'We are the victim': How Fox News fuels Trump supporters' obsession with China conspiracy theories
Fox News/screen grab

When Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, many believed their disruption of Congress' certification of the electoral vote for Joe Biden effectively amounted to resisting the installation of a puppet regime beholden to the Communist Party of China.

"Trump fails, Biden gets installed…. Patriots are ineffective and we live under the rules of the elite pedophiles and chinese communist party," Samuel Fisher wrote on his personal website hours before the assault on the Capitol, according to an affidavit supporting federal charges against him for unlawful entry and disorderly conduct.

The attorney for another defendant has suggested that consumption of Fox News could be used to help mitigate responsibility for criminal acts. Lawyer Joseph Hurley told a DC magistrate judge on May 13 that his client, Anthony Antonio, was laid off during the pandemic and spent all of his time at home watching Fox News with his roommates, according to a report in HuffPost.

"For the next approximate six months, Fox television played constantly," Hurley reportedly told the magistrate. "He became hooked with what I call 'Foxitus' or 'Foxmania' and became interested in the political aspect and started believing what was being fed to him."

The idea that Beijing exerts malign influence over the Biden administration as a result of treachery by political elites and erosion of sovereignty by global institutions continues to receive nourishment through Fox News' obsessive coverage of China. For the past three weeks, the primary focus has been an explosive claim by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that Anthony Fauci approved US funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China "to mutate animal viruses to infect humans." Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson, Maria Bartiromo, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity have amplified the claim, alongside Paul and other Republican lawmakers, often reaching conclusions beyond the evidence of the reporting or omitting critical context.

Bartiromo, meanwhile, has cross-pollinated the Fauci-Wuhan connection claim, with references to a questionable report in The Australian — owned, like Fox, by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. — asserting that Chinese military scientists "discussed the weaponization of Sars coronaviruses five years before the COVID-19 pandemic." The implications, although not spelled out by Bartiromo or any of her guests, could be interpreted by viewers to mean that Fauci was complicit in designing a Chinese bioweapon that was unleashed on the United States and the world.

And while the Biden administration has clashed with Beijing on the persecution of the Uighur minority, the crackdown on the Hong Kong democracy movement, and other issues, Fox News hosts have promoted the idea that the president is incapable of standing up to China by repeatedly highlighting Hunter Biden's financial entanglements abroad.

Hannity set the tone in his monologue on May 11 by proclaiming that America's enemies — namely China, Russia and Iran — were "doing backflips" in glee as they watched President Biden's handling of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown. Hannity sarcastically suggested that the president leverage his son's foreign connections.

"Now, we are the victim of these cyberattacks against the US," the Fox News host taunted. "Hey, Joe, I don't know, maybe you can enlist Hunter and he can help you out."

The next day, Ingraham reinforced the theme by attacking proposals for international cooperation to stop the spread of the next pandemic as a plot "to completely reorder the global economy" and "eliminat[e] national sovereignty."

"As with climate change, it has nothing to do with science and public health," she charged. "It's about transferring wealth, power, decision making from American taxpayers to UN bureaucrats. And the details get more frightening from there.

Reading from a New York Times article about the proposals, Ingraham concluded, "In other words, obey the [World Health Organization], Bill Gates, Klaus Schwab, the World Economic Forum, China, or pay up."

But the central drama in Fox News' coverage of China over the past three weeks isn't Hunter Biden's business dealings or global pandemic controls, but the claim that Fauci steered funding to the Wuhan lab for the development of a "super-virus" through what is known as "gain-of-function research."

Sen. Rand Paul leveled the claim on Fox News' "Sunday Morning Futures" with host Maria Bartiromo on April 25.

"But what you have to ask Dr. Fauci is, why did he oversee the labs allowing gain-of-function?" Paul said. "Why is he allowing the labs to get government money to upgrade animal viruses so they can infect humans?"

To be clear, engineering more powerful viruses in labs is not necessarily done for nefarious purposes, although the practice is controversial. As Vox reported last May: "The scientists who do this kind of research argue that we can better anticipate deadly diseases by making diseases deadlier in the lab. But many people at the time and since have become increasingly convinced that the potential research benefits — which look limited — just don't outweigh the risks of kicking off the next deadly pandemic ourselves." (The report said that the Obama administration had placed a moratorium on the so-called "gain-of-function" research, but the Trump administration lifted it in 2017.)

