On Saturday, Donald Trump took to Twitter to call for Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel to be fired. Weigel, a top-notch political reporter, tweeted a picture of a half-filled arena in Pensacola, Fla., where Trump spoke on Friday night, with the sarcastic words “packed to the rafters.” It turns out, however, that Weigel posted a shot from before the rally began. He quickly realized his mistake, deleted the tweet, and apologized. That of course didn’t stop Trump from attacking him, which is perhaps because the president was confused by the phenomenon of someone admitting an error and saying sorry.
It was the second time over the weekend that Trump called for a national political reporter to be fired. During his speech in Pensacola, he unloaded on ABC’s Brian Ross, who made an error when reporting on the Mike Flynn plea agreement and was subsequently suspended for four weeks.
When not attacking individual reporters, Trump also continues to maintain his focus on an even bigger fish — the free press in America. “Very little discussion of all the purposely false and defamatory stories put out this week by the Fake News Media,” he tweeted on Sunday. “They are out of control — correct reporting means nothing to them. Major lies written, then forced to be withdrawn after they are exposed . . . a stain on America!”
Trump is, of course, attacking legitimate news organizations because they are reporting accurately — and damagingly — on his administration, the ever-tightening noose of the Russia investigation, and the White House aides who seemingly can’t stop leaking. Indeed, the White House’s unceasing efforts to delegitimize any news organization that does negative reporting on the president is perhaps this administration’s defining feature.
The irony of all this is that there is one major news organization that is pushing “false and defamatory stories,” is increasingly “out of control,” and doesn’t seem all that concerned about “correct reporting.” It’s Trump’s favorite network, Fox News.
Over the past week, Fox has become the focal point of a growing conservative effort to delegitimize — and potentially upend — special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president’s connections to Russia. The rhetoric coming out of Fox is both dangerous and unhinged.
The FBI “is out of control” and “considers itself above the law,” said Tucker Carlson. “Mueller is corrupt. The senior FBI is corrupt. The system is corrupt,” said Fox host Laura Ingraham. Trump whisperer Sean Hannity is even claiming that Mueller and his team “now pose a direct threat to you, the American people, and our American republic.”
The news side of Fox has gotten in the game too, with innuendo-laden pieces that allege that the presence of Democrats on Mueller’s staff suggests “potential bias” and has tainted the investigation with partisanship. Apparently only Republicans can investigate a Republican president.
But the most insane moment came on Saturday, only hours after Trump’s tweets about Dave Weigel. Jeannine Pirro, a Fox commentator who interviewed to be Trump’s deputy attorney general, and has occasionally met with the president in the Oval Office, delivered a more than seven-minute screed that called for a “cleansing” at the FBI and Department of Justice as she named four individuals, including Mueller, who, Pirro said, “should not just be fired but who need to be taken out in handcuffs.”
And as CNN’s Brian Stelter noted, Fox is not alone. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, Breitbart, and conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh have joined in the attacks as well. It’s seeping into politics too. This past week on Capitol Hill, FBI Director Christopher Wray was subjected to intense questioning from Republican lawmakers that alleged widespread bias against Trump, within the FBI, the Department of Justice and Mueller’s team.
What we’re seeing from Fox and others news organization is an aggressive and concerted effort to cajole and convince the president — a dedicated Fox watcher — to fire the prosecutor looking into his possible collusion with Russia. The president’s political allies are laying the groundwork for Trump to dispatch Mueller and launch a direct assault on the rule of law in America.
But even if Trump chooses not to take that politically fraught step, Fox’s campaign of lies against Mueller will probably convince its viewers – and the fever swamp of modern conservatism – that any illegality turned up by the special counsel is tainted by partisanship and corruption.
Trump voters refusing to believe bad things about Trump — and being reinforced by the conservative media — could have a galvanizing impact on House Republicans presented with evidence of wrong-doing by the president. Will they be so inclined to investigate or even impeach Trump if their supporters are convinced the entire Mueller investigation is a partisan witch hunt drummed up by Democrats? Either way, the goal here is clear: to protect Trump and the White House from being held accountable.
It’s hardly surprising that Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House would prefer the president to avoid legal responsibility for any wrongdoing in the Russia investigation. With the help of Fox News and others in conservative media, that might just happen. That’s a lot worse than a reporter making a mistake about crowd size.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.