How Fox News Primetime Jacked Up Trump’s ‘Big Lie’

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Justin Baragona
·13 min read
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Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

President Donald Trump faces a Senate trial this week for his role in pushing months of election lies, and ultimately prompting the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riots. But he didn’t do it all alone. The former president had assistance from key allies, including the biggest stars in conservative media.

The “Big Lie,” as it’s now been labeled, is the comprehensive collection of unfounded allegations and wild conspiracies peddled by Trump and his allies in conservative media and the GOP, that Joe Biden’s decisive electoral victory was “stolen” due to widespread voter fraud.

It is that lie that eventually led thousands of insurrectionist Trump supporters to violently storm the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s Electoral College win. The riots, which featured insurgents shouting “Hang Mike Pence,” resulted in five deaths, one of them a police officer killed by the mob. So far, at least 135 participants have been charged with federal crimes, with more expected to come.

While much of the attention has been understandably centered on Trump and his political allies’ role in inciting the riot—one which led to the former president’s second impeachment—the former president’s “rigged” election rhetoric didn’t occur in a vacuum. In fact, Team Trump’s bogus claims were amplified and boosted across the right-wing media spectrum.

And Fox News’ primetime lineup of pro-Trump opinion talkers, which set an all-time cable news record in viewership in 2020, was key in helping fan the flames of the “Big Lie.”

In the two weeks after Fox called the election for Biden on Nov. 7—joining other news outlets—the network began casting doubt on the election results or pushed conspiracy theories nearly 800 times on its airwaves, according to liberal watchdog Media Matters.

Sean Hannity, along with his fellow primetime colleagues Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, were among the biggest offenders in pushing the lies—whether it be through innuendo, reckless spin, or outright misinformation. And their efforts to boost the now-ex president’s crusade to overturn the election didn’t stop in late November, either.

Two days after Fox News called the presidency for Biden, Hannity began embracing the particularly insidious Dominion and Smartmatic conspiracy theory, which contends that the voting machine companies purposely switched Trump votes to Biden in swing states to ensure a Democratic victory.

Fox News Launches ‘Purge’ to ‘Get Rid of Real Journalists,’ Insiders Say

“And in the state of Michigan, Republicans are moving in to investigate this software glitch called Dominion that actually changed thousands of votes from Trump to Biden,” Hannity exclaimed on Nov. 9. “They caught it. Now, the same software also, quote, ‘glitched’ in Georgia and was used in as many as 28 states, according to John Solomon.”

If Solomon’s name sounds familiar, it is probably because he was one of the main architects of Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy that eventually resulted in the 45th president’s first impeachment. Solomon’s reporting on Biden and Ukraine was found to be so untrustworthy that Fox News’ own research team warned colleagues that he played an “indispensable role” in a pro-Trump “disinformation campaign.”

Sidney Powell, the Trumpist lawyer now facing a $1.3-billion defamation lawsuit from Dominion, was welcomed with open arms on Hannity’s show following the election. And the Fox star credulously accepted her outlandish claims that Dominion was part of a nefarious international plot involving the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, China, and liberal philanthropist and eternal right-wing bogeyman George Soros to somehow steal the election from Trump.

Even after Carlson publicly called Powell out for not providing any evidence to back up her wild allegations, Hannity and his on-air cronies defended the “Kraken” attorney’s inability to provide proof. “The unabashed arrogance of the media was on full display today, as they were demanding to see the evidence. They’re not entitled to see the evidence,” Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett huffed on Nov. 19, just an hour after Carlson’s refutation of Powell.

Days later, and after Trump’s legal team briefly distanced itself from Powell over the bad press her wild conspiracies had garnered, Hannity brought her on both his radio and television shows to discuss her longshot legal efforts to overthrow the election results.

“I think there’s a substantial CIA component to it. In fact, I wonder where Venezuela first obtained the software that it used for the systems that it then exported to run in other foreign countries,” Powell said on Hannity’s Nov. 30 radio show. “It’s a communist, essentially, operation to rig elections.”

Later that evening on Fox News, Powell told Hannity that she couldn’t present her proof or witnesses regarding her Dominion allegations, claiming her witnesses needed “certain protections in place” while suggesting the government wouldn’t help because it was in on the so-called plot. She also once again claimed, without evidence, that the machines “ran an algorithm that shaved votes from Trump and awarded them to Biden.”

“There was a whole plot going on and a lot of people involved in this,” she added, receiving no pushback from Hannity.