Paul confronted Fauci with the claim during a May 11 Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pension Committee meeting, pushing it beyond the confines of Fox News and the conservative media ecosystem.

"Dr. Fauci, we don't know whether the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan or evolved naturally, but we should want to know," Paul said. "To arrive at the truth, the US government should admit that the Wuhan Virology Institute was experimenting to enhance the coronavirus' ability to infect humans.

"Juicing up super-viruses is not new," Paul continued. "Scientists in the US have long known how to mutate animal viruses to infect humans." Paul said that Ralph Baric, a virologist at UNC-Chapel Hill, had collaborated with a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to share expertise on the process, adding, "This gain-of-function research has been funded by the NIH."

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, responded during the hearing by saying, "The NIH and NIAID categorically have not funded gain-of-function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology."

Fauci continued to deny Paul's charge in an interview with PolitiFact on the same day, calling it "preposterous" and "just absolutely not true."

But Fauci acknowledged a relationship between the NIH and the Wuhan lab involving a transfer of funds while denying that any of the funds were used to manufacture a virus.

"So, in a very minor collaboration, as part of a subcontract of a grant, we had a collaboration with some Chinese scientists," Fauci said. "And what that conflated is that therefore we were involved in creating the virus, which is the most ridiculous, majestic leap I've ever heard of."

Some scientists told PolitiFact that the Wuhan lab did, in fact, conduct gain-of-function research on bat viruses, the fact-checking outfit said. And some of the research was funded by the EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit that received a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Baric, the UNC-Chapel Hill virologist who collaborated with the researcher at the Wuhan lab, told PolitiFact that "his work involved a very different strain of the coronavirus than the one that causes COVID-19," according to the outlet.

PolitiFact's inquiry into the matter concluded: "Researchers at the Wuhan lab used reverse genetic on bat viruses not found in nature. Some of the research was funded by a grant provided by the National Institutes of Health. However, there's no evidence that this research led to the creation of SARS-COV-2."

In the two days, before Paul's confrontation with Fauci during the Senate hearing mainstreamed the debate, Fox News beat the drum on the Fauci-Wuhan lab connection.

Bartiromo reprised the clip of Paul's remarks on May 9, playing it for Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.)

"And it does boggle your mind that Anthony Fauci continued to fund gain-of-function research and cooperate with the Wuhan lab," Johnson said in response. "He had to know full well that the Wuhan lab — just about any organization in China is connected with the Communist Party of China, as well as the People's Liberation Army. What were we doing cooperating with China?"

Tucker Carlson piled on the following night during his show, while recommending an article published on Medium by Nicholas Wade, a former science writer for the New York Times, that makes the case that COVID-19 was released from a lab rather than passed from an animal to a human.

"At the time the outbreak began last fall, the Wuhan lab was conducting experiments on how to make bat viruses infectious to human beings," Carlson said. "Those experiments were funded by American tax dollars. Those experiments — their funding — approved and directed by Tony Fauci in Washington — by Tony Fauci."

Since the dustup between Paul and Fauci, other Republican lawmakers have continued to weigh in on Fox.

"Isn't it an amazing coincidence" that the pandemic came from a Chinese city that "just happened to have these laboratories that Tony Fauci's agency was indirectly funding?" Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked on "Ingraham Angle."

While more circumspect about Fauci's potential involvement, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) gave credence to the lab-leak theory, telling Bartiromo this past Sunday: "We have zero evidence that some dude ate a bat in a wet market."

During the same show, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Bartiromo: "Every piece of evidence we saw through the entire time I was there suggests that this originated in that laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. I haven't seen a shred of evidence that suggests anything to the contrary."

The Republican lawmakers' and former cabinet member's positions align with former President Trump, who has claimed since the outset of the pandemic that the virus leaked from a lab. While few have directly challenged Trump's claim, critics view it as a self-serving stance to deflect from his mishandling of the pandemic.

Carlson went further than Paul, Johnson, Nunes or Pompeo during his May 10 show, declaring, "The first coronavirus patients in fact did not come from the so-called wet market, as we heard; that was a lie. The first patients of the coronavirus, in fact, were employees at the Wuhan Institute of Virology."

On the question of whether coronavirus emerged from a lab or animal-human contact, PolitiFact concluded: "Some scientists have argued that the lab-leak hypothesis deserves to be taken much more seriously than it was earlier in the pandemic and that dismissals of it as a conspiracy theory were premature. Claims of complete certainty on either side remain unfounded."

