Bret Baier, Fox’s top “news” anchor, promoted the right-wing messaging around the Durham investigation – even as his own guests repeatedly debunked the supposedly big story.
It’s a complicated story but Media Matters does a good job of summarizing the nothingburger that Fox News wants to turn into Watergate – just as Donald Trump gets in ever hotter water that the network would prefer to ignore:
In a February 12 statement, former President Donald Trump falsely asserted that new findings from special counsel John Durham “provides indisputable evidence that [his] campaign and presidency were spied on by operatives paid by the Hillary Clinton Campaign.” Soon after, right-wing outlets picked up the story, echoing Trump’s lies as an opportunity to revive a years-long obsession with unproven claims that former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton illegally spied on the Trump campaign. However, this hysteria ginned up by conservative media appears to actually be a combination of “mostly wrong or old news.”
Murdoch-owned outlets especially have been pushing this narrative. Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post have all repeated the “Trump was spied on” angle in response to the pretrial motion filed by Durham against Michael A. Sussmann, a former Democratic Party lawyer.
Media Matters also has a good roundup of Fox lies and distortions on the matter, including host Jesse Watters describing Hillary Clinton as a “certified political criminal” and suggesting the Clinton campaign’s alleged plot to link Trump with Russia did more “damage” than the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
You may recall that when Fox News honchos pleaded with the Democrats to hold a presidential primary debate on the network, they described Baier, along with Chris Wallace and Martha MacCallum as “embody[ing] the ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism.” Since then, Wallace has left the network and MacCallum got a demotion in order to put a more opinionated, i.e. Trumpier show in her timeslot. It has now been taken over by the aforementioned Jesse Watters.
Baier has enough scruples or concern for his reputation to keep him from lying outright. But he also knows he owes his paycheck to keeping the MAGA crowd happy. So here’s how he suggested the MAGA lies were valid while discounting the truth as opinion:
First, Baier suggested that the Durham “revelations” are all a matter of interpretation of an important, ongoing investigation. Then he weaponized that against the mainstream media for not making this a huge story like Fox is:
BAIER: It depends on what you were looking at, or what you were reading, how to interpret the results of the latest finding by John Durham in the investigation into the Trump-Russia probe. It is still coming out. We are still learning more. However, the revelations did not sit well with some in the mainstream media. Some downplayed them. Others just ignored them.
Baier then neatly skipped over the “findings” and played several clips of other media figures noting their lack of substance.
Baier next turned to former United States attorney Andrew McCarthy to address the lack of coverage.
McCarthy jumped on the mainstream media demonizing – and then immediately affirmed that there’s no there there:
MCCARTHY: I think there ought to be a lot more coverage, Bret, because it's very alarming. But you do have to keep reminding yourself that the only thing that Durham has alleged at this point is in connection with Michael Sussmann, the Democratic Party-connected lawyer, the only thing he has alleged is that he misled the FBI about who his clients were. He hasn't even alleged that the information that they brought to him was in any way fraudulent, although it has been suggested that it's misleading.
And Durham is operating from a premise that the government officials were duped, not that they were in on it. I think if you're going to have a Watergate-style bonanza of a conspiracy, and we'll have to see what Durham's final product looks like, but you would think that the government officials in that kind of an arrangement would be driving the train. And here what Durham is basically saying is that they were saps.
Let me pause to note that Baier and other hosts have a pretty good idea of what their guests will say. He also likely has a lot of input in who those guests are. So it’s also quite likely Baier was putting on a show of playing the Good MAGA Cop when he pushed McCarthy to hype the “most troubling” part of the allegation:
BAIER: Yes, but, Andy, when you look at that, that filing, what's, number one, most troubling to you? And number two, how do you read it? Is this an effort to get Sussmann to help and assist and go bigger?
