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How Right-Wing Media Spread Debunked Rumor Of Iowa ‘Fraud’

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton and other key conservative media figures manufactured and spread a false smear about voter registrations, previewing how right-wing media plan to spread disinformation to sow doubt and confusion throughout the 2020 election cycle.

On February 2, Fitton tweeted that “eight Iowa counties have more voter registrations than citizens old enough to register.” Early the following morning, Iowa’s Republican secretary of state, Paul Pate, debunked the claim multiple times as “false,” responding to Twitter users who promoted the smear and issuing a formal statement. Independent journalist Judd Legum also explained that this claim is baseless and relies on a misinterpretation of data. Still, right-wing media acted in concert to feed the smear, spreading the false claim hours after it had been thoroughly debunked.

Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton

Fitton responded to Pate’s debunking by doubling down, claiming that Judicial Watch is “under attack for accurately highlighting dirty voting rolls in Iowa” and smearing the Republican secretary of state and journalists who reported on the claim. In addition to spreading the smear on Twitter, Fitton bought an advertisement on Facebook to promote it. Facebook took the advertisement down after a few hours, but not before it had received between 25,000 and 30,000 impressions.

Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk

Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk also played a key role in spreading the claim. On Sunday night, Kirk tweeted a paraphrase of Fitton’s report, gaining over 43,000 retweets and 62,000 likes. Pate debunked the claim early the following morning, but Kirk continued to spread the smear nearly 21 hours after Pate’s initial attempts to debunk it. 

The Epoch Times

The Epoch Times also played an outsized role in spreading the disinformation after it had been thoroughly debunked. At 4 p.m. EST on Monday — hours after Pate had debunked the claim — The Epoch Times published an article on the report, which initially simply pushed the false claim but later added Pate’s debunk. The article began to swiftly pick up engagement, earning over 100,000 total interactions on Facebook by 8 p.m. By the following morning, the article had obtained nearly 175,000 interactions on Facebook, which had to add a disclaimer warning users that the post contained false information. On Tuesday morning, most of the posts pushing the article on its multiple Facebook pages were deleted

Fox News’ Sean Hannity 

Fox News prime-time host Sean Hannity also promoted the smear online after it had been debunked, even though Fox Business anchor Neil Cavuto hosted Pate to debunk the claim on his show. Hannity’s website wrote the report up in an article titled “REPORT: Eight Iowa Counties Have More Registered Voters than ELIGIBLE Voters, 18K+ Extra Names.” Hannity tweeted out a link to his write-up at 4:07 p.m. EST on Monday, earning over 4,000 retweets and over 6,000 likes. MoveOn’s Natalie Martinez (formerly of Media Matters) also reported that some local radio stations that syndicate Hannity’s radio show were reposting the article. Hannity also posted it on Facebook, which added a disclaimer to his post too, though the social media network did not take it down. 

Other right-wing media figures and outlets involved in promoting the smear on Monday include The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft, right-wing commentator Janie Johnson, and One America News Network.

This ordeal offers a glimpse into how right-wing organizations like Judicial Watch use distorted interpretations of information to fearmonger about voter fraud — a myth long-championed by conservatives to distract from real voter suppression. Their goal appears to be to cast doubt on election results, paving the way for conspiracy theories that leave their audience’s faith in voting institutions shaken. 

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Right-Wing Media Smear Vindman’s Twin Brother As Leaker

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

On January 26, The New York Times reported on leaked portions of an unpublished manuscript from former national security adviser John Bolton, which the paper says revealed that President Donald Trump told Bolton he wanted to continue with a hold on Ukrainian military aid until the country opened investigations into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. 

The same night, Breitbart News swiftly posted a conspiratorial smear against the brother of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council expert on Ukraine who testified in the House impeachment inquiry in October. Breitbart claimed “a source close to the Trump administration” told the outlet that Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, Alexander’s brother, “is in charge of reviewing all publications by current and former NSC officials,” which would include Bolton’s book manuscript. 

Right-wing media have attacked Alexander Vindman with detestable smears since October, when he testified to Congress that he “did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen” and that he “was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.” His testimony led to a swarm of right-wing media accusations that because he had immigrated from Ukraine as a small child, the Purple Heart winner may be more loyal toward Ukraine than the United States. 

Now, right-wing media outlets are turning their attention toward Yevgeny. While Breitbart‘s report is accurate that Yevgeny is a “senior ethics lawyer” for the NSC, there is no evidence that he saw the manuscript. In fact, Fox News’ John Roberts tweeted on January 27 that his sources say Yevgeny “is NOT part of the NSC team vetting John Bolton’s manuscript.”

