Split Screen: Fox News Swings From Refuting to Hyping Trump’s Voter Fraud Nonsense

Donald Trump’s tantrum over his loss in last week’s election, and his rapidly unraveling claims[1] 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[2] 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[3] 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[4] the anti-democratic nature of threats from Trump supporters to meddle in the electoral college.

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.

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 of the dayside anchors report that Biden has insurmountable leads in both key Electoral College states[5] and the national popular vote[6], 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.

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.

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.

“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[7] 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[8] 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[9]. “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[10] 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[11] that Trump and his allies had pressured Loeffler and Perdue into sending a letter[12] 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.

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