When conservative commentator and host Rush Limbaugh opened his radio show Monday, indictments had just been made public in Washington, D.C., against President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Manafort and one of his top lieutenants had been taken into custody on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. Special counsel Robert Mueller had also secured a guilty plea from former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who admitted to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russia.
But Limbaugh, one of the most influential voices on the right, worked quickly to reframe the day's developments. "None of this is real," he insisted. When a listener suggested Mueller had "gone rogue" and might be trying to topple Trump, Limbaugh amplified the fear. "This is the coup. If Hillary had been elected, none of this would be happening, other than they still put Trump in jail as a message to the outsider: Don't dare try this."
For weeks, conservative media outlets have echoed these themes, working to discredit Mueller and recycling Trump's own tweets describing the probe as a political witch hunt. They have also worked to refocus attention on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Trump himself still refers to his opponent in last year's presidential election as "Crooked Hillary."
On Monday, Limbaugh and other conservative media outlets built on those themes. They downplayed the immediate impact of the Manafort indictments, insisting that they have nothing to do with Trump or his campaign. They also suggested the probe reflects an unfair attack on a populist president by Washington insiders and media liberals.
Much of Monday's conservative coverage asserted that Clinton is actually the one who colluded with Russia when she was secretary of state. Fox News star Sean Hannity told his audience that people investigating Trump are all complicit in an Obama administration decision in 2010 that allowed a Russian company to gain a financial interest in part of America's uranium reserves.
"All the people involved in this, from Rosenstein who appointed Mueller, both of them, and Eric Holder and likely President Obama himself. Hillary was up to her eyeballs as was her husband in the Uranium One deal," Hannity said, listing a who's who of Justice Department figures and Democratic Party leaders, who he claimed were ignoring a more significant Russia scandal.
Fact-checkers with The Washington Post and other outlets have looked at these narratives involving Clinton and found they don't check out. Nor do these claims have anything to do with Monday's indictments or the question of whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. But Clinton remains a lightning rod on the right, and many conservatives believe her actions in office threatened national security.
Despite these counternarratives about Mueller and Clinton, there was still deep alarm Monday in some right-wing media. Speaking on Fox News, Byron York with the conservative Washington Examiner warned that the indictments might mark a turning point. "Could they be used to pressure Manafort to give them information about any possible wrongdoing on the Trump campaign?" York asked. "The only problem is we don't know of what such wrongdoing might be. But certainly Manafort is now under pressure."
The right-wing website Breitbart, run by former White House strategist Steve Bannon, acknowledged to readers that former Trump campaign adviser Papadopoulos pleaded guilty after lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians and trying to purge his Facebook account. His guilty plea directly contradicts a claim made by conservative media for months that Mueller's entire probe is fake news.