Again, McCarthy deflated the balloon:
MCCARTHY: Any prosecutor wants to have somebody cooperate and go higher. So that's always thrumming in the mix. But what I see, Bret, is that there's an interesting allegation that's made, but it doesn't change the underlying facts of the case. And from Sussmann's perspective, at least from his lawyers are saying, they think it's a weak false statements case because it's only Sussmann and the FBI's general counsel in the room, so it's one guy's recollection against the others. It's not transcribed, it's not recorded, and they think that James Baker, the FBI's general counsel, has made different versions of what happened on different occasions.
Baier was not deterred. He moved on to panelist Hugh Hewitt:
BAIER: The Wall Street Journal has this: "Trump really was spied on. White House communications are supposed to be secure, and the notion that any contractor -- much less one with ties to a presidential campaign -- could access them is alarming enough. The implication that the data was exploited for a political purpose is a scandal that requires investigation under oath. The unfold information underscores that the Russia collusion story was one of the dirtiest tricks in U.S. political history. Mr. Durham should tell the whole sordid story."
And Hugh, the question is, will he, and when?
Hewitt drew Watergate analogies but he also pretty much acknowledged the whole thing will likely fizzle out.
HEWITT: Well, it depends on Mr. Sussmann. It seems to me that the analogy that Sussmann is, he's either going to be John Dean, who was the desk officer for Watergate who rolled over and made a deal with the prosecutors and brought everyone down, or he's going to be G. Gordon Liddy and the only people who are going to get penalized for this are him, and Perkins partners aren't going to have to pay any liability.
But if Sussman doesn't say anything, I think what Andy just said about the fact that it's a one-on-one conversation with the FBI general counsel in a weak false statements case, right now Sussmann is staying very strong, silent, and pushing back. So I just don't have a lot of optimism that this goes big unless he rolls over like John Dean did and rat everyone out.
Panelist Mara Liasson was another doubter.
LIASSON: Yes, we don't know if there's anybody to rat out. That's the problem. This is one little piece of an investigation. So far, as you've just explained, the only crime that has been alleged is a false statement to the FBI. We've got to see what Durham comes up with, if anything.
Finally, panelist Tom Bevan got back on total MAGA message, not by actually validating the Durham “bombshell” but by seeming to do so by excoriating the rest of the media for not taking seriously the “big news” that everybody had just acknowledged isn’t.
BEVAN: The media double standard here is absolutely glaring. As you mentioned, Bret, no time spent on any of the networks. "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" didn't even cover it until today when they each spent about 1,500 words defending it, downplaying it, explaining why it wasn't a big deal, after we just spent years and years of the media running with far less. If this was any sort of filing regarding Donald Trump is all we would be hearing about from the media day in and day out. And so that to me is the troubling issue here. The media has again revealed itself as putting their thumb on the scale for one side and not the other.
You can see how Fox’s “news” division legitimizes BS below, from the February 15, 2022 Special Report.
Watch the latest video at foxnews.com
'Special Report' panelists debate the fallout from the allegations surrounding the Durham investigation.
Regarding the non-story of the Durham mention, there really isn’t much to it. Durham was just discussing how as part of his examination and interviewing, he was finding that there had been plenty of pings of I believe American phones contacting Russian phones/contacts/IMs. Not actual surveillance of content so much as contact pings. And most of this was from individuals in President Obama’s White House (which I believe is based on typical diplomacy and business between our countries). They had also noted a bunch of activity pinging the Russian contacts from the Trump campaign, and the Durham interviewee apparently turned that information over to the FBI, which is frankly normal procedure. (I believe the pings are tracked based on the receiver, which is how Flynn got caught in his malfeasance – ie that they weren’t wiretapping Trump Tower but instead catching contacts to Russians and tracing them BACK to Trump Tower and phones like Flynn’s.) Durham added that he believed the person who found the Trump Campaign pings and passed them to the FBI was doing so in an improper way, that he was using his access to information not publicly available rather than staying in his lane at that time. The person involved sounds like they worked at that time (in the 2016 race) in support of an arm of Clinton’s campaign. The point is, when they catch what look like suspicious/shady activity, cops tend to report it. If they didn’t, we would think THAT was corrupt.
