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Analysis: Fox and right-wing media snap to Trump's defense after FBI search

Fox News Channel and other conservative media largely leapt to former President Donald Trump's defense after the FBI searched his Mar-a-Lago resort. Here, Fox star and ally Sean Hannity (L) interviews Trump before a campaign rally in 2018 in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller
Getty Images
Fox News Channel and other conservative media largely leapt to former President Donald Trump's defense after the FBI searched his Mar-a-Lago resort. Here, Fox star and ally Sean Hannity (L) interviews Trump before a campaign rally in 2018 in Las Vegas.

After FBI agents executed a search warrant at the Florida estate of former President Donald Trump, conservative outlets and media personalities immediately swung to defend him — and to sharply attack the Biden administration.

From Fox News, to Newsmax, to PJ Media, to the Blaze, to the wilds of right-wing talk radio, YouTube, blogs and social media, the line was consistent. The rhetoric was clear, it was dark, and even, at times, apocalyptic.

"It almost feels like a pre-emptive coup," conservative talk show host Buck Sexton told Fox News' Jesse Watters last night.

"This is so wrong, so tyrannical," said right-wing YouTube and Blaze commentator Steven Crowder on a video call for "war" that had more than 600,000 views in eight hours. "There needs to be a hill you're willing to die on. This is it." (Crowder added he was not calling for actual violence, then called for his viewers to fight fire with fire.)

"What the Biden administration did today was a shot between the eyes of this Republic," Fox News host Mark Levin told listeners of his Westwood One radio program. Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and CPAC, wrote for Fox that the incident showed the U.S. had become a "Third World country."

Former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik told Newsmax he believed Democrats would try to assassinate the former president.

Except for those few pockets of conservative media that are wary or even hostile toward Trump, the coverage blotted out almost all question of what was being investigated in favor of outrage over the investigation itself. As one caption on Fox News memorably put it: "BIDEN'S FBI RANSACKS HOME OF POTENTIAL 2024 OPPONENT."

The way the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago was depicted on these outlets played directly into Trump's rhetoric against the so-called "Deep State" stretching back to his earliest campaign days in 2015 — his attacks on government officials and professionals as ideologues entrenched in the federal bureaucracy.

For the record, the White House has said President Biden learned of the search from media reports and, as of late Tuesday afternoon, had not been briefed on the investigation by the Justice Department. No credible reporting has surfaced to contradict those claims.

Biden and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland have, in repeated separate interviews, said that the Justice Department operates independently on such matters. Indeed, some on the left repeatedly have accused Garland of failing to act with sufficient muscle to prosecute Trump.

Right-wing defenses ignored the ironies that abounded

It is an unprecedented step to send FBI agents to search a former president's property without prior notice. Even those legal commentators critical of Trump have said federal prosecutors will have to explain and justify their actions.

Yet these are unprecedented times. Trump is in serious legal and political jeopardy as a result of investigations occurring in New York, Fulton County, Ga., the halls of Congress and the Justice Department. And he has repeatedly been found to fall short of complying with required disclosures to courts and Congressional oversight.

The conservative defenses largely ignored the ironies that abounded. Trump rose to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination amid chants of "Lock Her Up!" — the encapsulation of Trump's stated desire that his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, be jailed. Many of Trump's most adamant defenders in the past 24 hours — on TV and on the 2022 campaign trail — have wrapped themselves in the mantle of law and order.

No matter.

The pro-Trump line was not guaranteed to play out this way. In recent weeks, under its controlling owners, Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, Fox News had gently inched away from Trump. It gave his speeches far less air time. It devoted fawning and extensive coverage to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely rival for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2024.

Why? The House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has cast a particularly severe light on Trump's actions and inaction. Two multi-billion lawsuits are forcing the network to reckon with the lies about a stole election being peddled on its airwaves.(Fox has offered a full-throated defense invoking the First Amendment.) And Rupert Murdoch had never held Trump in high regard. It was always an alliance of convenience.

Yet that alliance re-emerged with a vengeance last night. For the five hours after news of the search emerged, a roster of conservative Fox hosts led a march of outrage, often with guests even more outspoken that their hosts.

Fox's Sean Hannity, one of Trump's closest advisers, said President Biden was wielding the Justice Department against his most formidable election foe.

No distinction between Trump campaign and Fox stars

"When we get power back, it's time to hold everyone accountable — the military leadership, the civilian leadership, the civil service, those in Congress who have abused their power — all of them have to be held accountable," said Fox's Laura Ingraham. "All of them."

No distinction there either between the "we" of the Trump campaign and Fox's biggest stars. Guests included Stephen Miller, Trump's former chief domestic policy adviser.

Just past midnight this morning, on the first news program handling the story, anchor Shannon Bream broke down the story with three legal analysts. One, University of California at Berkeley law professor John Yoo, was considered a firebrand conservative as a senior Justice Department official under then President George W. Bush. Another, Mike Davis, served Bush in the Justice Department and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. The third, John Iannarelli, is a former senior FBI agent who has spoken at conservative gatherings.

Fox's Baier calls the search "a political bombshell"

That said, Bream herself noted, "This doesn't just happen overnight. Any DOJ or FBI, any administration is going to want to be exceptionally careful. This FBI has clearly made, and this attorney general has made, the calculation that they think they have enough [evidence] to move forward and risk the political optics of this."

And chief political anchor Bret Baier on Tuesday called the search a "political bombshell."

Even so, the network's media commentator, Joe Concha, told Fox & Friends viewers that the Justice Department should charge Trump with a crime now. "Otherwise, raids like this smell like... partisan BS," Concha said.

It fell to Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy, a Trump favorite, to point out that FBI Director Christopher Wray — who oversaw those agents — had been nominated by Trump in 2017.

The way Fox News frames such matters has deep implications for Republican party politics, the various strands of the fractured conservative political movement, and Trump's own camp. It also serves up potential talking points for millions of Trump supporters who are adrift, angry, and anticipating his return to power.

Loyalty to Trump — at least for now — has once more emerged as the paramount concern in right-wing media.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.