Nixon didn't have Fox News. Will that make all the difference to Trump post-Mueller?

More than 40 years ago, Nixon sat in the White House and watched his presidency slip away. Today, Trump watches Fox News and feels much more secure.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Sean Hannity from Fox News speaks at a campaign rally in Missouri
President Donald Trump listens as Sean Hannity of Fox News speaks at a rally on the eve of mid-term elections in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on Nov. 5, 2018.Carlos Barria / Reuters file
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By Nicole Hemmer, Assistant professor, University of Virginia’s Miller Center

President Donald Trump spent the day after the redacted Mueller report was released on the golf course with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Trump’s golf partner could not have been a more strategic choice: Limbaugh has been a key ally in the president’s war against special counsel Robert Mueller.

That day was no exception. As Limbaugh told his listeners: “It was an attempt at a coup. It was an attempt to throw Donald Trump out of office and nullify the election results of 2016." It was the same language Trump used to describe the investigation.

It was also the same argument that President Richard M. Nixon first made about Watergate, which he dismissed as "a crappy little thing" devised to undo his 1972 landslide victory. By August 1974, however, Nixon was facing a clear bipartisan consensus for impeachment and resigned the presidency.

But Nixon didn't have Fox News. Trump does. And that may very well save him from Nixon's ultimate fate, even as the Democratic drumbeat for impeachment grows louder.

Today's powerful conservative media ecosystem constantly parrots Trump’s claims of innocence, even as it discredits any critical information — particularly about the Mueller investigation.

Today's powerful conservative media ecosystem constantly parrots Trump’s claims of innocence, even as it discredits any critical information — particularly about the Mueller investigation. Fox News and conservative talk radio operate as both ally and megaphone, generating new arguments to support the president while devotedly amplifying every claim he makes. Along with other conservative media outlets, Fox has been working overtime to safeguard the Trump presidency from the Mueller investigation, amplifying his "no collusion, no obstruction" spin.

And it has had an effect: Polls showed that Fox News viewers were significantly more likely to distrust the Mueller investigation than Republicans as a whole. With this steadfast support, Trump has so far kept a firm grip on both his base and Republicans in Congress. So long as Fox News and conservative talk radio stick with Trump, it’s likely they will, too.

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Conservative media does more than amplify the administration line. Over the last few decades, it has played a crucial role in disciplining the Republican Party so that fewer and fewer officeholders are willing to step out of line with the base. From supporting and mobilizing the Tea Party movement to making RINO ("Republican In Name Only") an actionable charge, the conservative media ecosystem has helped create the conditions that make it unlikely GOP members of Congress will turn against the president. No matter how flagrant or well-documented his wrongdoing, few have done so — Republican Rep. Justin Amash's latest statements being an exception that proves the rule.

The power of conservative media helps explain the limits of the Nixon-Trump parallels that have piled up over the past few years: the war on the media, the investigations, the fervent belief that it's all a witch hunt.

In words that could be tweeted out from the Oval Office today, Nixon regularly reminded his advisers that "the press is the enemy" and drew up an enemies' list featuring several prominent reporters. He complained to broadcast executives, “Your reporters just can’t stand the fact that I am in this office” and regularly attempted to ban outlets and reporters that gave him unfavorable coverage.

The Mueller report made those parallels even more compelling. Offering a similar fly-on-the-wall perspective of the secret Oval Office tapes that recorded Nixon's attempts to obstruct the Watergate investigation, the report details Trump's efforts to block Mueller's efforts by firing the FBI director, attempting to remove the special counsel, interfering with witnesses and pressuring then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal and take over the investigation.

In the second volume of the report, Mueller essentially created a road map to impeachment for Democrats, not unlike the one Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski gave to the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate.

Though the conservative media outlets of the early 1970s ran with the Nixon line — Watergate was a conspiracy by the Democrats — their reach was limited.

But here is where the parallels will likely end. Because when Nixon muttered about a witch hunt, journalists reported it — but did not credulously repeat it over and over. And though the conservative media outlets of the early 1970s ran with the Nixon line — Watergate was a conspiracy by the Democrats and liberal media to squash the silent majority and undo the 1972 election — their reach was limited.

For this was an era when Americans still largely trusted the government (enough to be shocked at Nixon's actions) and the media (enough to trust journalists' reporting on the scandal). White House spin could not stop the scandal from unfolding.

Equally important, many Republicans believed they had a public charge beyond partisan warfare — at least partly because they relied on a base that was broader than the conservative movement. They felt compelled to take their constitutional duties seriously, and ultimately turned against Nixon — telling him he must resign or be impeached.

Throughout his presidency, Nixon expressed deep frustration that he could not control what the media reported. Roger Ailes, then one of his communications advisers, shared that frustration In 1970, Ailes circulated the idea for "GOP-TV," which would produce administration-friendly packages to local news outlets for their nightly broadcasts.

It never got off the ground. But when Ailes later partnered with press baron Rupert Murdoch, who also believed liberal media outlets had brought down Nixon, the network they launched together would ensure that no future Republican president would again find himself without a devoted ally in the press.

On April 18, hours after the redacted Mueller report became public, that alliance was in full effect. The pundits on Fox News celebrated what they told their viewers was a complete exoneration of the president.

"The witch hunt is finally over," Sean Hannity, who has regular post-show chats with Trump, crowed, declaring the president "totally vindicated." Laura Ingraham, who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention, opened her program with a list of all the people to whom the Democrats and "liberal media" owed an apology — first and foremost, Donald Trump.

The president returned the favor by live-tweeting much of Fox News's coverage that night.

More than 40 years ago, Nixon sat slumped in the White House, watching his presidency slip away. Today, Trump sits in the same building, watching Fox News and knowing that, at least for the foreseeable future, his presidency remains secure.