Still, that didn’t stop right-wing media figures — including some from Roberts’ own network — from promoting the smear that the leak of Bolton’s book manuscript was a conspiracy stemming from the Vindmans. Conservative media outlets including The Washington TimesRedState, and Biz Pac Review reported the story, citing Breitbart. Prominent figures in conservative media tweeted about the conspiracy theory, including Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, Fox News host Mark Levin, and right-wing radio host Bill Mitchell.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), one of Trump’s strongest defenders in Congress, also promoted the smear:

The War Room podcast co-host Jason Miller also tweeted about the smear, writing, “No such thing as coincidences in politics.” Conservative giant Rush Limbaugh also promoted it as fact on his radio show, saying, “Yevgeny Vindman is the guy vetting Bolton’s book.” Newsmax’s Emerald Robinson tweeted the Breitbart article, sarcastically adding, “What a coincidence … if you believe in coincidences.” Fox News prime-time host Sean Hannity claimed on his radio show that “we’re hearing that the brother of a key Schiff impeachment witness” was allegedly involved in the leak, though he also said he had not confirmed the report and was getting it from Breitbart

Fox Business host Lou Dobbs similarly offered a disclaimer that a source denied the allegations to Fox News, but he mentioned that only after sharing the smear, saying, “Both Bolton and [Robert] O’Brien led the National Security Council that employed the likes of the infamous, anonymous whistleblower, never-Trumper Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, and his brother, Yevgeny Vindman, the security council senior ethics lawyer. Yevgeny is also in charge of reviewing publications for former or current NSC employees to ensure [removal of] confidential information — say, that sort of thing, well you know, that happens at the National Security Council, the CIA, and other secretive agencies.” Frequent Dobbs guest Ed Rollins then promoted the smear, effectively rendering Dobbs’ brief disclaimer moot. 

This treatment of the Vindmans illustrates the harassment, lies, smears, and vitriol right-wing media will employ to attack any critic of Trump, particularly witnesses in the impeachment proceedings.

Pompeo Accused Of Retaliating Against NPR After Barring Reporter

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

In her role as a pool reporter, Kelemen was to travel with Pompeo and share information as a representative of all radio news outlets, not just NPR. But last week, Pompeo ignited a feud with NPR when host Mary Louise Kelly pressed him on his failure to stand up for State Department officials who got wrapped up in the Ukraine impeachment scandal. Reporters need the department’s permission to fly on the plane along with the secretary for foreign trips, though this practice is usually uncontroversial.

The association said in a statement that it “can only conclude that the State Department is retaliating against National Public Radio as a result of this exchange.”

It defended Kelemen specifically, saying she is a “consummate professional who has covered the State Department for nearly two decades.” Punishing members of the press association is “unacceptable,” the statement said. It also noted that around the world, the U.S. State Department promotes and defends journalism.

But when he was put under pressure by Kelly in the recent NPR interview, Pompeo became terse and combative when she raised the issue, and he refused to answer her questions. He suggested, falsely, that she was relying on anonymous sources when she cited internal complaints about the department, even though she referred to public congressional testimony of one of his former top aides.

Kelly said that after the on-air interview, Pompeo became even more aggressive, swearing at her and demanding she find Ukraine on an unmarked map, which she did. When she revealed these details publicly, Pompeo claimed she violated an off-the-record agreement, though he didn’t contradict her account. Kelly denied she agreed to go off the record. Pompeo also claimed that Kelly had agreed not to discuss the Ukraine matter with him before the interview, a charge NPR likewise denied. The New York Times reported that it obtained emails between Kelly and the State Department that, in fact, explicitly said she would discuss Ukraine.

The State Department has not yet commented publicly on the matter.

Fox News Personalities Who Promoted Bolton Now Scorn Him

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Fox News host Brian Kilmeade offered up a novel and deeply ironic retort to The New York Times’ Sunday night bombshell that President Donald Trump told then-national security adviser John Bolton military aid to Ukraine was conditioned on officials there aiding “investigations into Democrats including the Bidens,” which the paper reported based on descriptions by multiple sources of an unpublished manuscript of a forthcoming Bolton book. 

“The one thing the president should take from this,” he said on Monday morning’s Fox & Friends, is that “he’s got to do a better job vetting his staff to find out if they actually want to work for him or not, or they actually want to leak out information about him.” 

But if anyone could be said to have vetted Bolton for a top position in Trump’s administration, it was Fox. 

