Fox News was made for this moment
Melissa Joskow / Media Matters President Donald Trump forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday afternoon. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which under the auspices of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has marched ever-closer to Trump’s inner circle, is now in jeopardy, threatened by a president who wishes for the Justice Department to defend him like his personal lawyers would. “At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions wrote in an undated letter to the president released today, making clear that he was not leaving by choice. Sessions had angered Trump by recusing himself from the federal investigation into Russia’s interference into the 2016 presidential election. That probe grew into Mueller’s investigation, which has led to dozens of indictments and plea deals, including for Trump’s former campaign chair and former national security adviser. While the probe went dark in the weeks before the election, Mueller was expected to take additional steps now that the midterms had passed, including possibly indicting Donald Trump, Jr. With Sessions recused, the path to stopping Mueller went through Rosenstein. But with Sessions out, his replacement will oversee the probe. Trump announced on Twitter that he has named Justice Department official Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, presumably giving him the power to curtail Mueller’s investigation or remove the special counsel entirely. Whitaker’s opinion of the probe is no secret. In an August 2017 piece for CNN.com before he joined the administration, he called for Rosenstein to “limit the scope” of the investigation and prevent Mueller from looking into Trump’s finances. Appearing on CNN the previous month, he mused about a scenario in which Sessions was replaced by someone who “doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.” Now he will have the opportunity to do that himself. The ultimate cause for Trump ousting Sessions is the president’s authoritarian view of law enforcement as a tool to enforce his own will, wedded to a Fox News propaganda apparatus that encourages that twisted perspective. As I wrote in April: Since the Mueller investigation began, … Fox’s audience has been tuning in daily to an alternative narrative in which Trump and his associates are being unfairly pursued for crimes that never occurred, the victims of a vast conspiracy by Justice Department and FBI officials, Democrats, and the mainstream press. The entire network is responsible for turning its audience against the rule of law, and nearly every program has to some degree engaged in this activity. But a relative handful of players has been the dominating force in the effort, employing apocalyptic rhetoric that constantly finds new heights. Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, and Jeanine Pirro have led Fox’s effort to lay the groundwork for the president to finally follow through on an authoritarian solution to the Mueller problem. All are vocal propagandists with close ties to Trump who regularly call for purges of the Justice Department and FBI in order to remove elements they view as insufficiently loyal to him. Night after night, the hosts have been telling the same unified story of the Mueller probe’s illegitimacy, enlisting a small circle of discredited journalists, Trumpist lawmakers, and hack lawyers to bellow about the smear of the day. Meanwhile, the president has been paying attention. He has watched their shows, tweeted about segments he enjoyed, sought their private counsel, and sometimes taken their advice on the probe, creating a durable feedback loop that drives Fox’s anti-Mueller conspiracy theories into the rest of the news cycle. Every high-level law enforcement official involved in the Russia investigation has come under Fox figures’ scrutiny at one time or another. But Sessions has been a special focus for their invective. A replacement who is more willing to comply with Trump’s wishes could strangle the probe, ensuring that it doesn’t get closer to the Oval Office. And so the members of the president’s Fox cabinet have been slamming Sessions and accusing him of “betray[ing] the president.” Pirro, Dobbs, and Gregg Jarrett have all called for his removal. Trump, at long last, has taken their advice. Now, he’s counting on them to help him get away with what he’s done. Bill Shine former top Fox executive and current White House deputy chief of staff for communications, is the perfect fit to lead a disinformation campaign aimed at weaponizing the right-wing echo chamber to defend the president. And in Fox, Shine will have an eager network willing to carry water for this administration because that's what Fox was designed to do. When President Richard Nixon resigned from office in disgrace, his acolytes blamed the media. Roger Ailes, who served as an advisor on Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign and helped sell him to the American people, founded Fox almost three decades later with the slogan “fair and balanced,” a not-so-subtle jab at the “liberal" press that had hounded his boss from the White House. As the years passed, Fox grew in power and influence, becoming the communications arm of the Republican Party and a dominant force in the party’s internal debates. The network has been an incubator for GOP talking points, a steady paycheck for former and current party officials, a launching pad for right-wing movements, and the battleground for the party’s presidential primaries. And now, with Trump in complete control of the GOP and shaping it in his own image, Fox has become a powerful propaganda tool, ready and willing to protect the president at all costs. “Nixon didn’t have Fox News in his corner,” The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote in April. “President Trump does — and that might make all the difference if he were to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein or even special counsel Robert S. 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.” The same is true for Sessions’ removal, which puts Mueller’s probe in similar jeopardy. The president is betting that Fox’s support will be enough to help him survive a move that likely ends with the crippling of Mueller’s investigation. We’re about to find out if he’s right.