Based on his private statements to colleagues, we know that former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson did not believe Trump lawyer Sidney Powell's wild claims about systematic fraud in the 2020 presidential election. "Sidney Powell is lying," Carlson flatly stated in a November 16, 2020, text message to fellow Fox News host Laura Ingraham that came to light as a result of the defamation lawsuit that Dominion Voting Systems filed against the channel. Ingraham agreed that Powell could not be trusted: "Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy [Giuliani]."
We also know, again thanks to discovery in the Dominion lawsuit, that Carlson had a low opinion of Donald Trump. In a November 10, 2020, text message, he called Trump's decision not to attend Biden's inauguration "hard to believe," "so destructive," and "disgusting." He was more broadly critical in a January 4, 2021, text message to his staff. "There isn't really an upside to Trump," he said, describing "the last four years" as "a disaster." Carlson was eager for a change: "We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can't wait. I hate him passionately." The day after the January 6 Capitol riot by Trump supporters, Carlson privately called him "a demonic force" and "a destroyer."
Carlson, who launched a new show on Twitter after Fox News fired him in April, was singing a different tune yesterday at the Turning Point Action Conference in West Palm Beach, Florida. "Why were they so mad?" he said during a giddy, meandering 44-minute speech at the pro-Trump gathering, referring to the Capitol rioters. "Why do they take the bus from Tennessee to go jump up and down in front of the Capitol?" The answer, he said, is that they were frustrated by the patronizing, dismissive response to their legitimate concerns about how the presidential election had been conducted.
Carlson suggested it was laughably implausible that Joe Biden had received "81 million votes"—"15 million more than Barack Obama," which "seems like a lot"—especially "considering [that] he didn't campaign and he can't talk." But instead of taking that reaction seriously, Carlson said, the political and journalistic establishment told Trump's supporters to "settle down," saying, "We have the source code in the voting machine software, and we've looked at it, and it's totally on the level. We've double-checked. We wouldn't let an electronic voting [company] hide their software from us."
The unfounded claim that deliberately corrupted Dominion software enabled Biden to steal the election, of course, was the central issue in the company's lawsuit against Fox, which the parties settled for a jaw-dropping $788 million shortly before Carlson got the boot. It was also the claim that Carlson privately dismissed as dangerous nonsense. "It's unbelievably offensive to me," he told Ingraham. "Our viewers are good people and they believe it."
The next day, Carlson made his doubts public, albeit in less categorical terms. If what Powell said were true, he said on his show, it would be "the single greatest crime in American history." But he noted that Powell, despite repeated requests from his staff, had declined to back up her claims with evidence.
Yet now Carlson, who was transparently craving the adulation of the Trump supporters in West Palm Beach, is reinforcing their conviction that Biden could have won the election only through a vast criminal conspiracy that Carlson publicly called unsubstantiated and privately called a lie. He apparently has swallowed any disgust he once felt at Powell et al.'s deception of "good people."
What about the politician who persistently promoted that conspiracy theory and embraces it to this day? "Republicans elected a guy basically on the promise to blow up the Republican Party," Carlson said, which should have been cause for reflection within the GOP establishment. But mainstream Republican politicians did not take the lessons of Trump's victory to heart, he complained, and today they are abetting Biden's "perversion of leadership" vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine, a failure that Carlson said is "disgusting" because it fosters "chaos."
In the immediate aftermath of the Capitol riot, Carlson privately viewed Trump as an agent of chaos, and not in a good way. The sooner the GOP was rid of Trump's influence, Carlson thought, the better. "Trump has two weeks left," he told his staff the day after the riot. "Once he's out, he becomes incalculably less powerful, even in the minds of his supporters."
That is not quite the way things worked out. Trump currently is by far the leading contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, about 30 points ahead of his closest competitor. And so Carlson, like the Republican politicians whose phoniness he detests, has adjusted to the reality that Trump continues to dominate the GOP. "Whatever you think of Trump," Carlson said, "he's pretty clear on this [i.e., the need for decisive leadership in foreign affairs], and they hate him for it actually. They hate him for it."
Carlson's attempt to have it both ways regarding Trump's stolen-election fantasy was apparent from the January 26, 2021, show in which he gave MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell a forum to regurgitate that story. More than two months after Carlson had publicly rebuked Powell for making unsubstantiated claims about machine-facilitated election fraud, he interviewed Lindell, ostensibly on the subject of "cancel culture." Lindell predictably seized the opportunity to repeat the charge that Carlson had dismissed—the same charge that would eventually cost Fox $788 million.
Lindell said "we have all the evidence" to show Dominion's complicity in election fraud and complained that "they just say, 'Oh, you're wrong.'" Instead of asking Lindell to elaborate on that "evidence," Carlson sympathized with his complaint. "They're not making conspiracy theories go away by doing that," Carlson said. "You…don't make people kind of calm down and get reasonable and moderate by censoring them. You make them get crazier, of course. This is…ridiculous."
That comment, Fox argued, implied skepticism by referring to "conspiracy theories." Dominion argued that "a regular viewer of Carlson's would likely have thought Carlson changed his mind on the subject, given how differently he treated Lindell than he had treated Powell."
Now Carlson is doubling down on the position he took during that interview. The real scandal, he claims to think, is not that the president of the United States refused to accept an electoral loss and instead promoted one specious claim after another in an effort to overturn, or at least cast doubt on, the outcome. The real scandal, Carlson says, is that those claims were not taken seriously enough.
Carlson positions himself as a bold truth teller who is unafraid to tell it like it is. But his slippery handling of Trump's tall tale shows he is no more trustworthy than the politicians he despises.