Fox has said that Dominion used “cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context, and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law.” The cable news juggernaut has accused the voting technology company of trying “to silence the press” through its lawsuit. Carlson has not responded to inquiries about his internal communications. But the vast distance between what he said privately and what he said on-air deepens questions about what Fox’s biggest star really believes.
(Portions of the text exchanges are redacted in the court records)
‘He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong’
On Nov. 5, votes were still being counted, but Trump’s path to victory in the presidential election had narrowed considerably. With defeat looming, Trump and his surrogates began making increasingly outlandish false claims about election fraud, fueling pro-Trump protests across the country. “If you count the illegal votes,” Trump said, “they can try to steal the election from us.”
The unfolding chaos seemed to rattle Carlson and his producer, Alex Pfeiffer. In a string of text messages, they voiced reservations about covering “demagogues” in Trump’s camp while at the same time appearing bothered that the Fox News decision desk had accurately projected that Biden would win Arizona.
They agreed that it was in the network’s interest for the election to be called as soon as possible.
As Carlson and Pfeiffer agreed in private that the best scenario for Fox News was a decisive end to the election, Carlson said the opposite on his show.
In a Nov. 5 segment on the election, the host urged against “hasty calls,” saying news media shouldn’t “shut it down artificially with unelected news anchors.” He seemed to portray the election falsehoods frothing in Trumpworld as “legitimate discourse and inquiry.” He told viewers, “If people air concerns, resolve the concerns.”
“Normal people are becoming paranoid. Americans who love this country are beginning to fear it. Why? We know exactly why. Because shutting down legitimate discourse and inquiry always has that effect. It destroys social trust and it sets the table for awful things to come. So let’s stop this right now. Slow down. No hasty calls. Our system works. It has worked before. If people air concerns, resolve the concerns. Don’t call them names. Don’t sweep those concerns under the rug. Don’t shut it down artificially with unelected news anchors. Let our system work.”
— Tucker Carlson on Nov. 5, 2020
Later in the text exchange between Pfeiffer and Carlson, the two ridiculed Trump’s business background. But Carlson seemed to acknowledge that Trump could wreck their careers and livelihoods if he didn’t like their coverage.
Pfeiffer did not immediately respond to multiple messages from The Washington Post seeking comment.
‘It’s disgusting. I’m trying to look away.’
On Nov. 10, 2020, days after news organizations called the election for Joe Biden, some conservatives criticized Carlson for not mentioning election fraud claims on his show that night. Carlson told Pfeiffer in texts that he hated the issue but said it was a “mistake” to have ignored it.
In further correspondence highlighted in court documents, Pfeiffer proposed they take an alternative approach in their upcoming shows and cover allegations that dead people voted in 2020. This ostensibly would allow them to sidestep some of the more outrageous election conspiracy theories — such as the bogus claims from Trump allies that voting machines were rigged to change votes — while still catering to an audience hungry for material on voter fraud. Carlson said he was on board and sent Pfeiffer to collect evidence.
The following day, the Trump campaign sent them the names of a few supposedly dead Americans who cast ballots in 2020. Carlson aired some of the names on his show that night, saying that voter fraud “happened, and we can prove it.”
“So, was there voter fraud last week? That’s a question we’ve been working on since election night. We’ve tried to be careful and precise as we report this out. In moments like this, truth really matters more than ever. False allegations of fraud can cause as much damage as the fraud itself. Jussie Smollett hurt more people with his lies than any actual hate crime. And the last thing America needs right now is more damage. So we want to be accurate. What we’re about to tell you is accurate. It’s not a theory. It happened and we can prove it. Other news organizations could prove it, too. They’ve simply chosen not to. The position of corporate media across the country this week has been very simple: There was no voter fraud.”
— Tucker Carlson on Nov. 11, 2020
Reporting by other news organizations later showed that some of the people identified by the Trump campaign were still alive, while others were mistaken identities. In other cases, Republican voters were charged with casting ballots in their dead relatives’ names. Carlson issued a correction on the Fox News website.
Amid the exchange about voter fraud, Pfeiffer said he had heard from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) that Trump was planning to skip Biden’s inauguration. Carlson seemed appalled that Trump would buck the long-standing tradition, calling the move “destructive.”
‘He’s only good at destroying’
Possibly the most prescient text exchange occurred between Carlson and Pfeiffer on Nov. 13, 2020. Carlson said any allegations of fraud involving Dominion needed to be “bulletproof.”
A week later, on Nov. 19, 2020, Carlson found himself trying to navigate a minefield he had helped create.