The pro-Trump Fox host, meanwhile, seemingly bought her excuses for her lack of evidence, instead placing the onus on Democrats to assist Powell. “I thought Democrats told us that we like whistle-blowers,” Hannity declared. “You’re saying these people can’t talk because they’re going to lose their job. I would think they’d get protection.”

Eventually, Powell and Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani—who also faces a billion-dollar lawsuit from Dominion—stopped appearing on Fox News programming after being ubiquitous for weeks after the election. The timing of their disappearance seemed to coincide with Fox News receiving the first legal threats from both Smartmatic and Dominion. (Smartmatic finally pulled the trigger this month, filing a $2.7-billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News, Powell, Giuliani and several Fox hosts. In a statement, the network responded to the suit: “FOX News Media is committed to providing the full context of every story with in-depth reporting and clear opinion. We are proud of our 2020 election coverage and will vigorously defend against this meritless lawsuit in court.” One day later, one of the hosts named in the suit, Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs, was fired and his top-rated show canceled a decade after its debut.)

During his Dec. 7 broadcast, Hannity went so far as to latch onto so-called “evidence” of election fraud that was so outlandish that even the pro-Trump conspiracy channel One America News backed away from it. According to the informal Trump adviser, viewers shouldn’t believe Biden actually won the election because audiences supposedly didn’t tune in to his Thanksgiving message.

“What did Joe Biden get, less than a thousand people to tune in for his Thanksgiving Day message?” Hannity blared. “But we’re supposed to believe he got 15 million more votes than Barack Obama and 15 million more than Hillary [Clinton].”

Hannity’s claim came days after Trump tweeted the same thing, amplifying an OAN segment that falsely reported Biden’s address “got only 1,000 views online.” The OAN segment, meanwhile, cited only a random Twitter user as proof. Despite the fact that even OAN didn’t stand by the bogus story—they “corrected the record” after reporters noted that Biden’s speech racked up millions of online views—Trump continued to publicly tout the false claim.

“How do you have 80 million votes if you have less than a thousand people?” Trump shouted during a December rally.

That same night, meanwhile, Hannity also ignored his network’s own news division when it came to a viral video that the Trump legal team was misleadingly presenting as clear evidence of fraudulent activity and ballot stuffing.

The video, which Team Trump insisted showed nefarious actions in a Georgia ballot-counting room, was not only debunked by Georgia election officials and other news outlets but also by Fox News itself. Hannity, however, dismissed those pesky facts out of hand, telling his audience that the video hadn’t “been debunked by anybody.”

After spending weeks casting doubt on the integrity of the election and boosting baseless and unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, Hannity took to his show on Dec. 11 to point to public polling that showed a large majority of Republicans now believing the election was “stolen” in order to justify his stance.

“After what we have all now watched unfold over the last month, how does anybody trust the election results?” Hannity declared. “Now, the fight will continue on the state level.”

In the midst of Team Trump’s hapless and futile legal challenges to overturn the election—at least 86 pro-Trump lawsuits were rejected by state and federal courts—then-White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany began making near-nightly appearances on Hannity to promote Trump’s election conspiracy du jour.

McEnany, who has reportedly been in talks to join Fox News, notoriously peppered her Hannity segments with gimmicky props. Waving around stacks of paper on a nightly basis, the Trump flack insisted that “sworn affidavits” from Trump supporters and so-called expert witnesses proved the president’s baseless voter fraud claims.

At one point, for instance, she repeated the bogus statistical analysis that Biden only had a “one in quadrillion” chance of winning in four swing states given Trump’s early lead on Election Night. And days before the riots, McEnany was still peddling the “Big Lie” on Hannity, effortlessly pushing a long-debunked claim about Biden’s turnout and margin of victory in metro areas.

Fox News Pushes ‘Brain Room’ to Find Evidence for Trump’s Voter Fraud Claims, Insiders Say

Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, took a different tack than his primetime colleagues when it came to undermining the election results. The longtime cable pundit largely stayed away from the fringe, outlandish conspiracies about the vote, instead broadly alleging that Trump was the victim of a “rigged” system put in place by Democrats and Big Tech. (Though he has shown no qualms in airing bizarre election conspiracy theories when they come from the mouth of his show’s biggest advertiser, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, an unpaid Fox guest.)

