Monday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing delivered a trifecta of bad news for President Donald Trump.
Comey confirmed that neither the FBI nor the Department of Justice has any evidence to support Trump’s wayward tweets that claimed former President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
And thirdly, the White House’s wholly unsubstantiated claim that British intelligence had wiretapped Trump at Obama’s request was completely undercut by National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers. “That would be expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes agreement that has been in place for decades,” he said, referencing a decades-old agreement that the U.S. has with Britain and other allies “who share virtually all intelligence — and pledge not to practice their craft on one another.”
The highly anticipated hearing represented an across-the-board public debunking of Trump. But does the president even care?
Trump might not, simply because he’s shown himself to be allergic to facts. He’s quickly constructed his own alternate reality within the White House and increasingly relies not on U.S. intelligence for guidance, information, and raw data, but instead gets his information from Fox News, Breitbart, Infowars, and talk radio, among others.
It was a Breitbart article about a right-wing radio rant that sparked Trump’s initial fantastic claim about Obama wiretapping Trump Tower. And it was subsequent baseless speculation on Fox News that prompted the White House to push the ridiculous notion that Obama teamed up with the British to undermine Trump.
Tumbling down a rabbit hole filled with baseless conspiracy theories — and desperately trying to grab onto any stray root to bolster his case — Trump has replaced rational discourse with debunked assertions. And he’s trying to lead America into the same dark cavern of misinformation where facts are unknowable and the truth represents a constant mirage.
The results? A deeply disturbing situation where Trump not only devotes substantial time to watching Fox News, but also bases his official actions (and unsupported allegations) around what he sees on the conservative network.
It’s one thing for Trump to use Fox News as a sounding board and pick up the rhetoric its conservative hosts and guests use. The Republican Party has been doing that for close to 20 years now, and Trump’s done it, too. “He is the Fox News president!” Fox host Greg Gutfeld marveled last week about Trump. “Everything that he says, we've said.”
But what’s unfolding now is something else entirely: Trump’s using Fox News and other conservative media as some sort of de facto intelligence gathering agency. In this scenario, Fox and other Trump propagandists have moved beyond their role of cheerleaders and administration defenders and become a trusted source of intel, even when the intel comes in the form of secondhand gossip from a TV analyst who’s a 9/11 truther.
This represents a whole new level of malfeasance for the Republican Party.
If we go back to the last GOP president, of course George W. Bush’s administration used Fox to its advantage and benefited from the network’s around-the-clock, flag-waving support for the Iraq War and its constant attacks on anyone who opposed the invasion.
But Bush didn’t premise the invasion on reports he saw on Fox News about supposed weapons of mass destruction being allegedly stockpiled by Saddam Hussein. And when pressed to defend the invasion, Bush didn’t tell reporters to go talk to Fox News for insights about what led to the war.
That’s simply not what Fox was built for. It’s a propaganda machine, not an information-gathering one.
Today, a befuddled Fox News seems shocked that the president of the United States takes seriously the on-air musings of a Fox commentator. Thrust into an unwanted spotlight over the absurd claim of British involvement in the alleged wiretapping of Trump, Fox has shifted into damage control mode.
Last week, network anchor Shepard Smith tried to put some distance between Fox and the breaking scandal when he announced, “Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-president of the United States was surveilled at any time in any way, full stop.”
But the explosive story has only escalated since then, culminating in direct and public rebuttals from the NSA and the FBI. So now Fox has taken Napolitano off the air “indefinitely,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
You almost get the feeling that Fox executives want to take Trump aside and remind him it’s all an act, that most of the harebrained schemes promoted on Fox News are just grist for the outrage mill. They’re not really supposed to be taken seriously, and good grief, they’re not supposed to be acted upon by our nation’s commander-in-chief.
But they are.
As Erik Wemple noted at The Washington Post, “There was a time when a guy like Judge Andrew Napolitano could make some marginal remarks on Fox News, and only a large plume of non-White House officials would take him seriously. Perhaps a website or two would pick up on them.”
But today, any passing comment or rant that airs on Fox News, no matter how detached from reality, can conceivably be embraced as White House policy.
As journalist Toure noted, that’s a frightening prospect:
For the good of the nation, Fox hosts should be careful when they speak. The President is watching. And he’ll believe ANYTHING you guys say.
— Touré (@Toure) March 20, 2017