WASHINGTON ― If Donald Trump survives impeachment, he can thank the work of a young aide for the last Republican president to face impeachment for trying to cheat in his reelection: Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News.
Trump was impeached Wednesday for using $391 million in taxpayer money to get an illegal advantage in his reelection ― 45 years after Richard Nixon faced impeachment for using tens of thousands of dollars of campaign money to do the same thing.
“President Nixon attempted to corrupt elections. His agents broke into the Democratic Party headquarters to get a leg up on the election and then, just like President Trump, he tried to cover it up. Then he resigned,” California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who worked on the articles of impeachment against Nixon as a 26-year-old law student, said in Wednesday’s floor debate. “This is even worse. President Trump not only abused his power to help his reelection, he used a foreign government to do it. He used military aid provided to fight the Russians as leverage solely to benefit his own political campaign.”
But while Nixon faced plummeting poll numbers and wound up resigning before the impeachment charges could hit the House floor, Trump is likely to get through a Senate trial with at most a few Republicans voting to remove him from office.
The single biggest difference in the two landscapes: Nixon’s impeachment took place before Ailes could act on a 1970 memo titled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” while Trump’s happened decades after Ailes’ 1996 creation had become the most-watched channel on cable.
“Fox News and the conservative media world prepared the groundwork for a demagogue,” said former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who spent years in that world as an AM radio talk show host and is now challenging Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination. “They spew out Trump’s lies, and people believe it.”
In 1974, there were three broadcast television networks and dozens of major daily newspapers, whose journalists worked on a shared consensus of fact-based reporting. In 2019, there are many fewer newspapers, and instead there are a host of right-wing media outlets, dominated by Fox News, that serve to repeat and amplify Trump’s claims, regardless of their accuracy.
Nixon saw his approval rating drop to 24% after the Supreme Court ordered the release of audio tapes proving his role in the Watergate cover-up. Trump, even after the release of a July 25 rough transcript and supporting testimony showing he had coerced Ukraine to hurt his most feared Democratic rival, still has approval ratings in the low 40s.
“Nixon might have burned the tapes if he knew Fox News would have backed his action,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said.
The 15-page memo, annotated by Ailes personally in black marker and unearthed from the Nixon Library archives by journalist John Cook, states that people prefer watching television because “the thinking is done for you” and that the White House should be able to get “pro-Administration” stories out to local stations directly, without working through the networks. “It avoids the censorship, the priorities and the prejudices of network news selectors and disseminators.”
Ailes died in 2017. In 1968, he was a television talk show producer when he went to work for Nixon, but was not able to start any such service before he was pushed out of Nixon’s campaign in 1971. He did start Television News Incorporated, a Washington-based conservative news service, in 1974, but it went out of business the following year.
In 1996, though, with media billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s backing, the by-then-veteran GOP political operative founded Fox News, essentially creating a Republican-oriented channel in the still new world of cable television. It won market share by offering viewers an openly pro-GOP perspective, while other networks and newspapers divided up the remaining news audience committed to traditional journalism.
And while in the past Fox largely passed along the GOP version of events and magnified stories that helped Republicans ― the Benghazi attacks and the IRS targeting “scandal” under President Barack Obama, for example ― during the Trump presidency the network seems to have gone even further to stifle criticism against him, particularly from Republicans.
“Fox is a huge factor” in Trump’s sustained level of support among Republicans, said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It has consistently provided an alternative universe, and its impact resonates with that core of Trump supporters who keep Republican lawmakers from confronting the truth.”
The most highly viewed hours, evening prime time and the early morning, feature shows that almost exclusively lavish Trump with praise and attack his critics.
Trump himself acknowledges the role he expects Fox to play, even as he complains the network is not supportive enough. “Only pro Trump Fox shows do well,” he wrote on Saturday.
Fox News did not respond to queries for this story. It has previously told HuffPost that it does not suppress criticism of Trump.
Walsh said his history as the first “tea party” candidate to win a congressional primary election should make him an obvious guest on Fox programs. Instead, he has been shut out.
“They’re beholden to Trump and they want to protect Trump. They’re doing whatever they can to protect their king,” Walsh said.
One Fox show invited Walsh to appear, but on the condition he agreed to speak only about “issues” and not attack Trump, according to the Walsh campaign. Walsh declined. His number-one issue at campaign stops and in media interviews is Trump’s unfitness for the office.
“There’s no way I would agree to do that,” Walsh said. “I’m not going to play the Fox game.”
Walsh did manage one appearance on Fox Business in late August, in which host Stuart Varney immediately began attacking him for criticizing Trump, and which ended after Walsh goaded Varney into claiming that Trump never lies.
Walsh said a similar thing happened with Salem Radio Network, which had been syndicating the AM talk radio show he began after leaving Congress in 2013. He was told in 2017, during the Obamacare repeal debate, that he could not speak about the issue at all if he criticized Trump’s position. That restriction grew to prohibit any criticism of Trump, he said ― a rule he said some Salem hosts agreed to live by but he would not. He learned this summer that his contract with Salem would not be renewed at the end of this year.
“Management would get on my ass weekly, trying to get me to be pro-Trump,” he said.
Phil Boyce, head of programming at Salem, said he never told Walsh that he could not criticize Trump, only that “Trump bashing was going to hurt his ratings” and decrease revenue. “He did drive away half his listeners,” Boyce said.
He acknowledged that another Trump-bashing host, Michael Medved, was fired because he, too, drove away audience. He added that he did not have to have similar discussions with other hosts, such as Hugh Hewitt, because they “figured it out for themselves.”
“Our country is in a culture war, and we’re warriors in that culture war,” Boyce said.