Study: Hannity’s treatment of Trump's Russia scandal takes an authoritarian turn
This summer, the Fox host laid the groundwork for a dangerous response by the president
Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has taken on a new urgency and gotten closer to the Oval Office over the past few weeks. His prosecutors are reportedly planning to indict Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman whose financial entanglements with Russians forced his resignation last summer. Mueller is also reportedly seeking White House documents relating to several of Trump’s most controversial actions and has begun questioning current and former White House staff.
But when Trump sits down with Fox News host Sean Hannity this Wednesday for his 70th appearance on Hannity's program (including interviews with guest hosts and correspondents)* since he launched his presidential campaign in June 2015, he can rest assured that he won’t need to answer tough questions about Mueller’s investigation. Hannity’s devotion to the president has taken an authoritarian turn in recent months, as Trump has come under heavy legal and media scrutiny over whether his electoral victory was due in part to efforts by the Russian government to bolster his campaign.
Media Matters reviewed Hannity’s opening monologues on his Fox broadcast from mid-May through the end of August, analyzing the segments for a wide range of factors, including his coverage of the Russia story. (Mid-May is when Mueller was named special counsel and Hannity began promoting the conspiracy theory that a murdered Democratic staffer, not Russian hackers, had stolen Democratic emails.) Hannity’s nightly monologue sets the tone for the remainder of his show, laying out many of the themes and arguments he will discuss with his panels of largely agreeable guests. These 61 monologues across 16 weeks reveal the stories Hannity believed were most important to relate to his Trump-supporting audience -- and the increasingly dark and conspiratorial messages he’s been feeding them. Media Matters also reviewed Hannity’s guests over the same period.
In this study:
In Sean Hannity’s 61 Fox News opening monologues from May 15 through September 1:
- Hannity suggested Trump did not collude with Russia in 31 of his monologues, 51 percent of the total.
- Hannity called for Mueller’s investigation to be terminated in seven monologues, 11 percent of the total. He called it a “witch hunt” 19 times.
- Hannity claimed that Hillary Clinton is the candidate who actually colluded with Russia in 25 monologues, 41 percent of the total.
- Hannity has regularly called for investigations into the perceived crimes of Clinton (25 monologues), Comey (17 monologues), and Mueller (seven monologues), among others.
Hannity’s top guest over the term of the study was Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal lawyers for the Russia probe, who appeared in 37 episodes of the program.
You can read part two of this series, on Hannity's treatment of the "five forces" he says are aligned against Trump, here.
Like the other hosts Trump has turned to for on-camera interviews in recent months, Hannity is a loyal sycophant. The Fox host was effectively a wholly owned subsidiary of Team Trump during the 2016 election, providing the candidate a platform for incredibly obsequious interviews, channeling his talking points with little sense of independent thought, and even appearing in a Trump campaign ad. Hannity drew criticism from his colleagues in the right-wing press for putting loyalty to Trump above party or ideology, and he earned rebukes from Fox for putting support for Trump before the network’s standards. But Trump won, and now Hannity advises the president of the United States while simultaneously serving as his biggest media booster. Trump in turn uses public rallies to gush over the Fox host’s “honest” coverage.
Hannity responded by turning his broadcast into a forum to undermine what he terms “black-helicopter, tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories about so-called Trump-Russia collusion,” while arguing that the president’s foes have committed crimes that must be investigated.
In show after show, Hannity has been poisoning the well for Mueller’s “deeply corrupt” investigation and laying the groundwork to support the president if he seeks an authoritarian recourse. In Hannity’s telling, there is no evidence to support the idea of Trump-Russia collusion, making the investigation a conspiracy to destroy the president masterminded by Democrats and the media, who are unwilling to investigate the “real” criminals. These include Hillary Clinton, not only for her private email server but because her campaign supposedly “colluded” with both Ukraine and Russia, and the “deep state” officials who “unmasked” Trump associates who communicated with foreign people.
Hannity is priming his 3 million-strong audience to applaud Trump if he fires the special counsel or to treat the investigation as illegitimate if it is allowed to move forward, while preparing them to cheer if the president’s Justice Department takes action against his political foes. If Trump moves to further undermine the rule of law, as he has repeatedly suggested he might do, he will do so with the fervent support of the Fox host and his viewers.
Hannity’s much-maligned effort to champion the conspiracy theory that the late Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered because he was a source for WikiLeaks is the most widely publicized symptom of the host’s willingness to cross any line to undermine the Russia story. As the host made clear, he was dredging up these conspiracy theories and victimizing Rich’s family specifically because he thought it would clear Trump. “If it was true that Seth Rich gave WikiLeaks the DNC emails,” Hannity said on May 18, “wouldn't that blow the whole Russia collusion narrative that the media has pushing out of the water?”
Over the course of the 16 weeks of monologues we reviewed, as the Mueller investigation began and a host of reporting raised new questions about the unethical and potentially illegal behavior of Trump and his associates, Hannity regularly assured his viewers that there was no evidence to suggest Trump had colluded with Russia and that reports to the contrary were “conspiracy theories.” Hannity made such statements in 31 of the 61 monologues.