That morning, Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, held a news conference in Philadelphia where he aired more baseless claims about voter fraud. A dark liquid could be seen trickling down his face as he spoke. Carlson texted about it with Fox executive Ron Mitchell and producer Justin Wells.
In private, Carlson shared images of the scene, saying “my mind is blown.”
While Carlson privately wanted to ignore the spectacle on-air, he left the door open for Trump’s team to prove that fraud really existed on the level they claimed. In a Nov. 20 segment on his show, he said that if Trump lawyer Sidney Powell could actually unearth this crime, “no one will be more grateful for that than us.” He seemed to be soliciting evidence of voter fraud while acknowledging he had not seen any of it.
“They have not seen Powell’s evidence either. No testimony from employees inside the software companies, no damning internal documents, no copies of the software itself. So that’s where we are. Sidney Powell came on Fox this morning and suggested we may not have to wait much longer. ‘I fully expect,’ she says, ‘that we will be able to prove all of it in a court within the next two weeks.’ Well, as far as we’re concerned, that is great news. If Sidney Powell can prove the technology companies switched millions of votes and stole a presidential election, she will have almost single-handedly uncovered the greatest crime in the history of this country. And no one will be more grateful for that than us.”
— Tucker Carlson on Nov. 20, 2020
‘There isn’t really an upside to Trump’
By Trump’s final weeks in office, Carlson’s frustration with the president was boiling over. “I hate him passionately,” he texted Pfeiffer on Jan. 4, 2021, while musing about how they would soon be able to ignore Trump “most nights.”
And yet, Carlson devoted the opening of his show that night to the phone call Trump made days earlier in which Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn the state’s election result.
In a style Carlson has perfected over the years, he made little mention of what Trump actually said to Raffensperger. Instead, he took on the role of media critic, baselessly claiming that other news organizations were focusing on the call to divert attention from the upcoming Senate election in Georgia. He told viewers to listen to the recording themselves but said he was willing to bet they wouldn’t find it “the single most important thing happening in the world right now.”
“The president, as you may have heard, believes the election was stolen from him. Georgia’s secretary of state, whose job it is to oversee elections, disagrees. You can listen to the call yourself. It’s online and you can make up your own mind about who’s right on that question. And by the way, if you have time, you ought to do that. It’s interesting. But no matter what you conclude about vote counting in Georgia, we’re willing to bet that you won’t decide Donald Trump’s latest phone call is the single most important thing happening in the world right now. Probably not even close. And yet CNN is claiming that it is. Why are they doing that? Well, that’s a good question and worth pondering. Do you notice a theme here? Manipulation? Maybe. Ignore the details, Don’t ask questions. Here’s the latest outrage. Take the bait. Get mad about it. Trump’s phone call in this case and move on. Write a grouchy Instagram post if you want. But whatever you do, do not think for yourself because once you start doing that, you might not stop.”
— Tucker Carlson on Jan. 4, 2021
‘He’s a demonic force, a destroyer’
After police cleared the mob from the U.S. Capitol on the evening of Jan. 6, 2021, Carlson and Pfeiffer debated what led to the riot. Pfeiffer said Trump was to blame. Carlson differed, calling Trump and his election lies a “symptom” without elaborating further. They both agreed that Trump would use his final weeks in office to keep riling up his supporters.
In a rare moment of emotional candor, both admitted that covering Trump had affected their mental health. Pfeiffer spoke of a “Trump anger spiral.” Carlson said he had felt it, too, and that it had almost consumed him in the post-election chaos. “It was very difficult to regain emotional control,” he texted, “but I knew I had to.”
In his opening monologue that night, Carlson seemed to wrestle with his own response to the attack. He said he was horrified by the violence but vaguely suggested that some form of unrest was inevitable because people had lost faith in democracy. Leaders — he didn’t say who — “don’t care to learn or listen,” he said.
“But if you don’t bother to pause and learn a single thing from it — from your citizens storming your Capitol building — then you’re a fool. You lack wisdom and you lack self-awareness, you have no place running a country,” Carlson concluded.
“When thousands of your countrymen storm the Capitol building, you don’t have to like it. We don’t. You can be horrified by the violence. And as we said, and we’ll say it again, we are horrified. It’s wrong. But if you don’t bother to pause and learn a single thing from it — from your citizens storming your Capitol building — then you’re a fool. You lack wisdom and you lack self-awareness. You have no place running a country. We got to this sad, chaotic day for a reason. It is not your fault. It is their fault.”
— Tucker Carlson on Jan. 6, 2021
In the segment, he made no mention of Trump.
Azi Paybarah and Tyler Remmel contributed to this report. Illustration by José L. Soto/The Washington Post; Alex Brandon/Associated Press; Richard Drew/Associated Press.