Carlson and Ingraham's statements have promoted the impression that the World Health Organization is shutting down debate on the matter.

"In what turned out to be a sham report, that team concluded that it is quote 'extremely unlikely' that the virus came from the Wuhan lab," Carlson said on his May 10 show. "Again, that's not true."

For her part, Ingraham said on May 4: "Well, and of course, that begs the question of why China has not been forthcoming on this question. The WHO just kind of whitewashed this, and said there's no evidence."

Carlson and Ingraham neglected to mention that following the release report by a team of international experts investigating the origin of the virus, WHO President Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus formally stated on March 31: "Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy."

Further muddying the debate over whether the US National Institutes of Health-funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab, Bartiromo has twice discussed a controversial article by Sharri Markson for The Australian on Fox News over the past two weeks. In one segment with Pompeo, Bartiromo presented Markson's claim alongside the clip of Sen. Paul outlining his accusation against Fauci.

Attempting to elicit a comment from Pompeo, Bartiromo said, "She said the US State Department obtained documents in May of 2020 revealing that Chinese military scientists discussed the weaponization of SARS coronavirus five years before the pandemic showed up."

Pompeo demurred: "I can't say much about those particular documents."

But earlier in the segment, he provided some fuel for viewers with fertile imaginations, saying, "The risk of bioweapons and bioterror emanating this region [China] is very real."

A story in the Guardian throws cold water on Markson's report, claiming that it exaggerates the significance of a "discredited 2015 book of conspiracy theories."

The Guardian quotes James Palmer, a deputy editor of Foreign Policy magazine and China expert, as saying, "The story is clearly framed in a way to make the reader think that this is a secret or confidential information, using language such as the State Department 'obtained' the information."

"But this 'paper' or 'document,' as it's described, is actually a book with a strong conspiratorial bent published in 2015 — a fact buried toward the end of the article — and easily available to any buyer in China."

The Guardian also cited Palmer as saying that "the discussion in the book about the effects of biological weapons was in terms of fears these weapons would be used against China, not by China."

Alongside commentary about the origin of COVID-19, Bartiromo and Hannity have also continued to remind viewers of Hunter Biden's legal troubles, attempting to tie them to his father's administration.

"Well, we continue to see news around Hunter Biden and his ties to China in terms of investing," Bartiromo said on May 9.

"He still has a 10 percent stake in a Chinese company," she added, apparently referring to an April 29 report in the Daily Caller.

Then, addressing her guest, Sen. Ron Johnson, Bartiromo asked: "What are your thoughts in terms of this administration and their ability to be tough on China?"

"Well, I'm highly concerned," Johnson replied. He said the American people need to "understand these foreign financial entanglements of Hunter Biden and the Biden family, and how they might affect US foreign policy. The counter-intelligence threats. The extortion threats."

Two days later, as he ridiculed President Biden, Hannity suggested that he enlist Hunter's help so he "can talk to the Chinese Communist Party officials that took him and his family on a $100,000 international shopping spree for the Biden family, or his contacts in the Chinese military, and, of course, the $1.5 billion deal with the Bank of China."

Those claims appear to come from a September 2020 report on Hunter Biden that was jointly issued by the Senate Homeland Security and Finance committees, respectively chaired by Johnson and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Hunter Biden has confirmed that he is under federal investigation, telling CNN in December: "I learned yesterday for the first time that the US Attorney's Office in Delaware advised my counsel , also yesterday, that they are investigating my tax affairs."

CNN cited two anonymous sources with knowledge of the matter as saying that "investigators have been examining multiple financial issues, including whether Hunter Biden and his associates violated tax and money laundering laws in business dealings with foreign countries, principally China." The outlet also reported that then-President-elect Joe Biden was not implicated in the investigation.

The obsession with China on Fox News has moved, at least for some commentators, to a new target — fellow Americans. Tucker Carlson said during his May 10 show that he was reassessing his analysis.

"I think I've misread this story from the first day," he said. "I imagined that the media blackout on the origins of coronavirus was designed to protect the Chinese government. But the US government is implicated in this deeply, and the story that [Nicholas] Wade tells is of incompetence on the Chinese side, and the lying and authoritarian — you know, the kind of predictable Chinese government behavior.

"But on the American side, you see people going around a moratorium on dangerous experiments, Tony Fauci signing off on it," Carlson continued. "And those are the people, the Americans who made this possible — I would call them crimes — are being covered up by the media in this country."