Several days before Breitbart News ran a story alleging a sexual affair between Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell and a Chinese spy, the congressman’s top aide received an unusual email from a fellow Hill staffer.
It was Buckley Carlson, a communications director for up-and-coming Republican Rep. Jim Banks and son of Tucker Carlson, arguably the most powerful person in right-wing media and one of Swalwell’s biggest antagonists.
According to Swalwell communications director Jessica Gail, Buckley was reeling from the fact that the congressman had just days earlier referenced him in a tweet bashing his Fox News host father. As a consequence, Gail said, Buckley (not to be confused with Tucker’s brother Buckley Carlson) intimated to her that he was working with a news outlet to push a story on an alleged tryst between Swalwell, who is married with children, and a Chinese infiltrator.
Several days later, a Breitbart article featuring the allegations received extensive coverage on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News primetime program, including a photoshopped graphic of Swalwell in bed with the suspected spy.
The ordeal illustrated not only the way Carlson seemingly uses his massive media powers to attack personal rivals but also how a relatively unremarkable squabble between two political figures has escalated into an ugly personal feud involving the loved ones of both the Fox News host and the Bay Area Democrat.
Swalwell’s appetite for media appearances and his outspoken role in probing alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election has made him a regular on cable news—and a punching bag for conservatives. But few have spent as much time bashing Swalwell as Carlson. Over the past several months, the TV star has repeatedly run segments alleging a sexual affair with the Chinese spy or simply making fun of Swalwell for, among other things, shirtless photographs of him on a trip to Qatar.
But the feud turned personal when Carlson ran a segment involving Swalwell’s wife, which was followed two days later by the congressman’s tweet roping in the Fox host’s son.
“It feels like a family affair,” Swalwell told The Daily Beast of the Carlson campaigns against him. “It’s gone from politics to the personal. It’s clear it’s not just directed at me now, it’s at my family.” The Carlsons and Fox News did not respond to requests for on-record comment for this story.
While Tucker Carlson’s public persona has long centered around his contempt-laced mockery of Democratic politicians, he and Swalwell weren’t always at odds.
During the Trump administration, Swalwell was once among the few Democrats in Congress to regularly appear on Carlson’s show. At one point, Swalwell recalled to The Daily Beast, the pair had a cordial relationship, occasionally chatting before or after shows in the Fox News host’s D.C. office.
But Swalwell claimed he grew uncomfortable with the host’s increasingly inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants and people of color (as well as his staff’s white-supremacist ties), and began to rebuff requests to appear on the show. Carlson, meanwhile, was highly critical of Swalwell’s role in feverishly pushing the claim that Donald Trump was an agent of Russia.
Trouble between the two began brewing last year after Axios reported that Swalwell was one of the prominent politicians targeted by Christine Fang, a Chinese spy who “took part in fundraising activity for Swalwell’s 2014 re-election campaign,” and “interacted with Swalwell at multiple events over the course of several years,” even helping place an intern in the congressman’s office.
Officials were alarmed enough by Fang’s activity that they briefed Swalwell on their concerns, according to Axios. The congressman then cut ties with Fang, and provided information he knew about her to the FBI. But it was an embarrassing saga for Swalwell—after years of arguing that Trump acted on a foreign government’s behalf, the Democratic congressman had unwittingly let a Chinese spy into his inner circle.
The report made particularly strong waves in conservative media, but seemingly few took more glee than Carlson.
Since late last year, the Fox News host has regularly run segments on the congressman’s connection to the spy, adding his own salacious allegation that Swalwell “repeatedly” had sex with Fang. (Swalwell has largely remained mum on the subject but has broadly denied the allegations, deferring to the FBI’s statement that he was not accused of wrongdoing.)
And Carlson’s claims about the affair have gotten increasingly personal and graphic. In one July show, he jokingly ruminated about what Swalwell looked like while having sex with Fang. And earlier this month, Carlson went out of his way—during a segment on the Jan. 6 riots—to repeatedly speculate that the Democratic lawmaker may have gotten a sexually transmitted disease from her.
This Wednesday, Carlson ran a segment insinuating the congressman is attempting to groom female staffers, connecting his claim to the spy affair allegations (which he called “stomach-turning and unnatural”), and featuring an image with Swalwell’s face photoshopped onto the poster for the 1999 comedy Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Swalwell told The Daily Beast he had attempted to tune out Carlson’s on-air taunts, though he was aware of them due to the many emails or social-media messages he’d receive. But that changed when the Fox host ran a segment on the congressman’s wife.
Swalwell had a “problem with money,” Carlson alleged during his July 20 broadcast, noting that the Democrat spent $20,000 of campaign cash at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, where Swalwell’s wife, Brittany Watts, previously worked as a sales director.
