Here's how Fox News is spinning the Mueller report

Here's how Fox News is spinning the Mueller report


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

On April 18, the Department of Justice released a 448-page redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Since the report’s release, Fox News has been spinning its findings to appear favorable to President Donald Trump.

Although Mueller didn’t officially charge Trump, the report is still widely seen as “a “brutal indictment of his campaign and his presidency.” According to NBC News, the first volume of the report “details how Trump and his allies solicited, encouraged, accepted and benefited from the assistance provided by America’s most storied foreign adversary as part of a multi-front assault on American democracy.” The second volume “lays out comprehensive evidence that the president may have obstructed justice through what Mueller described as a ‘pattern of conduct’ that included firing FBI Director Jim Comey, trying to remove Mueller, publicly praising and condemning witnesses, and seeking to limit the scope of the probe.” In short, the report tells a story of “a president who used nearly every power vested in his office and his persona … to cover up ties between his campaign and Russia so that he could spare himself the public humiliation of having won an election that wasn’t entirely on the level.” As NBC notes, critics argue that the report’s findings “rattle the very foundations of the American system of governance.”

However, Fox News is still working hard to keep the president in a favorable light. Fox figures have argued that Trump’s actions were justifiable because he was frustrated; have deflected from the report’s findings by pivoting to the perceived reporting errors of the media; and have falsely claimed that one can’t obstruct justice without an underlying crime. Fox figures have also continued to call for an investigation of the investigators and of the origins of the probe, and they have defended Attorney General William Barr’s questionable and highly partisan actions.

Narrative 1: Trump was cooperative and his actions were justified because he was frustrated

Fox figures are suggesting that the fact that Trump didn’t use executive privilege is evidence that he cooperated with the Mueller investigation. Fox is also arguing that Trump’s reaction when he found out about the special counsel investigation could not be perceived as guilt because it came out of frustration that it would slow down his agenda. (Barr advanced this argument of Trump’s frustration in his April 18 press conference.) Fox is also pointing to an expletive Trump used as proof that he was just worried people would see him as an illegitimate president.

Fox & Friends co-host claimed Trump said “I’m doomed” only because he had “been told that any time there’s a special counsel, it goes on and on and on for years.”

AINSLEY EARHARDT (CO-HOST): Yeah, the president sat down at his desk and said, basically, I’m doomed. I have been told that any time there’s a special counsel, it goes on and on and on for years. And he said this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/19/18]

Fox’s Dana Perino claimed that Trump “was actually quite cooperative” with the special counsel’s investigation.

DANA PERINO (HOST): I do want to ask Martha [MacCallum] about this idea about cooperation. And if we can pull up sound bite number 15, because I want to have you listen to this. And it’s interesting to me that there’s these calls about obstruction, and yet the president was actually quite cooperative — didn’t ask for executive privilege on any of the documents, allowed people to go and be interviewed. [Fox News, Daily Briefing with Dana Perino, 4/18/19]

Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich claimed that Trump didn’t say a “bad word … in the sense that he was guilty” but “in the sense that special counsel investigations or special investigations, independent counsels slow down your agendas.”

KATIE PAVLICH (FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR): You know, there’s been this out-of-context quote from the Mueller report that reporters have been talking about as a result of the release, saying that the president said he was — a bad word. He was — essentially, his presidency was over as a result of the special counsel getting launched. But he didn’t say it in the sense that he was guilty. He said it in the sense that special counsel investigations or special investigations, independent counsels slow down your agendas. [Fox News, Outnumbered Overtime, 4/18/19]

Narrative 2: The media were wrong in their reporting on the Mueller report

Fox figures are arguing that the Mueller report vindicated their accusations that the mainstream media was wrong in their reporting of the investigation, even though much of what mainstream media reported on was ultimately seen as corroborated by the final report. Various Fox figures demanded that media outlets apologize to Trump and others. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway echoed this narrative when she appeared on Fox, saying, “We’re accepting apologies today, too, for anybody who feels the grace in offering them.”