Hannity’s most frequent guest was Trump’s Russia probe lawyer (second was Fox’s pro-Trump lawyer)
Jay Sekulow, a conservative litigator with a nationally syndicated radio show who became a member of the legal team representing Trump in the Russia probe in June, appeared in a whopping 37 episodes of Hannity’s Fox program over the course of the study, the most of any guest on the show. Sekulow uses those regular appearances to further the host’s effort to clear his client of any misdeeds, as well as to accuse Comey and other critics of the president of breaking the law.
Sekulow, a fixture on right-wing TV and sometime guest host on Hannity’s radio show with “virtually no experience in law enforcement investigations or white-collar matters,” was hired to serve as “the omnipresent TV face of Trump's defense” because the president believed he’s good at defending him on TV. It’s likely that one of the places Trump saw Sekulow making that defense was on Hannity; in the weeks before he started making media appearances as a member of Trump’s legal team, the lawyer went on that show to push Seth Rich conspiracy theories, to falsely claim Trump had been “vindicated” by Comey’s congressional testimony, and to baselessly and repeatedly accuse the “pathetic” former FBI director of breaking the law.
While Sekulow made appearances on all the news networks to discuss the Russia probe early in his tenure as Trump’s lawyer, CNN reported on August 14 that “recently, Sekulow has only been on Fox News,” where he has “been especially prominent on Hannity's show.” In that safe space, Sekulow was free not only to defend Trump, but also to accuse Democrats of a host of crimes. (Hannity also said in April 2017 that he had hired Sekulow as his own personal lawyer due to what Hannity described as an allegation that he had been surveilled by the Obama administration.)
Hannity’s second most regular guest was Fox’s Gregg Jarrett, who appeared in 36 episodes of the program over the term of the study. Once a lesser-known network anchor, Jarrett recently emerged as the leading Trump legal defender who isn’t on his payroll. Like Sekulow, he uses his appearances on Hannity to put forward legally dubious explanations of why the Trump team’s actions have been acceptable while claiming that the president’s opponents and investigators have broken the law. Jarrett has falsely claimed that even if the president or his team colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election, they wouldn’t have broken any laws; called for Mueller’s removal; accused Comey of obstructing justice through his interactions with the president; and called for a special prosecutor to review Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Hannity criticized Mueller in 12 monologues
Hannity criticized Mueller in 12 of the 61 monologues, 20 percent of the total. According to the Fox host, Mueller “is really aimed at stopping the president, delegitimizing him and hopefully, in the minds of some, making sure he gets thrown out of office.” He is “out of control” and “needs to be stopped” because of his investigative “mission creep.” It “is time to start investigating the investigator,” Hannity claimed in July, adding, “Did he break the law? Is he being unethical? ... Does that need to be a case of recusal?” He also called Mueller’s investigation “deeply corrupt.”
Echoing the president, Hannity termed the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt” a total of 19 times in 11 monologues. According to the Fox host, Mueller is engaged in “the construction of one of the biggest political witch hunts in the history of this country,” which Hannity claims is “politically motivated.”
Hannity attacked Mueller for purported “conflicts of interest” in 15 monologues
On June 12, Hannity began accusing Mueller of having a “conflict of interest” because the investigation involves questions of whether Trump obstructed justice when he fired Comey, whom Hannity describes as Mueller’s “longtime friend.” Citing Jarrett, Hannity claimed that this friendship violates federal law and requires Mueller’s recusal. Trump himself pushed the claim in a Fox appearance soon after. Hannity frequently repeated the charge, making it in 15 monologues over the course of the study, 25 percent of the total. But the pair are reportedly not close, and government ethics experts have said that the Comey-Mueller relationship “doesn’t rise to the level of an illegal conflict.”
Hannity tried to delegitimize the investigation by citing the political donations of Mueller’s team in 13 monologues
Hannity has also scrutinized the purported conflicts of Mueller’s team, highlighting political donations some of the lawyers had made to Democrats in 13 monologues to claim that they cannot be impartial. Terming the team a “Democratic hit squad,” Hannity asked his audience on August 2, “Are we really to believe tonight that Mueller couldn’t find nonpartisan people who have not openly supported Democrats?”
The Trump legal team and White House staff similarly sought to use such information to discredit the investigation, but a Justice Department review in August found “no apparent conflicts of interest” for any member of the team.
Hannity has called for Mueller to step down or for the investigation’s immediate end in seven monologues
Based on the bogus charges discussed above, Hannity has pressed for Mueller to step down or for his investigation’s termination in seven monologues. “It is time to now shut down this political witch hunt that is really aimed at stopping the president, delegitimizing him and hopefully, in the minds of some, making sure he gets thrown out of office,” Hannity said in June. “It's that serious.”
Not finding it sufficient to claim that Trump did not collude with Russia, Hannity has frequently claimed that, in fact, it was Clinton who was guilty of the “real collusion” with Russia, making that argument in 25 monologues, 41 percent of the total.
