Donald Trump’s tantrum over his loss in last week’s election, and his rapidly unraveling claims of voter fraud, have made life difficult for the producers and on-air talent at Fox News. The Potemkin news network exists primarily to get Republicans elected to office but it needs to keep up the facade of accurately reporting on reality to maintain its influence.
What that means right now, for the network and for the party it serves, is bracing for the looming presidency of Joe Biden while still continuing to indulge Trump’s faint hopes of litigating his way out of political bankruptcy. The goal, for both Fox and the Republicans, is to avoid alienating Trump — at least long enough to ensure that he doesn’t turn on the party before control of the Senate is settled in the two runoff elections in Georgia on January 5.
“We need his voters. And he has a tremendous following out there,” South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, a deputy to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, admitted to reporters on Tuesday. “Right now, he’s trying to get through the final stages of his election and determine the outcome there. But when that’s all said and done, however it comes out, we want him helping in Georgia.”
For Fox, which has filled Trump’s head with conspiracy theories about voter fraud for years, the need to stop him from running amok without alienating him is somewhat like the problem Victor Frankenstein faced with his monster.
The network is attempting to report on the election it called for Biden, while Trump refuses to accept that he lost; the dynamic has made the divide between Fox’s daytime news programming and evening opinion shows even more stark than usual.
So while the sun is up, afternoon news anchors like Bill Hemmer and Neil Cavuto seem to be preparing their viewers for the inevitable Biden presidency to come, while downplaying the anti-democratic nature of threats from Trump supporters to meddle in the electoral college.
— Frank Lesser (@sadmonsters) November 11, 2020
“It does appear that Joe Biden will win Arizona,” the attorney general says
As for those Sharpies we heard so much about: “We were able to determine that did not affect anyone’s vote” pic.twitter.com/HYAMZxypxA
— Andrew Oxford (@andrewboxford) November 11, 2020
The hosts of Fox’s election-week coverage, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, have referred to Biden as “the president-elect” since the network called the race for the former vice president on Saturday.
Fox News makes the call: Joe Biden is President-Elect of the United States. pic.twitter.com/0aNyYVTNWB
— The Recount (@therecount) November 7, 2020
On Tuesday, Baier began an interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had suggested earlier in the day that Trump could stay in office, by asking him, “what do you say to world leaders who are reaching out to Joe Biden, now the president-elect, leaders from all kinds of countries — Belgium, Canada, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, the list goes on, even Saudi Arabia, which was President Trump’s first stop — congratulating President-elect Joe Biden?”
"All the votes haven't been counted," Mike Pompeo says on Fox News, as though Trump still has a chance of legitimately winning reelection (Trump conclusively lost to Joe Biden) pic.twitter.com/TfbNEKx6Ih
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 10, 2020
All of the dayside anchors report that Biden has insurmountable leads in both key Electoral College states and the national popular vote, and remind viewers that there is no evidence that “illegal votes” were cast or counted in large enough numbers to overturn the result. Still, they have been forced to scramble as Trump supporters invited on as guests claim that the outcome remains in doubt.
Sandra Smith, off-air, reacts to her colleague Trace Gallagher indulging a nutjob who denies the outcome of the election even after Fox News had called it for Joe Biden: pic.twitter.com/gZ4nrnVHab
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) November 9, 2020
But when the sun sets, Trump’s wildest claims of fraud are given credence by the shouting heads who host the network’s primetime lineup of opinion shows — Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham — as well as the pre-dawn cast of “Fox and Friends.”
As the Washington Post’s JM Rieger illustrated in a video compilation, this week’s complaints from these Fox News opinion hosts contrasts sharply with what they said after Trump won the Electoral College in 2016, by narrower margins in three states.
Fox News personalities have dramatically shifted their rhetoric on election results over the past four years.
— JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) November 11, 2020
The sharp difference in how Fox News describes the election results from morning to night can induce a sense of whiplash in viewers who keep the channel on all day, who watch as it transitions from daytime news programs to evening opinion shows.
