When an ABC News reporter last week tried to ask Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), the soon-to-be Speaker of the House, about his key role in Donald Trump’s efforts to overthrow the 2020 election, the message relayed by House Republicans was, essentially, “Shut up.”
While the new House leader continues to sidestep questions about his election denialism, his latest hire shows that trying to overturn the next presidential election may still very well be at the top of the House GOP’s agenda.
It was reported on Tuesday that Johnson had tapped Raj Shah to be his office’s chief spokesperson and oversee his communications operation. In this position, he will not only serve as Johnson’s top mouthpiece but also, according to Politico, “help run messaging for House Republicans.”
Representatives for Johnson and Shah did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Shah, a veteran GOP operative who served in the Trump White House, also happened to spend four years as Fox’s “brand protection” expert before leaving in disgrace this past June after the right-wing network settled Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit for a massive $787.5 million.
Shah’s role at Fox News’ parent company, in fact, was a key component of Dominion’s case, which alleged that the conservative cable giant knowingly peddled false conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud in order to boost sagging ratings following the 2020 election.
The network, after making a controversially early but inevitably accurate call for Joe Biden in Arizona on Election Night, watched its viewership crumble as disgruntled MAGA viewers fled for far-right rivals Newsmax and One America News, who were more than willing to parrot Trump’s baseless claims of a “rigged” election.
Shah, whose job as senior vice president was to protect Fox’s brand, spent the weeks after the election warning top executives that the network’s core audience was increasingly incensed with Fox News for supposedly abandoning Trump. And while texts and emails from that time, which were obtained and publicly released by Dominion during its case against Fox, suggest he didn’t buy into Team Trump’s wild conspiracies about hacked voting machines flipping millions of votes to Biden, he also didn’t want the channel’s reporters and anchors to contradict those claims on the air.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election loss, Shah scrambled to find conservative pundits who would come to the network’s defense amid the right-wing backlash against Fox. With none of the “biggest folks” biting, Shah told the network’s PR team that he could potentially get some “Tier 2 folks” to write a column defending Fox News. Unfortunately, even most of those writers refused the assignment.
At the same time, Shah—who also acted as a bridge between Trumpworld and Fox—was desperately trying to get the network to at least issue a public apology for its Arizona call, citing anger from Trump supporters.
“Want to ask, even though it seems impossible, but is the idea of some sort of public mea culpa for the AZ call completely and totally out of the realm?” Shah wrote the network’s top flack Irena Briganti on Nov. 10. “Or some programming that’s focused on hearing our viewers grievances about how we’ve handled the election?”
While that request was ultimately denied on the grounds that it would cause additional turmoil between the channel’s “hard news” and opinion sides, Shah continued to express concern about Fox’s tumbling ratings. In his view, one of the main issues wasn’t just that the network’s Decision Desk had called the election against Trump, it was that Fox’s on-air reporters were also undermining Trump’s fraudulent election narrative.
Noting that “more of our viewers have an unfavorable opinion rather than favorable opinion of Fox,” he discussed the “threats” to Fox News’ reputation among the MAGA base. For instance, he highlighted the criticism anchor Neil Cavuto was facing for cutting away from then-Trump spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany for spreading election lies.
“Both Donald Trump and Newsmax have taken active roles in promoting attacks on Fox News. Positive impressions of Fox News among our viewers dropped precipitously after Election Day to the lowest levels we’ve ever seen,” Shah wrote in an email to Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, and then-Fox Chief Legal Officer Viet Dinh.
Following an unhinged Nov. 19 press conference that featured then-Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani making outrageous claims about widespread election fraud, which the network carried on-air in its entirety, Fox News correspondent Kristin Fisher swooped in with a comprehensive fact-check. Shah, meanwhile, was extremely displeased.
“This is the kinda shit that will kill us,” Shah texted a colleague. “What a fucking mess. We cover it wall to wall and then we burn that down with all the skepticism.”
Yet, while seemingly urging higher-ups to “respect the audience” and cater to their election denialism, Shah privately admitted in messages to colleagues and friends that Trump’s “stolen” election claims were largely nonsense. In fact, after then-Fox News star Tucker Carlson publicly challenged Powell to provide proof to back her claims, Shah said that the belief that there was “vote rigging to the tune of millions” was “so fucking insane.”
Shah, who had a close working relationship with Carlson, also advised Carlson on how to handle any backlash from Powell and Trump’s team, telling him to be “deferential.” Meanwhile, he was also working behind the scenes to get Trump to distance himself from Powell.
“After criticism from social media for Tucker’s segment questioning Attorney Sidney Powell’s outlandish voter fraud claims, our consultants and I coordinated an effort to generate Trump administration pushback against her claims,” he wrote top execs, adding: “We encouraged several sources within the administration to tell reporters that Powell offered no evidence for her claims and didn’t speak for the president.”
The effort apparently worked. On Nov. 22, the Trump campaign announced that Powell was “practicing law on her own” and was “not a member” of the outgoing president’s legal team. Yet, even though Powell was officially distanced from Trump, she continued to appear on Fox News airwaves for weeks.
In the end, while helping to whitewash Trump’s election lies, Shah still let friends know that he didn’t believe that the election was rigged.
“It’s really disheartening,” Shah wrote to a former White House colleague days before the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. “The only clear cut evidence for voter fraud is the failed attempts from Trump.”
Now Shah will serve as the top spokesperson of a suddenly prominent Republican lawmaker who will almost certainly insert himself into the 2024 presidential election, especially since Trump will almost certainly be the Republican nominee.
While Johnson rose from relative obscurity to the speakership last month, he did play a significant role in Trump’s attempts to overturn his loss to Biden.
Shortly after Biden was projected as the winner of the election, Johnson aligned himself with Trump’s refusal to accept the results. “President Trump called me last night and I was encouraged to hear his continued resolve to ensure that every LEGAL vote gets properly counted and that all instances of fraud and illegality are investigated and prosecuted,” he tweeted at the time. “Fair elections are worth fighting for!”
Johnson also helped fuel the conspiracy theories about “rigged” voting machines—the same baseless claims that ended up costing Fox News nearly a billion dollars.
In a Nov. 17, 2020 radio interview, he said there was “a lot of merit” to the Dominion claims, adding that “when the president says the election was ‘rigged’ that is what he was talking about; the fix was in.” He also peddled debunked conspiracies about Dominion being owned by deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
In that same interview, Johnson backed Trump’s assertions about Georgia’s vote for Biden being fraudulent, claiming “it really is rigged” and “was set up for the Biden team to win.” Trump and 18 others have since been indicted over their attempts to overturn Georgia’s election results, with some already pleading guilty.
Johnson’s support of Trump went further than tweets and radio interviews, though. He quietly worked behind the scenes to recruit House Republicans to join an amicus brief in support of a Texas lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to block four Biden states from voting in the Electoral College. In the end, the majority of the GOP caucus signed the brief. The lawsuit would soon be tossed out by the court.
Eventually, Johnson joined most of the House GOP in voting against certifying Biden’s electoral victory on the same day a mob of angry MAGA supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to keep Trump in power.
Regardless of where Shah personally stands on election denialism, Media Matters senior fellow Matt Gertz argues, he’s shown a willingness to sell whatever it is the conservative base desires.
“But Shah’s private concerns did not prevent him from encouraging propaganda,” Gertz wrote on Wednesday. “And in his new role, backing a speaker who was neck-deep in Trump’s election subversion plot, he’ll assuredly do the same if Trump takes another pass at trying to overturn an election.”