Hannity’s conclusion is largely based on two things: the campaign-era conservative myth that Clinton personally approved the sale of a uranium mining company to the Russian government (the State Department actually had one vote on a nine-member panel that approved the deal, and the department representative said that Clinton was not consulted), and that former President Bill Clinton “doubled his speaking fees in Moscow” (Hannity uses that exact phrase in eight different monologues; while Clinton was paid $500,000 by a Russian company to deliver a speech, he regularly delivered speeches for such fees during that period).
None of this makes any sense, and it is at odds with the views of the U.S. intelligence community, which found that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin with the aim of harming Clinton’s campaign because “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Hannity accused Clinton of colluding with Ukraine in 12 monologues
On Saturday, July 8, The New York Times first reported that the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. had in June 2016 “arranged a meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan with a Russian lawyer who has connections to the Kremlin.” Over the next few days, it became clear that Trump Jr. had set up the meeting -- which Manafort and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top campaign official, also attended -- after being informed that the lawyer would provide damaging information on Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian “government’s support” for the Trump campaign.
In response to this damning bombshell, Hannity began claiming that not only was the Donald Jr. meeting much ado about nothing, but that the real scandal was that “Clinton allies” had been purportedly colluding with Ukrainian government officials to influence the election. The claim, based on a fallacious reading of a January Politico story, was widely rejected elsewhere in the press, though it was championed by Hannity’s pro-Trump colleagues. Hannity first made this argument in his July 10 monologue, the first after the Times story was published; he repeated it in his next five consecutive monologues and in 11 of his next 17 monologues.
Hannity criticized Comey in 23 monologues
Hannity criticized Comey in 23 monologues, 38 percent of the total. The Fox host has said the former FBI director “deserved to be fired,” calling him an “utter and complete failure” and a “national embarrassment” who “disrespected the Constitution,” and saying he is “obviously disgruntled,” has “a vendetta now against the president,” and is “angling for his multimillion-dollar book deal, a miniseries, prime-time interviews, a movie,” and a gig with MSNBC. Hannity also said Comey “is nothing more than a calculating, cunning partisan political hack who has thrived in the D.C. swamp.”
Hannity not only frequently declares that Trump is innocent of any crime and that the investigation into his actions and those of his associates should be halted, but he also suggests that the president’s accusers and critics are the real criminals, and that investigations are needed to bring them to justice.
He made such claims about:
- Mueller in seven monologues, 11 percent of the total. This argument is based on Gregg Jarrett’s bogus theory that Mueller’s friendship with Comey violates the law.
- Comey in 17 monologues, 28 percent of the total. The purported crimes include that Comey obstructed justice by writing memos about Trump’s conversations with him and by taking the memos with him when he left government.
- Clinton in 25 monologues, 41 percent of the total. Hannity frequently invokes purported crimes related to Clinton’s email server. Such accusations were common from conservatives during the campaign but were not supported by the law, as Comey confirmed by filing no charges in July 2016.
- Former Obama administration Attorney General Loretta Lynch in 13 monologues, 21 percent of the total. These often involve Lynch’s supposed role in quashing the Clinton email investigation.
- Obama in one monologue, again relating to the investigation into Clinton’s email server.
Hannity also frequently alleges that Obama administration officials and members of the nefarious “deep state” unlawfully “unmasked” the names of Trump associates who communicated with foreign persons, doing so in 14 monologues, 23 percent of the total. The Fox host uses this claim to argue that the focus on the Trump-Russia probe is misplaced, pointing to the“unmasking” as the true crime worthy of investigation. As Hannity put it on July 24: “The only crime that we know was committed in this whole Russia collusion wild goose chase is the unmasking and leaking of raw intelligence about Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and giving his name to The Washington Post. That is a violation of the Espionage Act. That's a felony. That's a crime. That needs to be investigated.”
Media Matters identified all Sean Hannity opening monologues based on Nexis transcripts between May 16, 2017, and September 1, 2017. Two coders independently assessed each monologue for whether it included the following criteria, with a third coder breaking deadlocks:
- Hannity suggested that Donald Trump and/or his associates did not collude with Russia;
- Hannity criticized Robert Mueller;
- Hannity claimed Mueller has a conflict of interest;
- Hannity explicitly called for Mueller to step down or called for the investigation’s termination;
- Hannity termed Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt”;
- Hannity criticized the Mueller team’s political donations;
- Hannity criticized James Comey;
- Hannity suggested Hillary Clinton’s campaign colluded with Ukraine;
- Hannity suggests Clinton colluded with Russia;
- Hannity suggested Comey should be investigated and/or broke the law;
- Hannity suggested Mueller should be investigated and/or broke the law;
- Hannity suggested Clinton should be investigated and/or broke the law;
- Hannity suggested Barack Obama should be investigated and/or broke the law; and
- Hannity suggested Loretta Lynch should be investigated and/or broke the law.
Media Matters also reviewed episodes of Hannity’s show during the period and identified each guest the program hosted.
Rob Savillo and Shelby Jamerson contributed research.