Fox & Friends guest Buck Sexton criticized other media outlets for not apologizing for “the insanity that they have been reporting” about the Mueller investigation.

AINSLEY EARHARDT (CO-HOST): Buck, you have said this is a reminder of the media getting it wrong for the last two years. Do you think the media will realize — or has realized that and will make it right or apologize? I think I know the answer.

BUCK SEXTON (TALK RADIO HOST): I’m quite sure that the media is not going to apologize and, in fact, I think what you’re seeing today Ainsley is a lot of people doubling down. There was certainly a bit of humiliation that was doled out to them when we knew that there would no charges, either on obstruction or on collusion, conspiracy once that came out. But now you are going to see a lot of media outlets that are desperate to find something in this report to justify the insanity that they have been reporting on for two years. They are going to work very hard at a kind of special interpretive analysis here to say, “Well, there weren’t charges, but look at this thing.” They are also going to dig deep into the redactions and suggest that that’s where the real collusion happened or that’s where you’ll find — I mean, it’s all nonsense and it’s all politics for them. And speaking of politics, the Democrats are going to try to use obstruction. There will be some — I don’t know if the whole party will go in this direction to create a narrative that there needs to be at least investigations going toward or hearings going toward impeachment based on the obstruction evidence but not charges that will be in this report. I think that’s pretty likely. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/18/19]

On Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume said media reporting on the Mueller investigation was “dog doo.”

TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): [The Mueller report] comes out. How can the rest of us act like our assumptions for the past two years — or their assumptions for the last two years — were ratified, were right. I mean why doesn’t the entire city of Washington stop and ask itself, “How were we so wrong?”

BRIT HUME (FOX NEWS SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST): Well, that can be attributed to the partisan divide that you see across the country and very much in Washington. There are some of us, such as those of us here at Fox News, who don’t have any of this collusion dog doo all over our shoes and never did. And so we look at this and we think to ourselves, “Well, yeah, I guess we sort of sized that up properly.” We didn’t buy into that. We didn’t make a hero out of Michael Avenatti and having him on our air a couple of hundred times and talk about what a serious presidential candidate he was. We didn’t spin every story that came along to suggest that it pointed in the direction of the collusion that was talked about endlessly. We didn’t do any of that. So there’s a big segment of us — there’s a big segment of our audience that didn’t buy into that stuff either. So none of us tonight has anything but regrets that this took up as much of our time and as much of our political air as it did as you point out. [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 4/18/19]

On his show, Carlson said, “The Mueller report is probably the single most humiliating thing that has ever happened to the White House press corps.”

TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): These are hysterical children. They should not be in journalism, but they are. In fact, they run journalism, and they have no plans on giving up their power. The Mueller report is probably the single most humiliating thing that has ever happened to the White House press corps in the history of this country. So, how did reporters in Washington respond today when it finally came out? Well, they did what they do best; they celebrated themselves. [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 4/18/19]

Fox’s Mark Levin claimed that “it’s now a matter of the American people versus the press,” adding, “I would call them the unfree press.” Levin also cast doubt on the legitimacy of the report, saying that “you have no idea” if “the report is truthful” and that it’s a “200-page op-ed” that Mueller “should never have written.”

MARK LEVIN (FOX HOST): This is political document that he should never have written. A political document that is 200 pages long that the press keeps focusing on. That’s why he and Weissmann and the others wrote it, because he knew you all — he knew CNN would be obsessed with it. He knew that MSNBC would be obsessed with it. This is an op-ed. This is a 200-page op-ed. That’s all this is.