That was apparent on Monday, when Cavuto insisted that his producer cut away from a live news conference at which Kayleigh McEnany, the Trump campaign spokesperson moonlighting as White House press secretary, claimed that mass voter fraud had taken place.
Fox News cuts away from Kayleigh McEnany news conference after airing it for less than a minute.
Neil Cavuto: “I can’t in good countenance continue showing you this…She started saying right at the outset, [Democrats were] welcoming fraud, welcoming illegal voting. Not so fast." pic.twitter.com/1jn5jC2r5E
— JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) November 9, 2020
“Whoa, whoa,” Cavuto said as his show cut away from McEnany. “I just think we have to be very clear: She’s charging the other side is welcoming fraud and welcoming illegal voting. Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue showing you this.”
A few hours later, MacCallum also tamped down rumors of voting irregularities in an interview with Charlie LeDuff, a former New York Times reporter who had volunteered to process ballots in Michigan last week. LeDuff told MacCallum that a conspiracy theory that tens of thousands of illegal ballots had been delivered to the counting center he had worked at in Detroit was, in a word, “horse-S.”
Just minutes later, however, MacCallum made way for Tucker Carlson, who began his show with a long monologue dedicated to the idea that there could well have been fraud in the election. At one point, as he railed against members of the media who dismissed those claims as false, Carlson took a thinly veiled swipe at Cavuto. “In a democracy, you cannot ignore honest questions from citizens,” Carlson said. “You can’t dismiss them out of hand as crazy or immoral for asking. You can’t just cut away from coverage you don’t like.”
Carlson then moved on to a lengthy discussion of the possibility that massive fraud might have taken place in vote counting Michigan. He made no mention of MacCallum’s interview with LeDuff, which seemed to contradict at least one of those claims.
Carlson also showed one short part of a statement made on Monday by Gabriel Sterling, a lifelong Republican who manages Georgia’s voting system, in which he said that a recount there would no doubt show that some people “did illegally vote — that’s going to happen.” However, Carlson chose not to show other parts of Sterling’s lengthy statement in which he said illegal voting was “minor” and accusations of massive fraud were “false.” Carlson also did not report that Sterling offered a detailed, point-by-point debunking of various allegations of fraud in his state and in Michigan, which Sterling characterized as “disinformation” at one point and “hoaxes and nonsense” at another.
Sterling also emphasized that the number of votes that would be disallowed during the recount was unlikely to come anywhere close to the margin by which Biden won the state (which reached 14,149 votes on Tuesday).
On Tuesday afternoon, Cavuto seemed to sidestep the problem of how to deal with Trump’s fraud claims by focusing almost entirely on the battle for control of the Senate, where the Republican Party needs the voters who turned out for Trump last week to show up again in January to cast ballots for the incumbent GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Trump and his allies had pressured Loeffler and Perdue into sending a letter in which they called for Sterling’s boss, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, to step down — charging, without evidence, that he had “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections.”
“We’re told the president and his top allies pressured the two Republican senators to take this step, lest he tweet a negative word about them and risk divorcing them from his base ahead of the consequential runoff,” the Journal-Constitution’s Mark Niesse and Greg Bluestein reported.
On Tuesday night, Fox’s Sean Hannity dug in further by inviting Kayleigh McEnany on to his show to display what she called evidence of important voting irregularities — holding up what she said were 234 pages of sworn affidavits from Republican observers in Detroit.
Surprising no one, these affidavits turned out to be a whole lot of nothing. Claims they weren’t allowed to be as close to the counters as they wanted, confusion about rescanning ballots, “liberal bias”, etc. https://t.co/T2MKVjAJyp
— Bradley P. Moss (@BradMossEsq) November 11, 2020
However, when those affidavits were released and examined by reporters, like Brad Heath of Reuters, many of the complaints turned out to be minor or routine — like allegations that observers were not allowed to stand close enough to the vote counters (during a pandemic), or were insulted for backing Trump, or that ballots were being duplicated.