Bolton spent the decade between his stints in the Bush and Trump administrations as a Fox contributor, serving as the network’s face for national security policy in frequent interviews on Fox & Friends and other Fox programs. Trump reportedly selected Bolton for the national security adviser position specifically on the strength those Fox appearances. And the network personalities Trump values most repeatedly vouched for Bolton on air, urging the president to give him a top post and applauding him when he did.

Indeed, when Bolton was under consideration for a senior State Department role back in December 2016, Kilmeade himself bolstered his colleague’s aspirations.

Kilmeade trumpeted fellow host Mike Huckabee’s call for Trump to name Bolton his pick for deputy secretary of state, while Fox & Friends’ chyron read “Number 2 Diplomat?” As co-host Steve Doocy led Bolton onto the set and urged him to get on a Simply Fit board, Kilmeade shouted, “Trump wants to see if you’re in shape! He’s watching! Mr. President-elect, this is what you could have!”

Fox & Friends wasn’t the only Fox show looking favorably on the notion of Bolton ascending to a top State role. Discussing his own decision not to make a bid for secretary of State, Rudy Giuliani told Sean Hannity that “John Bolton was on the list at that point, and I guess John was probably my favorite.” Hannity replied, “I think you and John together would have been a great team. That’s my opinion.”

Giuliani later became Trump’s personal lawyer, and his Ukraine machinations are at the heart of the scandal reportedly detailed in Bolton’s book, while Hannity became a close adviser to the president as well as the chief propagandist defending his actions.

Bolton ultimately did not take a position among Trump’s initial administration hires. Instead, he remained on Fox, where he lavished praise on the president’s decisions. That reportedly caught the eye of the president, who “relished the way he validated the administration’s policies,” and so when Trump soured on H.R. McMaster, his second national security adviser, he picked Bolton to replace him.

Bolton’s hiring earned plaudits on Fox, with the network’s hosts specifically highlighting his loyalty to the president and his agenda.

“This is, a friend of mine put it, a great day for the America and as well for the president,” argued Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs, perhaps Fox’s most sycophantic Trump fan and a sometime adviser to his White House, on his program the night the move was announced. “I think anyone who knows John Bolton is celebrating because of his intellect, his capacity, his experience, his talent,” he added.

Hannity likewise described Bolton’s hiring as “good news” and a “huge improvement” from McMaster on his March 22 program. “He will serve the president, right, and his agenda,” Hannity added. 

“I know John Bolton,” former Bush White House press secretary and Fox contributor Ari Fleischer told Hannity the next night. “With John Bolton at NSA, even more is about to get done. John Bolton is one of the sharpest, savviest operators in Washington. And he is a true north. He is a principled conservative and I welcome John Bolton into this administration.” “Yes, me too,” Hannity replied.

On Fox & Friends, Pete Hegseth, another Fox host who also advises the president, claimed there was a “sense” that McMaster “felt like he was saving America from President Trump, as opposed to  channeling why President Trump was elected and helping him do that.” 

“That’s the switch you’re getting with Ambassador John Bolton,” Hegseth added. “We know him from this channel, and you know him from hearing from him, but those on the inside have seen him work inside bureaucracies and elsewhere and are very hopeful that this is the kind of guy that will advance the agenda this president ran on.”

And Fox contributor Dan Bongino said that unlike past members of the administration, Bolton would be loyal to the president. “One thing about Donald Trump we all know, and what I’ve heard from a lot of people who know him, and friends of mine who obviously still work there is he prizes loyalty over anything else, everything,” Bongino said, noting that his National Security Council members were “loyal to themselves, they’re loyal to the swamp, and strangely, they’re loyal to the press that will screw them over in a minute.” 

“Now, he brings in John Bolton, and though John Bolton has some establishment ties, no one questions his loyalty,” Bongino went on. “He’s going to go in there, it’s going to be a housecleaning, and I think it’s exactly what Donald Trump needs to right this ship.”

That doesn’t seem to be the way events have played out. 

The House impeachment investigation produced testimony that Bolton had opposed what he called a “drug deal” to condition a White House visit by Ukraine’s president on Ukraine opening an investigation into the Bidens. And after criticism from Fox host Tucker Carlson, who had Trump’s ear, forced him out of the administration, Bolton has now moved to the center of the Ukraine scandal, which developed because of the president’s affinity for the network and played out on its airwaves.

That makes him an obstacle his former colleagues must overcome if they hope to keep Trump in office, and so they are gearing up to tear him down.