Voices: As a Trump indictment looms, Fox News mounts a full-throated defence of the former president
Donald Trump may soon have a chance to defend himself in a court of law against the allegations that he used campaign funds to pay hush money to a porn star. In the meantime, the most-watched cable news network in the country appears to have taken up the case pro-bono.
As other news channels trained their cameras on the Manhattan court where Mr Trump was expected to be arraigned, Fox News spent much of the past few days attacking the prosecutor who brought the case against him and playing down the allegations.
The case centres around a $130,000 payment to Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, in 2016, allegedly for her to stay quiet about an affair with Mr Trump. Prosecutors appear to be making the argument that because the payment was made during Mr Trump’s 2016 run for the White House, it amounts to an undeclared campaign donation that benefited his candidacy.
Not long after many viewers had finished their breakfast on Tuesday — the day Mr Trump speculated he would be arrested — Phil Holloway, a former assistant district attorney, dutifully reminded the audience of The Faulkner Focus that “there’s nothing illegal for that matter about being a philanderer”.
“These types of arrangements are made on a regular basis. These nondisclosure agreements, they’re matters of contract. They are not at all uncommon — not for celebrities, not for politicians. They are commonplace and there’s nothing illegal about them,” he said, adding that the public “understands that these things happen”.
Mr Holloway was one in a long line of attorneys, former attorneys, prosecutors, former prosecutors and legal advisers who joined scheduled programmes throughout the day to criticise Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney.
The news segments on the case were often brief — blink and you might miss them. At the 10 o’clock hour, the biggest news of the day flashed across Fox News screens and was gone again in an instant. There were brief updates about the possible day an indictment might be filed, and when Mr Trump might be arraigned, before the network pivoted to familiar themes: chaos at the border, China’s growing strength, Joe Biden’s perceived failures.
But the analysis, and the commentary, were plentiful.
Jeanine Pirro, a former New York State judge and current panellist on The Five, called Mr Bragg a “politically corrupt, leftist ideologue”, in a two-minute-long rant.
“This guy is training people not to prosecute criminals, but to let them out of jail and ignore the victims of crime,” she added.
Jesse Watters, the host of the panel show, described Bragg as “the poster child for not prosecuting crimes”, and a “Soros-funded heavyweight”.
George Soros, a billioniare philanphropist and Holocaust survivor who is known for funding progressive causes, is a regular target on the network and among right-wing groups in general. Mr Soros is frequently the target of antisemitic conspiracy theories from around the world.
In his Tuesday night show, Tucker Carlson was also quick to make a reference to Mr Bragg as the “Soros-funded prosecutor in New York” in his opening monologue.
Carlson claimed Mr Bragg was planning to indict Mr Trump “for a crime no one even pretends is a crime”, calling it an “unprecedented step” to “take out the frontrunner in the Republican presidential field”.
On Outnumbered, a midday panel show featuring Mr Trump’s former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and other Fox News contributors, the hosts criticised Mr Bragg for not focusing on “real” crime in New York city.
Lisa Kennedy described the case as “a distraction from how horribly he’s doing”.
“We see people savagely beaten in broad daylight by multiple suspects. You know, they’re not going to get charged in Bragg’s New York. I wish he had that same kind of urgency prosecuting violent crimes, crimes against Asian Americans crimes against Jewish people that he does prosecuting a former president,” she added.
The indictment of Mr Trump comes at a time when Fox News is facing legal troubles of its own. The network is currently being sued for $1.6bn by Dominion Voting Systems, which alleges Fox hosts knowingly aired false claims about election fraud to its viewers in order to maintain its viewership.
The revelations from that lawsuit have shaken the relationship between Mr Trump and his former favourite news network, as text messages revealed in discovery showed popular hosts disparaging the former president in private.
A Fox News spokesperson said “the core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution and protected by New York Times v. Sullivan,” and said Dominion “has mischaracterized the record, cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context, and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law”.
But Fox News appears to be making up for lost time, according to Matt Gertz, Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America.
“Trump and Fox have occasionally butted heads over the years, and this squabble seems to be progressing the same way as the others – Trump lashes out at the network, it tries to give itself some distance from him, but events intercede and bring them back together. They are each too valuable to the other to terminate their partnership,” he told The Independent.
“Fox quickly rallied to Trump’s defense with apocalyptic fury, claiming that any indictment would be an illegitimate attack on his supporters and on American democracy itself. Their demagogic zeal seems equal to what we saw throughout his presidency, when the network effectively became an arm of his White House,” he added.