The Trump campaign released that 234-page stack of affidavits from poll watchers in Detroit tonight. So far, it's mostly allegations that they couldn't get as close as they wanted to the counting, couldn't re-enter the room after they left, etc. Pretty standard election stuff. pic.twitter.com/95JxceLCah
— Brad Heath (@bradheath) November 11, 2020
The report of a ballot being duplicated, in front of a Republican observer, is not necessarily proof of any illegality. As Sterling, the Georgia expert, explained at his news conference on Monday, ballots are occasionally damaged by automatic letter-openers used in counting rooms. When they are, the standard procedure is for election workers, under the close watch of partisan observers, to duplicate the markings from the damaged ballot onto a new one so that the paper can be run through the automated tabulation machines without jamming.
One of the complaints was from a person who thought that he saw the same batch of 27 ballots being counted 5 times over the course of the night. If true, that would reduce Biden’s current margin in Michigan from 148,645 to 148,537.
Another complaint in one affidavit, highlighted by Heath, was from a Republican poll watcher who found it suspicious that so many members of the military would vote for Joe Biden. “I saw a few dozen military ballots be counted,” the Republican observer said in his statement. “Although I cannot provide specific numbers or names, I can estimate that at least 80% of the military ballots I saw were straight ticket Democrat or simply had Joe Biden’s name filled in on them. I had always been told that military personnel tended to be more conservative, so this stuck out to me.”
Later Tuesday night, Laura Ingraham interviewed an unidentified woman who claimed that she was a Nevada poll worker who had seen (but not photographed) what she thought was two Biden campaign workers filling out ballots in a Biden-Harris van parked right outside a polling place.
This is where we're at right now.
Laura Ingraham brings on an unidentified "whistleblower" — with hidden face and altered voice — to claim that folks literally from a Biden-Harris bus were altering ballots in Nevada. pic.twitter.com/b8xGe8KXSb
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) November 11, 2020
Fox News reported that the Trump campaign said it had sent a sworn statement from this woman to the Department of Justice. However, the woman appears to have made no effort to actually file a complaint with the state.
The office of Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford told Fox it had only “received a redacted Affidavit that does not contain the individual’s name, signature or contact information. As it stands, our office has not yet received a formal complaint and cannot conduct an investigation without such critical details.”
“If they file a complaint — not a press release, not a PR stunt, not a statement on television — if they were to file a complaint with my office, not a redacted affidavit, which they’ve tried to do, a complaint where we call someone, perform an investigation, ascertain whether we should prosecute someone, we will do it,” Ford told CNN on Monday. “But they’re not doing that. Instead, they’re playing this in the press because they know they have no leg to stand on, that’s why they’ve been thrown out of court four times already.”
Todd Bice, a Republican election law expert in Nevada, wrote a blistering op-ed for the nonprofit Nevada Independent on Tuesday, skewering the Trump campaign’s effort to claim that there were enough illegal or miscounted votes to overturn Biden’s 36,726-vote margin in Nevada.
“Here is what any serious person being honest with you about elections, and the laws surrounding those elections, will tell you: In EVERY election, a certain number (generally very small) of votes will be cast by voters who, for certain reasons, are not actually eligible to vote in that election. Obviously, if the voter is ineligible, the vote should not count,” Bice wrote. “This occurs in Nevada as well as every other state in the union in every election. A few of those votes will be truly nefarious, such as where someone forges the signature of another. But this is quite small, because very few citizens who choose to participate in the election process are actually crooks.”
“Others can arise from ambiguity and/or debates about residency rules and requirements, including the fact that Nevada has a large military population who frequently move,” he continued. “Although they occur in every election, the number of ineligible votes is so small that it will have no actual impact on the outcome, except in perhaps a small-time municipal election where the turnout is extraordinarily small and the margin is just a couple votes. I know, because I’ve actually litigated that issue. But the suggestion that ineligible votes are so widespread as to actually impact the outcome of a statewide or national election is quite disingenuous.”
Updated: Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2:49 p.m.
This article was updated with additional examples of how Fox News is covering the post-election fallout and baseless allegations of voter fraud.