Opinion | Haberman book: Carlson pressed Trump White House to pardon Roger Stone

We knew Fox News host Tucker Carlson was an effective propagandist, based on his years attacking the attackers of Donald Trump. Now we’re learning what a force he can be as a lobbyist.

In early 2020, Carlson met with Trump adviser Jared Kushner to secure clemency for his friend Roger Stone, the renowned political dirty trickster whose résumé as an operative goes back to Richard M. Nixon. The revelation comes from the new book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.”

The episode highlights one of the baked-in perils of the media industry: People who work in it get awfully close to power, and avoiding the temptations of that proximity requires integrity. As well as bosses who actually care about journalistic principles, a dynamic not in evidence at Fox News.

Most of the Carlson-Stone story is a matter of very public record. As the Erik Wemple Blog explained at length in 2020, the two have been close for years. The mutual backscratching surfaces in printed material and video clips. “Like many in the upper reaches of media, business and government, this executive stood in fear and trembling before the legend of Roger Stone,” wrote Carlson in the introduction for a book authored by Stone in 2018. “And for good reason: Roger Stone is a troublemaker — indeed, not just a troublemaker, but perhaps the premier troublemaker of our time, the Michael Jordan of electoral mischief. This is either terrifying or delightful, depending on your uptightness level. I love it. Television executives don’t. That’s the difference.” Stone has been an occasional guest on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

And “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has been there for Stone. When the FBI in January 2019 raided Stone’s Florida home, Carlson denounced the tactic and criticized CNN for obtaining video of the early-morning action. The network, he contended, was in cahoots with officials from Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which had been probing Stone’s activities. “CNN acted as the public relations arm of the Mueller investigation, as they have before,” said the host. (In fact, CNN journalists’ presence that morning was because of a hunch informed by their reporting.) Stone was subsequently indicted — on counts that included witness tampering and making false statementsfound guilty on all counts and sentenced to more than three years in prison.

The whole affair short-circuited Carlson, who just couldn’t stand by and allow the justice system to do its thing. When it emerged that the Mueller report hadn’t established a Trump-Russia conspiracy, Carlson howled about Stone’s situation: “Where are the pardons here?” asked Carlson in March 2019. “I mean, is it time for the executive branch to send a really clear message we’re going to stop the destruction of innocent people by completely out-of-control bureaucrats?”

Following Stone’s conviction, Carlson revealed some inside reporting on a possible pardon, citing Kushner as one gatekeeper. “We’re hearing that certain people around the president — possibly his son-in-law, maybe not — are telling him no, you can’t pardon Roger Stone, even though the president has come out and said publicly, I think that this was a travesty.”

That little clue perhaps explains why, in Haberman’s book, Carlson seeks an audience with Kushner. In the meeting, Carlson told Kushner that if Trump didn’t act, he’d “press the issue publicly,” according to “Confidence Man.” As noted above, Carlson had already been doing just that, but in mid-February 2020, in the days leading up to Stone’s sentencing, Carlson did multiple segments on the topic. “You know what the average rapist does in this country? We checked today — four years. You know what the average armed robber gets? Three years. The average thug who violently assaults somebody? Less than a year and a half,” riffed Carlson on Feb. 11. “But the left, CNN as well, demanding that Roger Stone die in prison. This man needs a pardon.”

The next night, he kept at it. “If the Russia collusion story was a hoax, and of course it most certainly was a hoax, then why is Roger Stone going to prison for his role in it?” he asked. “If Roger Stone serves even a single day behind bars, the Russia lie will be validated as true.” On it went: “Prosecutors want Roger Stone to serve nine years not because he hurt someone or hurt this country. He didn’t. But because they hate him,” Carlson said on Feb. 13.

The transcripts, in other words, reflect that Carlson made good on the consequences that he’d dangled before Kushner — if Trump didn’t act, he’d make a public fuss. Journalists don’t, or should not, veer into this sort of personal advocacy; their role is to determine what is happening and to report the findings, the better to inform viewers. Yet viewers weren’t the priority for Carlson. Stone was.

We asked both Fox News and Carlson himself about the report in Haberman’s book. Neither responded to emails.

You know who’s on record as despising the sort of strong-arm tactics that Carlson deployed against the White House in this instance? Tucker Carlson. In December 2018, he accused former Playboy model Karen McDougal of “extortion” in her dealings with Trump in the previous presidential election. The accusation was false, and McDougal filed a defamation suit against Carlson. The complaint was dismissed because a federal judge ruled that “Tucker Carlson Tonight” was not to be taken seriously.

Someone, however, apparently took him seriously indeed. In December 2020, the White House announced Stone’s pardon. In an appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” shortly after the news broke, Stone said, “Well, Tucker, thanks for your outstanding analysis and reporting on this issue.”

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