That is not to suggest, however, that Carlson didn’t occasionally dabble in amplifying Team Trump’s debunked voter-fraud claims. And, in fact, the far-right host found himself issuing an embarrassing correction when he took some of the Trump campaign’s “dead voters” claims at face value.

After Carlson delivered a breathless report in mid-November, claiming undeniable evidence of dead voters casting ballots in Georgia—citing, of course, a news release from the Trump camp—news outlets discovered that three of the four names the Fox host highlighted were very much alive and well.

Carlson may have been forced to acknowledge that he peddled false information about Georgia’s election as Trump desperately pushed to flip the state’s results, but the Fox News star was still unapologetic. “As we reported last week, dead Americans voted in this election,” Carlson said at the time in a statement to The Daily Beast. “We shared a few examples. But on Friday, we began to learn some of the specific dead voters reported to us as deceased are in fact alive. We initially corrected this on Friday. We regret not catching it earlier. But the truth remains: dead people voted in the election.”

And while Carlson received mainstream plaudits for discrediting Powell—just days after he issued a correction over his false “dead voters” claim—he continued to sow seeds of doubt about the election’s integrity based on substantiated claims or broad innuendo about the system being “rigged.”

On the same night he blasted Powell, for example, he called for new investigations based on the wild conspiracies Powell and Giuliani had just peddled in their bizarre November press conference.

“The 2020 presidential election was not fair. No honest person would claim that it was fair,” Carlson later declared on Nov. 23. “On many levels the system was rigged against one candidate and in favor of another. And it was rigged in ways that were not hidden from view. We all saw it happen. The media openly colluded with the Democratic nominees.”

The following month, Carlson kept up his “rigged” rhetoric, this time claiming media outlets not running with the Hunter Biden laptop story pre-election was a form of election tampering.

“At the time they called it a conspiracy theory. CNN rolled its eyes literally, they dismissed it as Russian disinformation,” the Fox star seethed on Dec. 9. “Most media outlets deemed it unworthy of mentioning all. Now it turns out all of them were lying. Again, if you’re looking for election rigging, look no further. That’s what this is. They kept information from the public in order to influence the outcome of the election. They rigged it!”

Laura Ingraham, for her part, attempted to thread a needle early on. While seemingly acknowledging soon after the election that Trump was not going to remain president, she also helped feed hope to her viewers that a possibility remained for the election to be overturned.

“We don't know exactly what the Supreme Court will do but there is precedent for courts overturning the results of elections,” Ingraham tossed out on Nov. 6, three days after the election. “Back in 1994, a U.S. District Court judge voided the results of a Philadelphia state senate election and awarded it to the Republican challenger because of rampant Democrat fraud. And it was a consequential race, too. It was enough to flip control of the state senate altogether.”

The following month, meanwhile, Ingraham openly implied that Georgia election officials were accepting bribes from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg ahead of the election, wondering aloud if they were “on the take” and “laying down.”

Laura Ingraham Suggests Zuckerberg Bribed Georgia Officials: Are They ‘On the Take’?

These conspiratorial allegations had previously been included in a number of futile pro-Trump lawsuits looking to toss out the election results, including at least one by Lin Wood—the Trumpist, QAnon-supporting lawyer who called for former Vice President Mike Pence to be shot earlier this month.

The results of MAGA world and right-wing media’s incessant undermining of the election results were on full display on Jan. 6: The “Big Lie” and all its spin-off variants resulted in a seditious mob violently invading the Capitol in hopes of forcing Congress and Pence to install Trump for another term.

According to Fox’s primetime stars, however, the deadly riot was just a “political protest that got out of hand” and “wasn’t an insurrection,” additionally shrugging off the violence by suggesting it was likely caused by antifa infiltrators—yet another completely unsubstantiated conspiracy theory favored by Trump allies.

While downplaying the violent coup attempt, the Fox hosts also appeared to ultimately validate and justify the actions of the MAGA mob.

“Now, does anybody in the media, anybody in the left, do they want to understand how hundreds of thousands of Americans, what motivated them to leave their homes and their towns and their cities and often fly or come long distances to be at the massive rally today?” Hannity said the night of the MAGA riots.

“What is true is that the Trump administration will be out of power in two weeks, and millions of Republicans believe the election was unfair and even stolen,” Ingraham added the following hour, seemingly learning nothing from months of lying about the election’s veracity by concluding: “It’s also true that many claims remain un-adjudicated, many questions unanswered, and most will never be resolved.”

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