Fox News spent most of Friday night taking a victory lap. “Well, happy No Collusion Day, Tucker!” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz told Tucker Carlson with a big grin on his face.
“Happy No Collusion Day!” Carlson laughed.
Earlier Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller had delivered his long-awaited report to the U.S. attorney general. While the public doesn’t know what’s inside the report, unnamed Department of Justice sources told numerous media organizations that the special counsel’s office had issued no new indictments as it wrapped up its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. This was all Fox News needed to know to declare an impromptu national holiday. “The left’s favorite conspiracy theory is now dead,” said Sean Hannity at the top of his show, looking like the picture of sanctimony. “It is buried. And there was no collusion. No conspiracy. No obstruction. Nothing. The witch hunt is over.”
It is and it isn’t. Almost no one has even read the Mueller report. But the “witch hunt” narrative is too good for Fox to let go of that easily. The network spent two years preemptively discrediting the Mueller investigation while preparing to go to bat for President Trump in case the eventual report led Democrats to attempt to boot him from office. Removing a president is mostly a political question, and Fox was always going to make sure that the rabid right was against impeachment no matter what the Mueller report said. If the report had been devastating, the network would have just ignored or tried to discredit it with the same rhetorical sleight-of-hand it has used since Mueller was first appointed. For the moment, Fox News’ personalities think they’ve been vindicated—but there’s no way they’re going to stop screaming “witch hunt!” Since they won’t need to use it against Mueller anymore, they’ll find a way to use it against Democrats.
Whatever we learn about the Mueller report, Friday evening’s broadcast told us a lot about how the news will unfold on Fox News—and how that will shape the reception of the report among conservatives.
First, the network used the reports of no new indictments to characterize the entire Mueller investigation as exculpatory to the president. “I have spent 12 hours testifying in front of the House [Intelligence] Committee, and [Reps. Adam] Schiff and Eric Swalwell, who repeatedly said they are 100 percent certain that there was Russia collusion,” said former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. “They said it many times. Now we know that there was no collusion.” This take is premature since, again, no one at Fox has seen the report, but Fox’s cadre of opinion hosts and panelists have never been shy about extrapolating broad conclusions from limited evidence. Even if the final Mueller report proves more nuanced than Fox’s initial interpretation—even if it proves outright damaging—the network knows its role is to declare total victory for Donald Trump. If its hosts say that loudly and often enough, its viewers may not even notice if the score ends up closer than it initially appeared.
What about all the Trumpworld figures who have been indicted, sentenced, and convicted of charges brought by Mueller’s investigators? Easy: Fox’s talking heads dismissed these offenses as mere “process crimes.” While news anchor Chris Wallace valiantly tried to push back on this argument during the 6 o’clock hour—“process crimes are not parking tickets, process crimes are lying to federal prosecutors, they’re lying to the FBI. This is the very basis under which justice is administered,” he told Bret Baier—I suspect his take will not become the network’s dominant interpretation. Later Friday evening, Sean Hannity triumphantly slapped “PROCESS CRIMES” over an image of Mueller.
“Process crimes” are no big deal compared to the purportedly more serious violations that Fox News now believes have been cleared up. Since they assume the president is not directly implicated by the report in any collusion with Russia, Fox’s talkers are finally free to concede that colluding with Russia, in the abstract, is a very bad thing for a sitting president to do. “If it were true that [Trump] was an agent of Russia, you wouldn’t just be seeing one indictment. You’d be seeing dozens, if not hundreds of indictments,” contributor Mollie Hemingway told Tucker Carlson at the outset of his show.
“And justified indictments, by the way,” Carlson said of these hypothetical indictments. “If the president of the United States was an agent of a foreign power? Yeah.”
“Yes, hopefully we would be taking that very seriously,” said Hemingway.
“Yes, we would be,” said Carlson, with a certainty that I find somewhat hard to accept. Fox News’ most prominent opinion hosts have spent much of the past two years trying to smear Mueller’s credibility. “Mueller should not be in charge of any investigation as it relates to Russia or Russian collusion or election interference, because he has yet another massive conflict of interest,” Hannity said all the way back in October 2017, one example of thousands. If Mueller had delivered a report and indicted more figures close to the president, one that told a compelling and well-documented story about collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, you can bet that Fox News’s opinion hosts would be dismissing it all as a product of bias and corruption.
But since they now hazard that the report does not document any acts of collusion, Fox opinion-havers face a slight consistency problem. If you’re going to trust the Mueller report’s conclusions, you also have to accept the credibility of its chief author, the hated Robert Mueller. “The president and his allies have been out there attacking Robert Mueller,” National Correspondent Ed Henry told Tucker Carlson Friday. “But if Robert Mueller’s report now essentially clears the president—again, if, if, if— they’re gonna all of the sudden say, hey, we actually like Bob Mueller, we like this report, he followed the facts.”
Already on Friday night, the network had begun to pivot toward depicting Mueller as a rock-ribbed paragon of prosecutorial virtue. “[Attorney General William] Barr understands what I’ve understood from day one: Mueller’s No. 1 job is to report on what Russia did. The second part of that is with whom if anyone did they do it?” former Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy told Harris Faulkner, who was filling in for Martha MacCallum. “That’s the Democrat focus, that is their obsession. But that was not Mueller’s obsession.” Later on the same show, former Trump campaign staffer and Mueller interviewee Michael Caputo said that Mueller’s team was “the most remarkable group of investigators that we could have assembled.” On Carlson’s show, Ed Henry noted that congressional Democrats may have “missed a key point, which is follow the facts. And maybe to his credit—we need to see the details of the report—maybe Robert Mueller actually followed the facts.” All of this from a network that has spent 22 months criticizing the Mueller investigation as a partisan hackjob.
Though Fox’s critiques of Mueller may well subside, its virulent attacks on Democrats and the non-conservative media will almost certainly increase. “There needs to be a reckoning,” Hemingway told Bret Baier in the 6 o’clock hour, “and the people who spread this theory both inside and outside the government, who were not critical and who did not behave appropriately, need to be held accountable.” During the next block, guest Ben Shapiro spoke bitterly of “the media malfeasance for two years suggesting beyond the evidence at hand that President Trump was responsible for deep, dark collusion with Russia that ended with Hillary Clinton losing the election.” In the 8 o’clock hour, Laura Ingraham informed Tucker Carlson that “the collusion between the media apparatus, the dominant media apparatus—other than Fox—and the DNC, the deep state, is profound. And the international elites who wanted this all to be true.”
“I can almost taste their tears from here,” Hannity said of the media during his opening monologue. “Years and years of breathless hysteria, lies presented as facts and truth. What is, like, Maddow and all of the other MSNBC conspiracy theorists—what are they going to cover now? Where does fake news CNN… where do they find their content now?”
We’ll see. (Again, no one has read the report!) But Fox News will find its content where it always has. It would be an unexpected turn of events if the Mueller “witch hunt” ended up being more useful to Fox than to the network’s counterparts, but maybe that’s how this was always going to turn out. Fox spent two years preparing for an all-out media war over the special counsel’s report. Of course it won’t settle for anything less than absolute annihilation of the president’s critics, even if it no longer has to worry about Robert Mueller. Happy No Collusion Day!