine Pirro presiding. In the opening segment of her show, Justice with Judge Jeanine, Pirro sermonized about the need for a government purge. Wearing a blazing red blouse and enunciating like the irate director of a recalcitrant choir, the jurist-turned-professional-angry-person went medieval on the United States circa 2017. “There have been times in our history where corruption and lawlessness were so pervasive, that examples had to be made,” she proclaimed ominously. “This is one of those times.”
Was Pirro talking about Trump’s White House, which (according to a new poll) Americans perceive to be our “most corrupt government institution”? Certainly not.
“The stench coming out of the DOJ and FBI is like that of a third-world country where money and bullies and clubs decide elections,” the former district attorney continued. “It all started with Cardinal Comey”—she calls him cardinal, she explained, on account of the Catholic former FBI director’s sanctimony—“destroying our FBI with political hacks to set events in motion to destroy the republic because they did not like the man we chose to be our president.”
Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, FBI agent Peter Strzok, and special counsel Robert Mueller rounded out Pirro’s fantasy incarceration draft. On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert mocked Pirro’s zeal for theatrical partisan vengeance. “Mueller and his corrupt junta are maggots gorging on the corpse of Lady Liberty, and freedom-loving patriots must drink their blood from the chalice of justice,” he boomed, paraphrasing the Fox commentator’s opening spiel. That is … not much of an exaggeration. Talking to Sean Hannity in early December, Pirro declared James Comey a “political whore.” Chelsea Handler, for her part, is “nuts … a really angry woman.” Anthony Weiner is a “dirtbag pervert.” Hillary Clinton, with whom Pirro boasts a long and turbulent history, is “a double-dealing woman who hides the truth.”
The former judge of the Westchester County Court is more than just a deranged TV icon. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, the host’s sweet talk about FBI perfidy recently earned her an audience with the Fox-watcher-in-chief. “Mr. Trump, [White House chief of staff John] Kelly and Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, met for more than an hour on Nov. 1 as Ms. Pirro whipped up the president against Mr. Mueller and accused James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, of employing tactics typically reserved for Mafia cases,” the paper wrote. Pirro, a longtime friend of the Trump family, is the perfect boob tube arbiter for the boob tube presidency—a congenitally self-assured talking head who uses the language of the law to build the case that the president is making America great again and Hillary is crooked. This cynosure of certainty embodies a kindergartner’s idea of justice: a gavel slamming, a case closing.
It must be said that Judge Jeanine’s West Wing field trip was, per the Times, not a total success. “Mr. Trump eventually tired of Ms. Pirro’s screed and walked out of the room,” the paper wrote. Even so, the fact that she had the president’s ear before she lost it by overtaxing his brain might give us pause. While Pirro’s “screed” may have momentarily alienated her old pal Donald, her ranty delivery seems to suit cable news viewers just fine, given that her show outpaces the Saturday night competition. In a media landscape that’s increasingly allergic to nuance, Trump’s favorite judge thrives by purveying the gut satisfactions of indubitable belief.
In some ways, Pirro is the typical cable news personality: a hard-charging, telegenic entertainer who takes it upon herself to glamorize her audience’s pre-existing views. Consider her recurring “Street Justice” segment, which is just like “Billy on the Street,” except the host yells at you about Benghazi instead of Love, Actually. Last week, Pirro polled pedestrians on skier Lindsey Vonn’s statement that she is excited to represent the United States—but not President Trump—at the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. “Why is she like that?” Pirro asked, marveling both at Vonn and at the level of effrontery required to exasperate her own good nature. “We sucked it up with your president. Now you suck it up with ours!” Her interviewees agreed, possibly out of self-preservation. “You’re the judge, jury, and executioner,” sang one guest in a conciliatory (but not entirely complimentary) voice.
Pirro doesn’t just jab her favorite targets—Democrats, G-Men, wayward Olympians—with sharp sticks. She also lobs marshmallows at her powerful pals. The judge’s airier-than-a-wind-farm October interview with new parents Eric and Lara Trump featured such prosecutions as “Do you see the world through his [baby Luke’s] eyes?” and “I’m so proud of you as a father! … I knew you as a little boy.” The 1997 article that accompanied Pirro’s inclusion in People’s “50 Most Beautiful” list referred to Eric Trump’s dad as a Pirro “family chum.” Donald Trump also donated $20,000 to her 2006 campaign for New York attorney general (she lost to now-Gov. Andrew Cuomo) and threw her and her then-husband a Halloween party. Interviewing onetime Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski this month, Pirro asked: “What’s the thing about the president that maybe you and I know that others don’t?” Lewandowski stepped up to the tee and took a whack. “He’s so gracious,” he said.
At times, Pirro seems to bend reality to fit her mental templates. Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson brought a defamation suit against her on Tuesday, alleging that she’d falsely stated that he’d incited violence at a 2016 rally against police brutality. “And in this particular case, DeRay McKesson, the organizer, actually was directing people, was directing the violence,” Pirro told viewers, according to the complaint. The host of a political agitprop show with Justice in its title went on to note that there’s a particular courtroom figure she really can’t stand: “judges who make decisions on politics—activist judges—not on the facts.”