LEVIN: This is a hack job. Now, where are we here? Where are we here? From my perspective, it’s now a matter of the American people versus the press. Or how I would call them, the unfree press. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/19/18]

Narrative 3: The report found “no obstruction”

A growing Fox narrative asserts that there’s no obstruction of justice unless there’s an underlying crime. Attorney General Barr also suggested this idea, which, according to The Washington Post, is wrong: “It’s black letter law that a defendant can satisfy the corrupt intent criterion for obstruction even if the defendant himself committed no underlying crime.” That hasn’t stopped Fox from using this talking point — Trump even tweeted a paraphrased quote from Fox host Martha MacCallum, writing, “When there is not an underlying crime with regard to Collusion (in fact, the whole thing was a made up fraud), it is difficult to say that someone is obstructing something. There was no underlying crime.”

On Fox & Friends, former independent counsel Ken Starr said that “not only was there no obstruction, there was cooperation.” Co-host Ainsley Earhardt accused the left of “shifting the narrative yet again” to obstruction.

AINSLEY EARHARDT (CO-HOST): We heard Russia, Russia, Russia. Then we heard no collusion. And now we’re hearing obstruction, obstruction, obstruction. The left is shifting the narrative yet again. Are you surprised?

KEN STARR (FORMER INDEPENDENT COUNSEL): Well, I’m not. I’m disappointed, but here’s the bottom line: Not only was there no obstruction, there was cooperation. Did the president want to cooperate? No. Did he like Bob Mueller and the whole thing? He hated it. Well, guess what? Bill Clinton hated me and hated the investigation. Ulysses S. Grant fired the special counsel. Harry Truman’s attorney general fired the special counsel. Famously, Richard Nixon fired the special counsel and the special prosecutor. You know there’s a difference between having thoughts and this is another dimension that really did surprise me: how open and frank the conversations are with the president of the United States that then become disclosed and they are now in the public domain. We used to call that executive privilege. Talk about cooperation: cooperation in all caps. Not a single, as far as we know, invocation of executive privilege when these were such private, confidential conversations that are now, obviously, embarrassing to the president and being seized upon for political purposes. But there was no obstruction here. The 10 obstructive acts just don’t add up to being an obstruction of justice in the criminal sense.[Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/19/19]

Fox News correspondent Ed Henry falsely claimed, “You can’t obstruct something if there is no underlying crime.”

ED HENRY (GUEST CO-HOST): Think about what they have said in the run-up to this. Rudy Giuliani and Jay Sekulow have said you can’t obstruct something if there is no underlying crime. So if part one of the Mueller report says there was no collusion/conspiracy coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, then there is no underlying criminal activity by the president of the United States. So then how can you say, “Well, there is no crime but you obstructed justice even though you didn’t commit a crime”? [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/18/19]

The following day, Henry again falsely claimed that there is “no obstruction there” because Trump’s aides “didn’t act on it.”

ED HENRY (FOX NEWS CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT): Well, on that incident that Brian [Kilmeade] was talking about with Don McGahn, who was White House counsel at the time, it basically talked about the president calling him up, and the report says that weekend, the president called McGahn and directed him to have the special counsel removed because of asserted conflicts of interest. McGahn did not carry out the instruction for fear of being seen as triggering another “Saturday Night Massacre” and instead prepared to resign himself. Now McGahn ultimately did not quit and the president did not follow up with McGahn on his request to have the special counsel removed. Important points there because in the end, embarrassing details for the president about how it all played out. But he didn’t act on it. McGahn didn’t act on it. So there was no removal of Robert Mueller. So no obstruction there. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/19/19]

Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade falsely asserted that Mueller found Trump wasn’t trying to obstruct the investigation.

BRIAN KILMEADE (CO-HOST): One of the big controversies I guess from the White House perspective is there will be a mass of details, according to, I think, Jonathan Swan, a great reporter on Axios, of the president unloading on — about Mueller, about [Jeff] Sessions, about Rod Rosenstein to, I guess, [former White House counsel] Don McGahn and others. I have news for you: We all heard it. We have seen it, we’ve interviewed him. We’ve read his Twitter feed. He’s doing it non-stop in front of the public eye which might have made it challenging for Robert Mueller to figure out, “Is these the rantings of an innocent man or is somebody trying to manipulate me?” And Robert Mueller’s answer is obviously no one is manipulating him. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/18/19]

Narrative 4: The investigators and origin of the Mueller investigation need to be investigated

For weeks, Fox personalities have been demanding that the origins of the investigation, Hillary Clinton, and the Obama administration be investigated. The narrative made its way to Barr’s press briefing, where Fox White House correspondent Catherine Herridge asked Barr if he will investigate the “genesis of the Russia investigation.” This right-wing narrative questions the legitimacy of the starting point of the investigation, even though the details of the investigation’s origins are public.