And then, the next evening, Carlson ran a segment openly mocking Harry Dunn, a Capitol Police officer who testified about the racist abuse he faced during the Jan. 6 riots.
The segment appeared to set Swalwell off. That evening, the congressman said, he received a phone call from Dunn, who was upset about Carlson’s monologue. And so Swalwell publicly responded by invoking the Fox host’s son.
“Forever grateful to officers like Harry Dunn. He put his body between lawmakers and an armed mob. You know who else Officer Dunn protected…Tucker Carlson’s son, a House staffer,” Swalwell wrote. “RT if you stand with Harry and against white supremacy.”
Two days later, Buckley Carlson emailed Swalwell’s press secretary Jessica Gail saying he wanted to “give you a heads up about something.” And during a subsequent telephone call, Gail told The Daily Beast, the younger Carlson allegedly informed her that he was frustrated Swalwell had mentioned him in a tweet. Further, he allegedly said he was working with a reporter on an imminent story shedding negative light on the congressman’s relationship with Fang. Gail said she told Carlson the allegations were not true.
That same day, the Fox News host also attempted to contact Swalwell, asking the congressman to call him and then calling him a “coward” when he refused to do so, according to screenshots of the exchange Swalwell posted to Twitter. The congressman captioned the images: “Sorry, Tucker, I’m just not that into you.”
On July 26, Breitbart News, a far-right outlet, ran a story claiming a report had circulated among the “U.S. intelligence community” detailing a scandalous affair between Fang and Swalwell, a House intelligence committee member. Carlson gave it major airplay, including the photoshopped imagery of Swalwell in bed with the presumed Chinese spy.
“Father and son are certainly allowed to talk about who they perceive as a common enemy,” Swalwell said before suggesting a connection between the Carlsons and the Breitbart article. “But when the son works for the House of Representatives and is doing his father’s bidding on official House email and at his desk on his official phone, that crosses the line. The House of Representatives is not supposed to be air support for Fox News.”
While Swalwell’s tweet provoked backlash from the Carlsons, who felt the congressman shouldn’t drag Buckley into a feud involving his father, the GOP staffer’s public-facing role in a high-profile congressional office has caught the attention of others.
Vice News reported last month how Tucker Carlson has repeatedly interviewed Banks, a rising star congressman from Indiana, without disclosing that his son works for the lawmaker.
And the Republican congressman’s office has attempted to downplay the ties. In a 2019 interview with Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette, Banks’ chief of staff David Keller said the legislator had previously never met the Fox News host, and was unaware of the relationship when Buckley Carlson interviewed for an entry-level position as an assistant in his office.
Even by Beltway standards, Banks is considered an especially ambitious politician. Since his election to a northeast Indiana district in 2016, he’s risen rapidly through the GOP ranks; over the past several months, he has served as the chairman of the Republican Study Committee—the dominant bloc of right-wing House Republicans—a post that has often served as a springboard for rising GOP stars, notably former Vice President Mike Pence.
In the view of some Republicans, Banks’ fast ascent has been fueled by a gung-ho willingness to do anything to boost Trump and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy. His own aspirations for the top rung of party leadership were considered an open secret on Capitol Hill, and were made obvious when Rep. Liz Cheney was booted from her post as the third-ranking Republican.
Banks, once a close ally of Cheney’s, publicly criticized her as she faced a vote of no confidence over her resistance to Trump’s election conspiracies. Privately, Banks put out feelers about running for the job himself. But he was forced to back down after Trump, McCarthy, and Minority Whip Steve Scalise all but anointed another rising star, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, to replace Cheney.
Months later, McCarthy did give Banks a profile-boosting moment after appointing him to a special committee to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection. Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected his appointment, along with Rep. Jim Jordan’s, citing their objections to Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.
In some Capitol Hill GOP circles, the ties between Banks and Carlson—and the latter’s ability to elevate the former’s profile—are hard to ignore.
Republican press aides are well aware of how frequently Banks appears on his employee’s father’s very influential TV program. Just this week, Banks appeared on Carlson’s show to discuss how Republicans “have a duty” to punish GOP members investigating the Jan. 6 riots. “The amount that Tucker carries Banks’ water is not lost on anyone on the Republican side of the Hill,” said one GOP aide.
Buckley Carlson is not Banks’ top communications staffer, however. Officially, he is the communications director for Banks’ so-called personal office, which manages his own legislative activity and service to constituents in Indiana. But because Banks chairs the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a major caucus within the party, he also has a communications director there: Mitch Hailstone.
Hailstone, who is several years Carlson’s senior, has been with Banks since 2019 and he held the job Carlson holds now before his boss ascended to the RSC chairmanship. Carlson is listed as deputy RSC comms director, according to the congressional database Legistorm.