“A daft old man, blinking in the sunlight once his curtain was torn away.” With this memorably rude phrase, uttered early on Wednesday night’s episode of his namesake Fox News program, Tucker Carlson fired the kill shot in the network’s two-year campaign of character assassination against special counsel Robert Mueller. In the immediate aftermath of Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, Carlson and his Fox News colleagues did what they do best: glorify Donald Trump while belittling his opponents and enemies.
Since 2017, Fox News’ opinion hosts have been working to discredit the Mueller investigation by casting aspersions on the investigators, and by devising a parallel narrative of corruption in which Trump is blameless and all who oppose him are guilty of all the president’s sins. Fox has spent years slandering Mueller as an ethically conflicted, vindictive prosecutor who can’t be trusted to conduct an honest investigation. Now that the report has been released, Fox has decided to transform Mueller—for two years the network’s foremost bugbear—into an object of pity.
It was clear to everyone who watched Wednesday’s hearings that Mueller was not at the top of his game. The man seemed tired and old. He stumbled over words, botched certain details, and at times seemed unfamiliar with aspects of his eponymous report. He was neither the aggrieved resistance hero that Twitter fantasists had imagined him to be, nor the blockbuster witness that some of the thirstier members of the Democratic caucus may have hoped for when devising the hearing. Instead, he was who he always said he was: a tight-lipped Order Muppet who refused to extrapolate on the details laid out in his report.
At the same time, Mueller did confirm that, contra Trump’s Twitter assertions, the report was not a complete and total exoneration of the president; that Department of Justice policy against indicting sitting presidents factored into Mueller’s decision not to bring obstruction of justice charges against Trump; that the president’s written answers to investigators’ questions were evasive and incomplete; and that it would indeed be possible to indict the president once he leaves office. That is to say, he affirmed that the stuff that was in his report was in fact in his report, and that alone was an important outcome given that most Americans have not and will not read it. A little videotape can go a long way in hammering home a point.
Fox News’ hosts and producers know this better than anyone. Few if any of the hearing’s substantive takeaways made it into Fox’s coverage on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, so intent was the network on depicting Mueller as America’s saddest grandpa. “Halfway through the hearing I was waiting for [Mueller] to reach under their table, pull out his thermos, and pour himself a bowl of soup. This was tragic,” radio host Chris Plante told Tucker Carlson. “[Rep. Jerrold] Nadler should be charged with senior abuse for what we witnessed today.”
Near the end of his program, Carlson reiterated this so-called elder abuse narrative, as if Mueller were a homebound invalid being drained of his savings by his unscrupulous children. “I’m not sympathetic to Mueller personally, I’ll be honest, but watching him today, I felt sorry for him. Do you think Democrats knew his condition and forced him to come anyway?” Carlson asked Rep. James Sensenbrenner. “That’s my read on it.” Noted!
Sean Hannity followed Carlson’s lead during his eponymous Wednesday night program, which he spent taking an hourlong victory lap alongside some of the worst take-havers in modern politics. “The guy wasn’t in charge,” Rudy Giuliani told Hannity. “We went to one meeting together with Bob Mueller in a year and a half. He didn’t know he couldn’t indict the president, and it took two days to get him to say that. He was not in charge. It’s painfully obvious.” Sen. Lindsey Graham joined the fun a few minutes later. “One thing I can tell you after today: The ‘Mueller report’ is in name only,” Graham told Hannity. “It clearly wasn’t the Mueller report. It’s just a name. I had more to do with the Mueller report than probably he did. And you know what bothers me a lot? People around Bob Mueller knew he was in a weakened state. This guy served in Vietnam, got wounded, done a lot of great things for the country. He should not have been called.”
On Laura Ingraham’s show, former independent counsel Kenneth Starr took his turn jabbing at Mueller. “I was stunned and then I was shocked by Bob’s inability to focus, to show that he understood the questions, the constant ‘please repeat the question,’ ” Starr said. “He was in a state of befuddlement which became, I think, embarrassing.” A little bit later, historian Victor Davis Hanson advanced the befuddlement narrative in his typically pompous manner. “He reminded me in a tragic way of the Lord of the Rings figure King Théoden, who’s befuddled. He’s a king, but he has no idea where he is,” said Hanson. “He wasn’t like James Comey, who went into the House Intelligence Committee on 250 occasions and said he didn’t know or he couldn’t remember. Robert Mueller really couldn’t remember. He didn’t know.”
Fox News generally is not in the business of inventing stories out of thin air. The network’s epistemic distortions are subtler than that. Through selective editing, emphasis, and omission, Fox constructs a demented facsimile of the actual news, and then reports it incessantly, for days, weeks, months, and years, until viewers lose their bearings. This is how a long line of Central American asylum-seekers becomes a fearful “migrant caravan” marching to invade the U.S. border just in time for the midterm elections. This is how the Steele dossier morphs into the lodestar of the “real” Russia conspiracy. This is also how Robert Mueller becomes an invalid.
To Fox and its viewers, Mueller’s purported feebleness just goes to show that the former FBI director was a pawn of his staff—specifically Andrew Weissmann, a longtime DOJ lawyer whose attendance at Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election night party has been inflated by Fox News into proof that he is the prime mover in a Democratic attempt to overthrow the presidency. “It was also clear from the hearing today that Weissmann must have been the driving force in all of this,” Rep. Louie Gohmert told Carlson on Wednesday night. (“Exactly. Exactly. And I think that’s been clear for a long time, but it was crystal clear today,” Carlson replied.) “ ‘The great and powerful Mueller’ was not,” Gregg Jarrett told Hannity. “He wasn’t in charge of this investigation, he didn’t write the report, he didn’t sit in on interviews. Who was in charge? Andrew Weissmann was in charge.”
Repetition, inversion, distortion. This is how Weissmann, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Christopher Steele become avatars of criminal mendacity, while Roger Stone is held up as a martyr potentially facing life in prison “for telling minor and totally irrelevant lies—allegedly—that hurt no one,” as Carlson put it Wednesday night; this is how ghouls like Gohmert and Dan Bongino are portrayed as titans of logic and probity, while the few dissenting voices allowed on-air are played for comic relief. (I found it notable that afternoon host Shepard Smith, the network’s foremost voice of reason, hardly mentioned the Mueller hearings on either his truncated Wednesday program or his full Thursday program.) On The Ingraham Angle, designated Democratic panelist Chris Hahn was laughed at by Ingraham and Bongino for accurately referring to the hearings as “a mixed bag,” and was chided when he noted that America still has an election security problem that Republicans are reluctant to address. “Here he goes with the election stuff,” Bongino muttered.
“Next up: OK, this is going to be fun,” Ingraham said moments later. “Our body language expert is here to break down Mueller’s testimony. Oh, my goodness—what will she find? Stay there.”
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