Speaking to Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, Fox host Sean Hannity questioned the origin of the report, asking, “Are we really to believe the origins of this as they claim?”

SEAN HANNITY: Attorney General Barr said the other day, and there was a media freakout over it, that yes, the Trump campaign was spied upon. Now it happened in a number of ways. It happened vis-a-vis the FISA warrant full of the Hillary-bought-and-paid-for, of all things Russian lies as the bulk of information, according to the Grassley-Graham memo. … Are we really to believe the origins of this as they claim was George Papadopoulos and a drink set-up? Do you believe that origin? Because that would not warrant what has just happened to this country. [Fox News, Hannity, 4/18/19]

Fox Nation host Lynette Hardaway of the Diamond and Silk duo said, “The government officials that participated … need to be brought to justice,” later adding that it’s “time to investigate the investigators.”

LYNETTE HARDAWAY (DIAMOND, FOX NATION PERSONALITY): You have to understand also that the media is trying to divert attention away from what really happened.

ROCHELLE RICHARDSON (SILK, FOX NATION PERSONALITY): Mhm.

HARDAWAY: The government officials that participated, that masterminded, that orchestrated all of this here collusion mess — they need to be brought to justice.

RICHARDSON: That’s right.

HARDAWAY: It’s time to investigate the investigators. They don’t want the issue to get out. And that’s why they are trying to divert our attention away for, and trying to push this obstruction of justice mess when there was no obstruction of justice. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/19/19]

Narrative 5: Barr was transparent and technically didn’t need to release anything at all

Some mainstream reporters have disagreed with premature reporting describing the report as “lightly redacted,” but Fox figures have repeated that phrase, with some arguing that Barr didn’t need to release a report at all and praising his transparency.

Fox anchor Shannon Bream defended Barr, saying he didn’t have to release Mueller’s report. Host Dana Perino agreed that “the attorney general didn’t have to do this at all.”

DANA PERINO (HOST): Shannon Bream, I did want to ask you about this. It’s very lightly redacted. I worked at the Justice Department for a while. I know redactions are very frustrating to people. I think we have a full screen that we can pull up that shows that they did try to provide the American people as much as they possibly could in this report. But also to your point, earlier, and we’ll repeat it here, the attorney general didn’t have to do this at all.

SHANNON BREAM (FOX NEWS ANCHOR): Yeah, there’s nothing in the statute of the regulations that require him to do this. I mean, the way that it works is that the attorney, or the special counsel has to report to the attorney general on his findings. It simply says that the attorney general has to report on those things to Congress. It could have been one page. It could have been the four-page letter he sent a couple of weeks ago. He wasn’t obligated to release this publicly or to Congress. So for people who were worried about his transparency, which he pledged to do, I would hope that many of them would look at this today, and they may still have their concerns on the issue of collusion, but each redaction is spelled out perfectly.

But what people were really wanting to dig into was obstruction, so on that volume, too, hundreds of pages there of material that is both flattering and unflattering to the president has been revealed. Barr promised when he was asked by Sen. [Jeanne] Shaheen on the Hill that he would not withhold information that could be damaging to the president. So it looks like he’s made the effort here. We’ll see if it’s enough for Congress, because as we’ve talked about, House Judiciary has already approved subpoenas and they say they’ll use them if they need to. [Fox News, The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino, 4/19/19]

Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano claimed that Barr “erred on the side of transparency.” Fox host Martha MacCallum agreed, saying that “by most standards” the report is “lightly redacted.”