This signature Pirro-ism—emotional reasoning wrapped in ironclad certainty—isn’t something she picked up around the Fox water cooler. From 2008 to 2011, she brought her “direct, no-nonsense” style to bear as the Judge Judy–like host of a daily court show on the CW. (Plaintiffs ran the gamut from spurned lovers trying to get their exes to pay for impounded cars to Dennis Rodman.) Before she began to earn Emmy nominations for arriving at foregone conclusions in colorful ways, her legal career could fairly be characterized as a chronicle of vendettas, both vindicated and rebutted. With or without reality’s corroboration, Pirro has shown a pattern of alighting on a viewpoint, promoting it passionately, and resisting anyone’s efforts to change her mind.
Pirro’s otherworldly certainty helped produce one of the blackest stains on her record. In 1997, the then–district attorney of New York’s Westchester County refused to reopen the case of Jeffrey Deskovic, a man convicted of murder, despite strong evidence that he hadn’t committed a crime. It took another nine years before Pirro’s successor ordered the tests that exonerated him. “Pirro Gets Zero in Slay Blunder; Innocent Man Had No Help From DA,” blared the headline in the New York Post.
Yet Judge Jeanine’s inveterate stubbornness is also responsible for perhaps her greatest triumph. The case of Kathleen Durst’s 1982 disappearance had cooled when the Westchester County DA reheated it in 2001. Lawyers for Kathleen’s husband Robert Durst persuaded a Texas jury that Pirro was harassing an innocent man—“accusations have come from far and near that Ms. Pirro is pursuing Mr. Durst to gain publicity for herself,” wrote the New York Times in 2002. While Robert Durst was acquitted, Pirro got her due when he confessed on the last episode of the 2015 documentary series The Jinx to killing his wife, his neighbor, and his friend. Pirro, at that point four years into hosting Justice with Judge Jeanine, had appeared on the HBO show to recapitulate her case against the accused. Critics proclaimed her “an unsung hero,” a “crusading heroine,” and an “avenging angel.”
In true scales-of-justice fashion, Pirro balanced out some of that good by writing a memoir that got dinged for factual inaccuracies and for giving ammunition to defense attorneys in Durst’s pending murder trial. Her disgruntled co-writer, Lisa DePaulo, also filed a breach of contract suit, claiming therein that she’d been instructed to aggrandize Pirro’s “role in the story at the expense of the truth.” What’s more, DePaulo alleged, Judge Jeanine had treated her like a maid during the drafting process, forcing her to feed the TV star’s two French poodles. (In 2016, the State Supreme Court in Manhattan granted Pirro’s request to compel the case to arbitration.)
As a Fox legal analyst with a passion for L’Affaire Russe, Pirro has found yet another stage for her dramas of crime and comeuppance. Many of the characters on Pirro’s string board, however, haven’t changed in decades. The judge’s friendship with Donald Trump began in the 1980s and 1990s, when he employed her ex-husband Al Pirro as a real estate lawyer. Her hatred of Hillary Clinton reaches back almost that far. As Phil Reisman observed in USA Today, Bill Clinton appointed the U.S. attorney who’d end up razing the Pirros’ political dreams by investigating Al for bribery and corruption in 2000.* The scandal enveloped Jeanine’s nascent senatorial campaign and sent her husband to prison.
Five years later, Pirro announced her plan to challenge first-term incumbent senator Hillary Clinton for her New York seat. Democrats were ascendant, and perhaps the inexperienced prosecutor was doomed from the start. (As a profile in New York notes, the Republican machine plucked her from the land of robes and gavels with little expectation she could win.) If Pirro ever had a chance, she flushed it away when, in the middle of declaring her congressional candidacy, she said the words “Hillary Clinton” and then … nothing else. The video of this moment, in which she asks a campaign aide for a missing page from her speech, would make Jack Bauer reach for the Paxil.
It’s hard to know how to interpret this stumble, coming as it does from a figure of pure conviction. Why would someone whose contempt for Hillary Clinton has blazed since the dawn of time falter at the mention of her name? Sometimes doubt creeps up on us in exactly the places we appear most sure. This happens especially when we do not come by our certitude honestly—when we’re using it as a lubricant or a mask.
Imagine the cognitive dissonance it takes to devote your life to the law (at one point leading your county’s domestic violence and child abuse bureau) only to hitch your star to a man like Trump. Imagine the audacity, the contortions of projection, required to accuse Robert Mueller of corruption when your husband was jailed for tax evasion, or to rail that it is Chelsea Handler who is “really angry.” Imagine the prodigious amounts of vehemence you’d need to conjure to force those points across or swallow them down.
Certainty is a mysterious thing, more emotional then rational. No amount of information can dispel it if you’ve got it, nor impart it if you’re immanently unsure. In November, Pirro was given a summons after being caught driving 119 miles per hour in a 65 zone. Surely there’s a metaphor there: doubt as a brake pedal the judge rarely applies. In a statement, Pirro met her critics with a sympathetic goulash of extenuating circumstances and contrition. Her lead-footedness, she explained, was the upshot of “driving for hours to visit my ailing 89-year-old mom,” adding, “I believe in the rule of law and I will pay the consequences.” Pirro seems to realize that nuance can come in handy in some situations. But in the TV courts elevated by the TV presidency, there’s only so much of that to go around.
*Correction, Dec. 18, 2017: This story originally misidentified the lawyer who investigated Jeanine Pirro’s husband. She was a U.S. attorney, not a New York state district attorney. (Return.)