What was Trump talking about? How the language of Fox News invaded the final debate.

"If you watch a lot of Fox prime time, you understand what he's saying. If you don't, you have no idea."

President Donald Trump participates in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Amr Alfiky/The New York Times)
President Donald Trump participates in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville. –Amr Alfiky / The New York Times

During the final presidential debate, President Donald Trump made reference to “the laptop from hell,” “AOC plus three″ and “Russia, Russia, Russia” – yes, said three times in a row.

The material was very familiar to – and maybe only familiar to – regular viewers of Fox News opinion hosts such as Sean Hannity.

“I feel like he almost was speaking the language of Fox prime time,” Chuck Todd, host of “Meet the Press,” said on NBC after the debate. “If you watch a lot of Fox prime time, you understand what he’s saying. If you don’t, you have no idea.”

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It was a point made over and over again across networks as political commentators and journalists wondered aloud whether Trump’s attacks on former vice president Joe Biden flew over the heads of many Americans who aren’t regular consumers of conservative television, radio and websites.

“Some of the punches he threw at Joe Biden I don’t think landed because unless you were Sean Hannity, you probably had no idea what he was talking about,” CNN host Jake Tapper said.

“You need an encyclopedia to understand what is going on because it’s a series of buzzwords that have meaning perhaps if you’ve been studying the Daily Caller,” said CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip. “But if you’re a regular person going about your life, you’re not going to understand what rabbit holes the president is going down.”

The president borrowed from Hannity’s nightly themes and even copied the same phrases the opinion host uses on his daily radio and TV shows. Trump accused Biden of “hiding in his basement,” something that Hannity viewers hear on a very regular basis – even as the former vice president has made more and more in-person campaign stops over the past few weeks.

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Trump echoed Hannity and his prime-time colleagues on Fox as he attacked Biden’s son Hunter, accusing both of a pay-for-play in Ukraine and China. In doing so, he highlighted a story reported by the Rupert Murdoch-controlled New York Post last week that has since circulated in conservative media, especially on Fox News, about a laptop allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden that contains emails regarding business dealings in Ukraine when he served as a board member on the energy company Burisma.

The original story cited material obtained by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The Washington Post and other media organizations’ requests to inspect the laptop hard drive have not been granted, and they have not been able to independently verify or authenticate the emails.

The story has renewed focus in conservative media on Hunter Biden’s business dealings. Articles about him were featured prominently on FoxNews.com ahead of the debate, and the lead story on the website after the debate concluded was headlined “Trump, Biden clash over Hunter Biden business questions at final presidential debate.”

“The intricacies of these allegations, which have not been proven, will escape a lot of people except through the echo chamber,” said NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell in post-debate analysis on her home network. “They have a very big megaphone and they do have Fox and their whole media operation who will keep amplifying it.”

When Biden discounted the story during the debate, Trump asked whether “the laptop is the new ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ hoax,” an allusion to Hannity’s frequent shorthand for special counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the last presidential election.

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During a discussion about energy policy, Trump borrowed another Hannity phrase when he accused Biden of giving way to the policy priorities of “AOC plus three,” meaning Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, N.Y., and the three other women who are part of “the Squad” of liberal Democratic congresswomen. (Trump had adopted the phrase from Fox prior to Thursday’s debate.)

Trump also sought to tie Biden to derogatory comments made about law enforcement, referencing a chant at a 2015 protest of “pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.”

In a fact check of Trump’s reference to the chant as representative of the Black Lives Matter movement, CNN.com has noted “it is safe to say that the chant is not an official, national or prominent Black Lives Matter slogan.” Still, Hannity has frequently tried to tie the phrase to Biden, who broadly supports Black Lives Matter, and Trump made the same move on Thursday night.

Over on Fox Business after the debate, Fox Business Network anchor Neil Cavuto acknowledged “a lot of times they did veer into other things such as scandals and all this controversy you hear about Ukrainian money and Hunter Biden.” And that led to an exchange that got the two candidates trading barbs, he said.

“It could have gotten very, very muddy,” Cavuto added. “It did not, because they just kept moving on from one hit to another.”

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The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi contributed to this story.

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