Fox News is pro­vid­ing cover for Mueller fir­ing

The Day - - OPINION - MAR­GARET SUL­LI­VAN The Wash­ing­ton Post

For Richard Nixon, the “Satur­day Night Mas­sacre” was the be­gin­ning of the end.

The na­tion fi­nally turned against the em­bat­tled pres­i­dent af­ter he forced out — on Oct. 20, 1973 — the at­tor­ney gen­eral and his deputy who re­fused to get rid of the spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor in­ves­ti­gat­ing him. A week later, for the first time, a plu­ral­ity of Amer­i­cans fa­vored im­peach­ment. And 10 months later, he re­signed.

But Nixon didn’t have Fox News in his cor­ner.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump does. That might make all the dif­fer­ence if he were to fire Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein or even spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller III. The pro-Trump me­dia, led by Fox, would give cover, and huge swaths of Amer­i­cans would be en­cour­aged to be­lieve that the ac­tion was not only jus­ti­fied but ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary. You can see it com­ing. Night af­ter night — for many months — Trump’s syco­phant-in-chief, Sean Han­nity, has been soft­en­ing the ground. And his mes­sage is sink­ing in. In a re­cent Reuters/Ip­sos poll, three of four Repub­li­cans said they be­lieved the Jus­tice Depart­ment and the FBI are ac­tively work­ing to un­der­mine Trump.

“Han­nity has been poi­son­ing the well for Mueller’s ‘deeply cor­rupt’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion and lay­ing the ground­work to sup­port the pres­i­dent if he seeks an au­thor­i­tar­ian re­course,” wrote Matthew Gertz, of the pro­gres­sive watch­dog group Me­dia Mat­ters for Amer­ica. That was back in Oc­to­ber.

Six months, five con­vic­tions and more than a dozen in­dict­ments later, that poi­son has done its job.

And the doses of pro­pa­ganda keep com­ing.

“This man’s track record is atro­cious,” Han­nity ranted one evening last week about Mueller, call­ing his in­ves­ti­ga­tion “the big­gest abuseof-power scan­dal in the coun­try’s his­tory.”

He spent part of his show try­ing to ex­plain away a pre­vi­ous day’s ap­palling graphic, de­pict­ing “the Mueller Crime Fam­ily,” which had brought rea­son­able crit­i­cism from the re­al­ity-based press. Then he brought on for­mer Trump aide and noted Is­lam­o­phobe Se­bas­tian Gorka, who read­ily tore into a for­mer FBI di­rec­tor and the main­stream me­dia: “James Comey is a liar, and CNN is a bunch of per­verts.”

The ful­mi­na­tion finds a ready au­di­ence: Fox News re­mains the most-watched ca­ble news net­work and Han­nity is its big­gest star. (He has had, for many months, the top-rated ca­ble show, though it has been edged out in re­cent weeks by MSNBC’s left-lean­ing Rachel Mad­dow.)

That’s not to say that Fox, which has been on air since 1996, is the most trusted of the three; a re­cent poll sug­gests oth­er­wise. Even Fox in­sid­ers cringe, and some­times quit. Just weeks ago, the con­ser­va­tive for­mer Army lieu­tenant colonel Ralph Peters left his post as a Fox con­trib­u­tor, ex­press­ing dis­gust in a res­ig­na­tion let­ter that was leaked to Buz­zFeed.

“To­day, I feel that Fox News is as­sault­ing our con­sti­tu­tional or­der and the rule of law, while fos­ter­ing cor­ro­sive and un­jus­ti­fied para­noia among view­ers,” Peters wrote.

And some of Fox’s own edi­to­rial em­ploy­ees have told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that they are mor­ti­fied by the Mueller cov­er­age.

It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble, of course, that Trump won’t take the dras­tic ac­tion of fir­ing ei­ther Rosen­stein or Mueller, though his spokes­woman as­serted just days ago that he be­lieves he has ev­ery right to do so and his for­mer Sven­gali, Steve Ban­non, is re­port­edly push­ing in that di­rec­tion.

Even with the ap­proval of Trump’s base, the move would be po­lit­i­cally risky and might not ac­com­plish much any­way: The in­ves­ti­ga­tion would go on.

But if he does, there will be a cheer­ing sec­tion. Though Fox has the big­gest mega­phone, it’s far from alone in its cam­paign to dis­credit Mueller. Bre­it­bart News, for ex­am­ple, touted a story last week at the top of its home page that opined, “Mueller is now much more widely seen, not as a man in­ves­ti­gat­ing a le­git­i­mate crime, but as a zeal­ous pros­e­cu­tor in­ves­ti­gat­ing a man in the hopes of find­ing a crime that will over­turn a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.”

Last Novem­ber, a widely cir­cu­lated Vox piece posited an alarm­ing sce­nario in which Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion would find se­ri­ous wrong­do­ing by Trump but re­sult in no con­se­quences amid Amer­ica’s tribal pol­i­tics.

“Say the en­tire right-wing me­dia ma­chine kicks to life and dis­misses the whole thing as a scam and con­ser­va­tives be­lieve them,” it sug­gested. “The con­ser­va­tive base re­mains com­mit­ted to Trump, politi­cians re­main scared to cross the base, and U.S. pol­i­tics re­mains stuck in par­ti­san paral­y­sis, un­able to act on what Mueller dis­cov­ers.”

The same dy­namic might hold if Trump were to fire Rosen­stein or even Mueller.

Mil­lions of Amer­i­cas might take to the streets, but just as many would be nod­ding their ap­proval from their liv­ing rooms, with Fox and its rat­ings star Han­nity lead­ing the ap­plause.

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