On his primetime show on Wednesday night, the Fox News host Sean Hannity addressed a federal judge who has put a hold on a justice department attempt to drop its case against the former Trump aide Michael Flynn.
“You reek of ignorance,” he said. “You reek of political bias.”
Hannity might have been aware of the irony at play. In recent days, the US president’s favourite network has elevated the spurious “Obamagate” scandal over all other subjects, most obviously the deaths of more than 84,000 Americans in a pandemic which the Trump administration has failed to contain.
According to research compiled by the Internet Archive, analysed by GDELT and released on Wednesday, since last week Fox News and Fox Business have mentioned Flynn, the FBI and Obama far more often than the coronavirus.
Nor has such coverage just been pursued by opinion hosts like Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. Hosts of supposedly straight news content have happily followed suit.
Critics and other media outlets have been quick to call out the supposed scandal, which the former Obama adviser David Plouffe called a “sideshow to distract from the shitshow”.
But Trump and his supporters at Fox and in Congress are firing on all cylinders. They are seeking to turn Flynn’s plight – fired as national security adviser for lying to the vice-president, pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with a Russian ambassador who was a target of an investigation into election interference – into a scandal to ensnare Barack Obama and Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee in November.
To do this, they are portraying “unmasking” – a routine intelligence process by which American citizens speaking to surveilled foreign nationals are identified by official request – as part of a sinister plot meant to kill Trump’s presidency in its cradle.
Never mind that if such a sinister plot was mounted, it evidently didn’t work. Never mind that Trump himself has struggled to say what it is Obama is supposed to have done. The president, as usual, has willing Republican allies in Congress.
Senior Republican senators have released the names of people who requested the unmasking of Flynn with Biden prominent among them. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others have now demanded Biden and other Obama aides be called to testify.
On Thursday, startlingly, Trump said Obama himself should be called.
The analyst Matthew Gertz, of Media Matters for America, said that tweet from the president was evidence of “frog boiling”, meaning an attempt to increase the violation of political norms in stages so the public, like a frog in a beaker of gradually heated water, might not notice that boiling point was close.
Donald Trump has suggested Barack Obama and Joe Biden should testify before Congress. Senator Lindsey Graham said ‘it would make for great television’. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Forced to respond, a Biden spokesman accused the senators of “abusing their congressional powers to act as arms of the Trump campaign” and said the released documents “confirm that all normal procedures were followed – any suggestion otherwise is a flat-out lie”.
But Trump insisted to the Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo: “It was the greatest political crime in the history of our country. If I were a Democrat instead of a Republican, I think everybody would have been in jail a long time ago, and I’m talking with 50-year sentences. It is a disgrace what’s happened. This is the greatest political scam, hoax in the history of our country.”
Bartiromo, of course, was happy to nod along.
The Flynn case was proceeding to sentencing before the attorney general, William Barr, intervened. Judge Emmet Sullivan responded, asking a former federal judge to look at whether Flynn should face a criminal contempt charge for perjury, given that he had sought to withdraw his guilty plea, saying he had not lied to the FBI after all.
On Wednesday night Hannity attacked Judge Sullivan.
“So Judge Sullivan, you and you alone from this day forward are responsible for continuing what has been a travesty of justice that destroyed four years of an American hero’s life, and it’s time for a new venue and a new judge and someone unlike you that doesn’t have political bias,” he raged.
“Obamagate” has shallow roots. Only last Thursday, the US justice department announced its intent to drop proceedings against Flynn. On Friday, a leaked conversation showed Obama saying the rule of law was under threat – and saying he would campaign hard for Biden.
Trump went into Twitter overdrive, retweeting conspiracy-tinged accounts and making his own grandiose statements. He has regularly claimed “Obamagate” is bigger than Watergate, the 1970s scandal which brought down Richard Nixon.
Fox News and Fox Business swiftly followed his lead.
Writing in his Reliable Sources email, the CNN analyst Brian Stelter said: “That Fox News would push a dishonest disinformation campaign against Trump’s political opponents is reprehensible, but not surprising. The network has been pumping poison into the national conversation for quite some time.
“But that Fox is engaging in such behavior as more than 83,000 Americans lay dead from a virus that has upended American life is particularly repugnant.”
In a statement on Thursday, Senator Graham pointed perhaps inadvertently to both Trump and Fox’s real motivation, and the negative effects their behaviour may well have.
“Both presidents,” he said, referring to Trump and Obama, “are welcome to come before the [judiciary] committee and share their concerns about each other.
“If nothing else it would make for great television. However, I have great doubts about whether it would be wise for the country.”