The timing of Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the long-awaited Mueller report was frustrating, especially if you were primarily concerned—as I am—with how Fox News would spin it. Sunday afternoon is perhaps the one time of the week when even Fox News takes a break from watching Fox News. The time slot is hardly a crucible for the sorts of themes and storylines that might animate the network’s prime-time opinion coverage. So while Dana Perino, Shannon Bream, Bret Baier, and others did a fine job in relaying the details of the summary and establishing its conclusions as very good news for the president, their work left me still wondering: How will the network play the report going forward?
Apparently in the pettiest manner imaginable, judging by Monday morning’s episode of Fox & Friends. More so than any other Fox News show, Fox & Friends embodies the shallow contempt at the heart of the network’s mission. It is President Donald Trump’s favorite program and a matchless conduit for the useful proto-fascist idiocy that so often comprises the network’s daily talking points. Within its first 10 minutes, Fox & Friends had previewed how Fox News will continue to incorporate its interpretation of the Mueller report into its programming through the 2020 elections.
As usual, the Friends got to their themes very quickly. By 6:03 a.m., co-anchor Steve Doocy—a man whom, according to the New Yorker, Donald Trump ranks as a 12 out of 10 in his personal loyalty rankings of Fox News hosts—was grinning as he held up a copy of the New York Times. “This probably killed whoever had to type this in: ‘Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy,’ ” Doocy gloated, as Ainsley Earhardt chuckled and Brian Kilmeade stared at him blankly.
By 6:07 a.m., Earhardt was proposing next steps. “It begs to question who should now be held accountable for all this. Because this all happened because Hillary Clinton and the DNC hired Fusion GPS. They came up with this faux dossier,” she said, tapping her hand on the table for emphasis. “And then this opens up this whole investigation that you, the taxpayer, spent $25 million on over the last two years. People want someone to be accountable for all of this. Because they can’t get away with this.”
By 6:08 a.m., the Friends had welcomed their first guest, former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, whose job was to transmute the hosts’ opinions into expert analysis. “Based on this report and the full, total, complete exoneration of the president of the United States, it’s as if Donald Trump won 100 million to nothing,” Chaffetz said. “There’s still more to this. Because we’ve got to go back and look at how this whole farce started. Why was this special counsel put in place?”
“You think we’re going back there?” asked Kilmeade.
“I think you have to,” said Chaffetz. It wasn’t even 6:10, and a regular Fox News viewer could already tell how the rest of the network day was bound to play out.
There were two clear messages delivered on Fox & Friends Monday morning, one for Democrats and one for Republicans. The message to Democrats was this: You lost, move on. Drop the House investigations. Don’t subpoena anyone else. Stop nitpicking Barr’s summary. Concede defeat and accept how much you suck. “What will it actually take for [Democrats and the media] to come to terms with no collusion?” Kilmeade asked no one in particular. “We put that in bold in the teleprompter, but you couldn’t see that.”
There was a lot of similarly baldfaced advice to the Democrats. “I honestly thought [the Democrats] would have the good sense to shut their pie holes after this came out, but they didn’t,” said Mike Huckabee. “Fellas, ladies: Take the loss,” Dan Bongino said near the end of the show. “It’s over. You got worked. There is no evidence.” And Kilmeade wholly agreed.
“It’s like the Rams complaining that they lost the Super Bowl. They were crushed. They lost. It’s over,” Kilmeade said a bit later.
“It’s over! Move on! It wasn’t the ref’s call. You lost by 600 points. Move on. The game is over,” Bongino said.
The message to Republicans, however, was this: You won, don’t move on. Hold your own investigations now. Hold the so-called hoaxers and deep state obstructionists accountable. Now is not the time for grace and absolution. Now is the time for retribution. “The question now is: If there was no evidence of collusion, three investigations, no evidence of collusion, who made it up?” Rudy Giuliani asked in the 7 o’clock hour. “It had to come from somewhere. It didn’t just come out of thin air, I want to know who did it, who paid for it, who fueled it. Because the person who did it and the group that did it knows it’s untrue because they invented it.”
“What we need to do as Republicans is let them punch, and then counterpunch. And open the investigations,” Huckabee echoed later. “Remember, we have the executive branch and the Senate. All they’ve got is the House. Punch hard. Let Lindsey Graham and the Senate Judiciary Committee go after: Who were the conspirators? Who were the ones who, inside the Department of Justice or the FBI, actually conspired to bring down this president? And chase them to justice. Order the attorney general to do the same thing.”
I have little doubt that something along those lines will indeed happen. In my Friday night coverage of Fox’s initial reaction to the news that Mueller would not be recommending any further indictments, I may have been too quick to predict that Trump and his proxies would immediately flip and start praising Mueller to the heavens now that the report has come out in their favor. They are far too petty, or perhaps far too politically shrewd, for that. Their current strategy seems to be to keep slamming Mueller’s staff as a bunch of partisan hacks and then use those character assassinations as proof that the report’s conclusions are valid. After all, if even a staff of partisan hacks couldn’t find indictable evidence of collusion or obstruction, then there clearly wasn’t any collusion or obstruction in the first place.
“Do you give Robert Mueller credit and do you feel bad about the discrediting of Robert Mueller from you and the president?” Doocy asked Giuliani near the end of the former mayor’s segment. (It may have been the most confrontational question I have ever seen Doocy ask. Trump probably bumped him down to an 11 out of 10 after hearing it.)
“No,” said a laughing Giuliani. “No, I don’t at all. He deserved every bit of criticism he got. Look, the fact that he couldn’t find evidence is a testament to the fact that he is an honest man. He’s not going to make it up. But, boy, did he try, and boy did he have some people that did things that as a prosecutor for almost 20 years shocked me.” Perhaps Giuliani was laughing in anticipation of all the fun he expects to have over the next two years pursuing the president’s vendettas on national television.
The purported “witch hunt” of the Mueller investigation is too powerful a conservative rallying cry for Fox News to abandon it just because Mueller did not end up indicting the president. Instead, the network will offer its spin of Barr’s summary—its risible claim that the document offers a “full, total, complete exoneration” of the president, even as the letter explicitly states that the Mueller report does not exonerate the president—as the final word on the Mueller report, regardless of what the report actually ends up saying. (If and when the report comes out, expect Fox’s opinion hosts to similarly cherry-pick its findings.) The Mueller investigation is a totem for all that Fox has trained its viewers to hate about the media and the left. The Barr summary, and the fact that Mueller did not find evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 elections, now serves to validate and inflame their partisan resentments.
“Our democracy and the truth should bear nothing less [than additional investigation of the other side],” said Kellyanne Conway on Monday morning. “Let’s see everything that attended to the FISA warrants. Let’s see all the communications happening at the top levels of the FBI during the Obama administration and getting that ‘insurance policy,’ deriding those Trump voters and rest of us as filthy Walmart shoppers and all the other slights, all the snark and bark from the elitist intellectual snobs. Let’s see it all. Let’s let it all hang out.” And it’s pretty easy to predict what the network will see there. Fox will keep crying foul while using its own spin on Mueller’s work as fodder for the next chapter in its decadeslong narrative of conservative blamelessness, left-wing malfeasance, and elitist condescension.
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