Fox News host Jesse Watters is facing blowback for recent remarks he made at a conservative political conference, where he used violent rhetoric to explain how citizen journalists should confront Dr. Anthony Fauci with questions in the hopes of going viral.
Speaking at Turning Point USA's Americafest over the weekend, Watters urged young conservatives to "ambush" the nation's top infectious disease expert and "go in for the kill shot." He walked them through how to approach Fauci and how to phrase their questions, focusing on a conspiracy theory about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Now you go in for the kill shot. The kill shot with an ambush, deadly, because he doesn't see it coming," Watters said at one point, according to a transcript and a nearly six-minute video clip. "This is when you say, 'Dr. Fauci, you funded risky research at a sloppy Chinese lab, the same lab that sprung this pandemic on the world. You know why people don't trust you, don't you?' Boom, he is dead. He is dead. He's done."
Watters — a regular commentator on the prime-time show The Five who made his name doing ambush-style interviews in a recurring segment on Bill O'Reilly's former show — also told audiences to be respectful and "just make sure it's legal."
While it is clear from the full context of Watters' remarks that he was not explicitly calling for violence, the viciousness of the chosen metaphor was striking, particularly given that Fauci has spoken publicly about receiving death threats. He is among the public figures who have faced a barrage of conservative criticism and violent threats over their handling of the highly politicized coronavirus pandemic.
In a Tuesday appearance on CNN's New Day, Fauci called Watters' remarks "a reflection of the craziness that goes on in society."
"The only thing that I have ever done throughout these two years is to encourage people to practice good public health practices: to get vaccinated, to be careful in public settings, to wear a mask," Fauci said. "And for that, you have some guy out there saying that people should be giving me a kill shot, to ambush me?"
He added that Watters "should be fired on the spot" but said the host was unlikely to be held accountable by his network.
Fox came to Watters' defense in a statement shared with NPR and other outlets.
"Based on watching the full clip and reading the entire transcript, it's more than clear that Jesse Watters was using a metaphor for asking hard-hitting questions to Dr. Fauci about gain-of-function research and his words have been twisted completely out of context," it reads.
Former government officials and public health authorities are among those slamming Watters' comments, which also follow recent revelations about how several prominent Fox News hosts figured into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Text messages show that network personalities like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham privately pressured President Donald Trump to deescalate the day's events even though they downplayed his involvement on air in the months that followed.
Fox News hosts and guests also helped lay the groundwork for the insurrection by amplifying Trump's false claims of election fraud and by urging viewers to fight for their freedoms at the Jan. 6 protest that preceded the riot, as NPR's David Folkenflik and Tom Dreisbach have reported.
They also found that Ashli Babbitt, the U.S Air Force veteran who joined the protests and was shot and killed after storming the Capitol, was significantly influenced by Fox News coverage in addition to QAnon conspiracy theories.
How Watters urged his audience to confront Fauci
Watters opened his remarks by saying he was "sick and tired of conservatives always playing defense" and instructed the receptive crowd of students on how best to go on the offense.
He noted that politicians and other officials frequently speak at college campuses, and he encouraged students to "take advantage of that, make a name for yourselves." Then he proceeded to outline a series of tips for hypothetically engaging with Fauci, which escalated in intensity.
At one point, Watters told listeners to come equipped with a blank sheet of paper, refer to it as a research grant (again, related to the lab leak conspiracy regarding the National Institutes of Health's research in Wuhan) and "wave that in his face for the camera, for flair."
As Watters described it, the goal is for students to capture the moment on their phone and send it out to any number of conservative media outlets for further reach.
"Imagine Tucker Carlson teases out of the A block, 'Coming up, brave college student confronts Lord Fauci at dinner. Exclusive footage, right back,' " he said. "Get us that! That's what we want. That changes the whole conversation of the country."
It's also worth noting that Watters has expressed concerns in the past about the vitriol people direct at public servants.
In 2018, for example, he railed against "the uncivil left" after staff at an upscale Lexington, Va., restaurant asked then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to leave.
"She's a public servant," he said to a commentator on the June 30 episode. "She has political beliefs that are different than yours and she is serving her country. Now, you may disagree with her policies, but that doesn't make her an evil person that deserves to be shunned and confronted."
People are technically allowed to "go up to someone on the street and yell nasty things in their face and surround their car," Watters acknowledged, but said that encouraging this type of behavior "is dangerous, and it's going to get out [of] control and something bad is going to happen."
Another Fox News personality recently compared Fauci to Josef Mengele
Late last month, Fox commentator Lara Logan faced fierce criticism for remarks she made on air comparing Fauci to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
During a segment accusing the Biden administration of overreacting to the new omicron variant, Logan said people tell her that to them, Fauci doesn't represent science but that he amounts to Mengele — who was known as the "Angel of Death" and conducted inhumane medical experiments on prisoners at the Auschwitz camp during the Holocaust.
"And I am talking about people all across the world are saying this, because the response from COVID, what it has done to countries everywhere, what it has done to civil liberties, the suicide rates, the poverty, it has obliterated economies," she said.
Her comments were swiftly condemned by the Auschwitz Museum and the Anti-Defamation League, among others.
Fauci told MSNBC days later that he was "astounded" that Fox had not taken any disciplinary action against Logan.
NPR has asked Fox whether that is still the case.
NPR's David Folkenflik contributed to this report.