I note that nothing in Durham’s update says anything about Hillary Clinton being involved or even knowing about this bit of normal procedure as it was happening. Nothing in the update says anything about anyone being arrested or indicted for this. Nothing in the update gives any indication of anything more than a little more background information around Durham’s discussion of one man, Michael Sussmann, who has been charged with lying to the FBI. Sussmann disputes this and says he believes Durham is trying to “inflame media coverage” with what looks like a gratuitous mention that does not carry any charges. The mention of the pings is in a subsection of the update and it’s indicated that this area has been looked at and is already in the rear view mirror.
So we have Durham issuing an update with a bit of tech-wonk detail which basically says he has no further charges or indictments at this time. That’s it. Except that angry Right Wingers are having a week where they need something, anything to get attention away from actual news events they’d prefer you didn’t notice. Such as the Pence White House failing to prevent the January 6 Committee from gaining access to their papers. And the spectacular revelation that Pence’s childish former spokesman regularly tried to conceal classified documents (including his theft of 15 boxes of such materials and his transport of the stolen goods to Mar-a-lago) and to destroy other classified materials by tearing them up and/or flushing them down the White House toilets. And then we have this week’s bombshell – that the Trump organization’s longtime accountants are running, not walking away from the Trumps, including the accountants publicly stating that Trump’s financials are fraudulent, and the accountants turning over what look like hundreds of thousands of papers to the New York Attorney General. And that’s without getting into all the fraudulent schemes being regularly uncovered about how angry Right Wing Trump supporters attempted to overturn the 2020 Election in various ways, including the assembly of illegitimate “electors” for states that they lost.
Given that, it’s clear why angry Right Wingers want to push their latest Durham “bombshell”. It’s partly the usual reason – putting out a vague threat to everyone that angry Right Wingers want their revenge for all the Mueller indictments and both impeachments of Pence’s childish former spokesman. (And we can absolutely expect the GOP to attempt to do a revenge impeachment of President Biden and possibly of VP Harris should they retake the Congressional majorities in November) But it’s mostly to give them something to repeatedly shout while clapping their hands over their ears so they don’t hear the actual news.
The Durham update is absolutely not “Way Worse Than Watergate” by any means. Durham’s update is about DOJ procedure and progress in a minor and disputed case of one man who may or may not have said something untrue to the FBI. As opposed to the Trump Campaign and Pence White House minions who were caught red-handed in all kinds of criminal behavior and then pleaded their cases down to just misleading the FBI so they could get lighter prison time. Or the matter of the Watergate scandal, where angry Right Wingers in the Nixon White House were caught in multiple illegal acts, after the exposure of their burglary of the DNC HQ and their attempts to plant bugs. The Watergate “plumbers” were not involved in a DOJ investigation into foreign interference and computer hacks – they were simple burglars who got caught. (I note that angry Right Wingers repeatedly tried to dismiss the Watergate scandal back in the day, and some are continuing that propaganda even today. John O’Connor has made a cottage industry of trying to change the Watergate narrative and rewrite the history into one that Right Wingers can tell their kids rather than the truth – and he’s part of the new push to reframe Watergate and attack Hillary Clinton. I also note that angry Right Wingers with money made sure to reward the Watergate burglars for their “service” – for example, G. Gordon Liddy made millions and enjoyed celebrity status for decades after his imprisonment.)
But angry Right Wingers are hoping you won’t know any of that. And they’re hoping that they can intimidate and bully their enemies by threatening them with “execution” based on nothing. We should not take this lightly. If the GOP retake Congress this November, we must expect them to initiate revenge actions. And if an angry Right Wing GOP man retakes the White House in 2024 with angry Right Wing majorities in Congress, things could get far worse. We already saw what could happen when Fox News pundits had their way in the Pence White House as well as the W/Cheney disaster of the 2000s. The damage done by the epic deliberate mismanagement intended to prove “government can’t get anything done”, by the fumbling of a deadly pandemic, by all the emboldening of bigotry and hatred. At this point, Fox News is rushing to catch up to the farthest rightward fringe nonsense from web outlets like Newsmax. What happens when US policy is driven by Newsmax? Will we recognize this country after that?