As Fox News opinion hosts have grown increasingly conspiratorial in the last week—going to ever-greater lengths than ever to defend President Donald Trump—other conservative commentators are expressing alarm at what they describe as a rising threat both to their movement and the country.
Those concerns seemed to come to a head Thursday night, when Fox host Sean Hannity was widely mocked for his logic-bending dismissal of The New York Times’ report that Trump had sought to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.
But Hannity’s coverage was just part of a wider trend, observers say. For the last week, Fox News opinion hosts have seized on claims by some Republican lawmakers about a “secret society” at the FBI and “deep state actors” to fashion unproven narratives designed to protect Trump and delegitimize Mueller.
On Wednesday night, Hannity told viewers, “The constitutional violations are severe and historically unprecedented in this country. You have deep state actors using and abusing the powerful tools of intelligence we give them to protect this country.”
On Tuesday, Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs said, “It may be time to declare war outright against the deep state and clear out the rot in the upper levels of the FBI and the Justice Department.”
Also on Tuesday, Steve Doocy credulously reported on "Fox & Friends": “Lawmakers outraged as bombshell texts from that anti-Trump FBI agent and his girlfriend suggest a secret society within the agency meant to perhaps discredit the president.”
Some Fox News reporters and news anchors have pushed back on those narratives, but it’s the opinion hosts who occupy the key morning and primetime slots, when the most viewers tune in.
“The network is increasingly engaged in a misinformation campaign aimed directly at the American people for the purposes of sowing confusing and spinning a web of protective armor around the president, who is being investigated,” said Steve Schmidt, the Republican political strategist who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Schmidt, who is also an analyst for MSNBC, said he’s noticed a marked shift on Fox in the last week, as commentators have ramped up their attacks on institutions, like the FBI, once sacred to conservatives.
“This is not normal. Not healthy in a democracy,” he said.
Stuart Stevens, the Republican who served as chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, had a similar view.
“In the 1960s, some rich white radicals attacked the justice system, ranted about government conspiracies and called for violent opposition,” he said in an email. “They called themselves Weathermen. Now the same is happening and they call themselves conservative commentators. But it’s equally nutty.”
Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist at the Washington Post, noted to POLITICO that the points being made on shows like "Hannity" and "Fox & Friends" echo those being reportedly pushed by Russian bots on social media.
“When they turn on a dime and begin adopting the same position as Russian bots and start attacking the FBI, we’ve gone to a whole new level of crazy,” she said.
“It’s almost like Fox has become the RT, the Russia Today, for the administration and the Kremlin,” she added.
Fox News spokespeople did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Those comments were made to POLITICO on Thursday afternoon, before the Times’ scoop that Trump only backed off from firing Mueller when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign.
The Times story broke during Tucker Carlson’s 8 p.m. show, though the host barely touched on it. In the following hour, Sean Hannity initially dismissed the report, telling viewers that the paper was “trying to distract you.” Later in his show, though, he acknowledged that Fox News reporter Ed Henry had confirmed the reporting. Referring to Trump, Hannity sheepishly added, “Does he not have the right to raise those questions? You know, we’ll deal with this tomorrow night.”
Hannity then transitioned to coverage of a car crash.
"Fox & Friends," widely regarded as a favorite show of the president, also cast doubt on the Times story Friday morning, as host Pete Hegseth opined, “You look in the first paragraph, all of this reporting based on four people who are told of the matter.”
Fellow host Ainsley Earhardt added, “It's something we have to tell you have about because it is a headline on The New York Times. What do you think about that? Do you even care?”
In a Thursday interview on CNBC, Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor who was a Fox News analyst from 2002-2012, alleged that the channel has become increasingly conspiratorial over the last several years, saying, "75 percent of it seems to be birther-like coverage of different issues."
Rubin said, though, that the most recent commentary is beyond anything that’s aired on the network in the past.
“The substance of what they’re saying and the conspiracy theories that are being floated are so much weirder and so much less credible than simply taking a suspicious view of the events leading up to Benghazi or questioning the motives of President Obama. There was once upon a time some factual basis for what they were looking at—some may have been drawing unreasonable conclusions and some may have been exaggerating, but here they appear to be making stuff up from whole cloth, so I do think it’s worse.”
The main catalyst for Fox’s shift has been stories revolving around text messages sent between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, in which they express critical views of Trump. Both were previously involved in Mueller’s investigation, though no longer are.
GOP lawmakers appeared on Fox News early in the week, trumpeting a text that they said proved that Page and Strzok were part of a “secret society” within the FBI determined to bring down the president. But when the text became public on Wednesday, it became clear that the phase “secret society” had been used in a tongue-in-cheek way.
Fox News hosts also seized on the FBI’s admission that five months of Page and Strzok’s texts between December 2016 and May 2017 were missing, as proof of foul play. But on Thursday, reports emerged that the texts had been recovered.
On Tuesday, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro tweeted a link to a story about Page and Strzok and the “secret society” claims, writing, “I’ve said it before - THEY NEED TO BE TAKEN OUT IN CUFFS.”
Throughout Tuesday and much of Wednesday, the texts were a constant source of discussion on Fox News, with video of interviews on the topic with Republican congressmen Trey Gowdy and John Ratcliffe, as well as Senator Ron Johnson, running frequently.
“And that secret society—we have an informant talking about a group that were holding secret meetings off-site. There's so much smoke here, there's so much suspicion," Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican, said in his Tuesday interview.
Charlie Sykes, the longtime conservative radio host and MSNBC contributor, said that he believes the recent ramping up of Fox News hosts’ rhetoric is due to the Mueller probe gaining intensity.
In the last week, news has emerged that Mueller has interviewed Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former FBI head James Comey. Whether and when Trump would speak to the special prosecutor has also been in the news.
Sykes believes that Fox News hosts’ campaign to protect Trump—echoed throughout conservative talk radio—will have long-lasting effects.
“Long term, you’ve done tremendous damage to a number of institutions that we used to respect,” Sykes said. “You’re seeing the de-legitimization of the news media, the de-legitimization of law enforcement, of the intelligence community, perhaps of the federal judiciary. Long term, this will have consequences.”
Schmidt agreed, saying, “If you don’t understand the threat that this poses institutionally to liberty in this country, you don’t understand what that threat is.”
“You haven’t seen an unleashing of unmoored, crazy accusations with a witch-hunt trial atmosphere attached to it since you’ve been in the heart of the McCarthy era and the Red Scare in the 1950s,” Schmidt added.
Rubin, the Washington Post columnist, also noted the feedback loop that’s formed between Republican congressmen promoting “deep state” theories and the network’s hosts. Johnson, Gowdy and Ratcliffe’s appearances gave them valuable airtime in front of the conservative base, while the network gained fresh fodder for discussion.
“You have people who haven’t been known to be crackpots in the past, like Senator Johnson, suddenly saying the most ridiculous sorts of things,” Rubin said. “So the behavior seems to be spreading from the few to the many and I think they do take great energy from one another.”
Later on Wednesday, after it became clear that the phrase “secret society” had been used in jest, Fox News hosts stopped referencing it quite as often. That does not mean they abandoned their conspiratorial outlook, though.
On Thursday morning’s "Fox & Friends," Doocy referenced how the FBI had been unable to recover months of texts between Page and Strzok and mused, “Was it part of the deep state?”