MARTHA MACCALLUM: With regard to the report itself, we have a kind of cool graphic that The Wall Street Journal did that is an overview photograph of all of the pages, and you can see where the redactions are. It is, I think by most standards, fairly lightly redacted.

ANDREW NAPOLITANO (FOX SENIOR JUDICIAL ANALYST): Yes, I quite — I was wrong. I sat right here and I said half of it was going to be redacted and the more redactions, the less credibility it will have. I was very wrong. They were — erred on the side of transparency in the redactions. [Fox News, The Story with Martha MacCallum, 4/19/19]

Fox’s Catherine Herridge said that the report is “lightly redacted.”

CATHERINE HERRIDGE (FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT): I’ve been able to peel through it. It is lightly redacted and where there are redactions there is actually a statement justifying the redactions. [Fox News, America’s Newsroom, 4/18/19]

Narrative 6: Fox defended Barr against accusations that he acted unprofessionally and in a partisan manner

Since the release of the Mueller report, Barr’s actions have been called into question due to his oversimplification of the report in a four-page summary he initially released. According to The Guardian, Barr “was responsible for the decision not to prosecute Trump, despite the preponderance of evidence gathered by Mueller.” Barr’s Thursday morning press conference, held before anyone in media had seen the report, was seen as an effort to spin the report’s findings ahead of its release, raising questions about his credibility and ability to act in a nonpartisan capacity. Still, Fox figures are defending Barr, brushing off criticisms of his actions as merely stemming from Democrats’ disappointment in the results of the report.

On Outnumbered, the panelists defended Barr. Co-host Dagen McDowell called criticisms of Barr “unbridled outrage,” while co-host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery dismissed them as “clearly a Democratic talking point.”

DAGEN MCDOWELL (CO-HOST): What do you make of just the unbridled outrage toward Attorney General Bill Barr that we certainly saw in the media yesterday? Because I was talking to Robert Ray, who worked on the Whitewater investigation after Ken Starr did. And he said the argument that the attorney general varied from fair characterization of what Bob Mueller did, that notion is completely ridiculous. He knew the whole report was going to come out. And he said people are going to remember that the way this man is being disparaged, because you would be disciplined if you attacked a federal judge this way.

LISA KENNEDY MONTGOMERY (CO-HOST): And it was so clearly a Democrat talking point that was issued, and that’s why all the presidential candidates parroted it. And it’s — I don’t understand — the only thing that you can say is they were looking for something very clear and demonstrative to hang their hats on in order to impeach or at least reputationally tar the president beyond repair. And when they didn’t have that one big thing, the next thing was to go after the AG. But I don’t think that’s going to stick, either. [Fox News, Outnumbered, 4/19/19]

America’s Newsroom co-anchor Bill Hemmer said that it’s “clear” that “so many Democrats have turned their fire on Bill Barr.” His guest Tom Dupree agreed, claiming that Barr is a “target” for Democrats “who were hoping that the report would have reached a different conclusion.”

BILL HEMMER: What was clear watching the coverage yesterday is that so many Democrats have turned their fire on Bill Barr. Is that fair to say now, Tom?

TOM DUPREE (FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL): I think that is fair to say. Look, I think that there were a lot of Democrats who were hoping that the report would have reached a different conclusion, as to the underlying collusion or nonexistence of collusion with Russia. And when they didn’t get that, I think they said well, what can we do now? And I think Barr presents a target. I mean, his press conference yesterday, he explained the reasons why he reached a conclusion he did around obstruction. I think it opened him up to charges from some quarters that he was acting more as the president’s personal lawyer then rather as an impartial, neutral arbiter of the law. So, I think they see Barr as a more vulnerable target at this point, frankly, than the president. [Fox News, America’s Newsroom, 4/19/19]

Source: MM4A
Here's how Fox News is spinning the Mueller report

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