Fox News host Sean Hannity spent the summer indoctrinating his audience with the message that any negative information about President Donald Trump was the work of a shadowy cabal of Trump foes. According to Hannity, this “Destroy Trump Alliance” -- which encompasses the press, the bureaucracy, Democrats, and Republicans who do not submit to Trump -- is responsible for the Russia investigation and the president’s legislative failures. Hannity’s framework is setting the stage should Trump decide to take an authoritarian turn.
Hannity’s show has long been built around the propaganda tactic of repetition, with the host repeating the same GOP talking points over and over again. As this study shows, Hannity has now turned that method toward casting doubt on the legitimacy of any criticism of the president -- with possibly dangerous results.
May 16 was a turning point in the long-running saga of Trump and his ties to Russia. The morning began with the president tweeting an admission of the accuracy of a Washington Post report that he had shared classified information obtained from an ally with top Kremlin officials during an Oval Office meeting the previous week. As the workday ended, The New York Times broke the news that Trump had in February asked then-FBI director James Comey to shut down a federal investigation into his former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s financial ties to Russia, according to a memo Comey had written at the time.
That evening, as journalists scrambled for the next big scoop, Fox News host Sean Hannity, long the president’s most fervent and loyal supporter on cable news, swung into action.
After detailing the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, which he claimed would destroy the Trump-Russia “narrative,” Hannity pivoted to reveal the true villains behind this story -- and so many others that had hobbled the Trump administration over the previous months. “You have five forces aligning against President Trump,” Hannity explained, who “now seem to be working together in an unprecedented attack against a sitting president.”
Over an image of the scowling president and the White House superimposed with the words “the DESTROY TRUMP ALLIANCE,” Hannity laid out the contours of these "five forces": the media, Democrats, the “Washington deep state establishment,” the “establishment” Republicans, and the “Never Trump” Republicans. Each faction, Hannity claimed, played a role in promoting what the host termed the Trump-Russia “conspiracy theories.”
The next day, Comey’s predecessor, Robert Mueller, was appointed special counsel to oversee the Trump-Russia investigation. In the weeks that followed, amid a massive negative response, Hannity would stop openly referencing Rich. But over the next few months, he would remain fixated on his “five forces” rubric, returning to the idea frequently and mentioning its component parts hundreds of times in nearly every opening monologue.
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. 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. The 61 monologues examined, from 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.
Our study, the second in our series on Hannity’s monologues, found:
In Sean Hannity’s 61 Fox News opening monologues from May 15 through September 1:
- Hannity referenced the “media” 393 times, mentioning it in 57 monologues. He criticized the press in 90 percent of his monologues. He mentioned “fake news” 67 times.
- Hannity referenced the “Democrats” or the “Democratic Party” 218 times across 51 monologues.
- Hannity referenced the “deep state” 74 times in a total of 20 monologues. He criticized the unmasking of Trump associates by the intelligence community in 14 monologues and leaks in 17.
- Hannity mentioned “establishment” or “weak” Republicans in 13 monologues and “Never Trump” Republicans in 11.
- Hannity referenced Bill and Hillary Clinton by name at least 342 times, mentioning one or both in four out of every five monologues. He referenced the private email server Clinton used as secretary of state in 26 monologues, 43 percent of the total.
Hannity presents the “five forces” as united in their opposition to the president, as well as their opposition to what Hannity terms the “forgotten men and women.” They’re the people who voted for Trump hoping that he would bring change to Washington, only to see him betrayed by a vast conspiracy apparatus that never wanted him to win -- in other words, Hannity’s audience.
Former President Bill Clinton and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton play key roles in the story Hannity tells. According to Hannity, the “five forces” wanted Clinton to triumph and have never gotten over Trump’s victory. Hannity frequently claims that the press “colluded” with Clinton during the campaign, using this spurious claim to undermine any and all critical reporting against the president. Meanwhile, he uses Clinton’s purported crimes -- often related to her private email server -- to call into question suggestions from the “deep state,” Democrats, and Republicans that Trump may have broken the law.
The framework gives Hannity a ready-made excuse for the president’s stumbles and failure to pass major pieces of legislation -- he can always find a way to blame one of the “five forces” instead of Trump.
The special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference fits seamlessly into the “five forces” framework. In Hannity’s telling, the media, in coordination with Democrats and “deep state” leakers, and thanks to the silence of the “weak Republicans” and “Never Trumpers,” have dreamed up “black-helicopter, tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories about so-called Trump-Russia collusion” and pushed through an investigation in order to undermine the president and perhaps remove him from office. Meanwhile, the same groups have created a system of “two-tiered justice” by covering up what Hannity claims are the crimes of the Clintons, who he says “colluded” with both Russia and Ukraine during the election, as well as with key investigation figures James Comey and Robert Mueller, among others.
Hannity’s “five forces” framework is dangerous because it reinforces authoritarian thinking and action.
A Fox host with an audience of 3 million is, night after night, devoting his show to delegitimizing all possible sources of opposition to Trump for his audience, from independent sources of information like the press and the bureaucracy to the opposing Democratic Party to members of the president’s own party who are insufficiently supportive. With Trump’s administration frequently beset by failure and scandal, Hannity uses the constant refrain that the president is under attack by intractable and malicious enemies to keep his audience on the Trump Train. Hannity’s effort mimics and enhances the Trump administration’s own push to discredit information sources that undermine the president’s disinformation campaign in order to shore up the support of his base.
The Fox host's campaign undermines the rule of law by baselessly calling into question the federal investigation into the president and his associates. Hannity is priming his audience to refuse to accept any findings of that investigation as intrinsically tainted by their association with the “five forces” -- or to cheer the president if he orders that investigation halted. If Trump were to fire Mueller, it would put the nation on the path to a constitutional crisis, but thanks to Hannity’s preparation, a sizable portion of the president’s base would be ready to take his side.
And the framework paves the way for the president to order investigations into his perceived political enemies, from the press to Mueller and Comey to Clinton -- all actions Trump has hinted at to one degree or another.
Hannity has referenced the “media” 393 times, mentioning it in 93 percent of monologues
Criticism of the media is a central facet of Hannity’s program. He is constantly harping on the various sins he attributes to journalists and telling his audience that they cannot be trusted. He mentioned the “media” 393 times -- an average of six times a monologue -- over the study period. He referenced the “media” in 57 monologues in the study, 93 percent of the total. This does not include references to particular media figures or outlets or references to synonyms such as “the press.” He criticized the press overall in 55 monologues, 90 percent of all monologues in the period.
For Hannity, it’s the “destroy-Trump media”
The most important thing that Hannity wants his audience to understand about the press is that it is monolithically opposed to the president. He has referred to the “destroy-Trump media” and various derivations of that moniker (e.g., “the destroy-Trump propaganda media”) 126 times, using those terms in 51 monologues, 84 percent of the total.
Using this invective efficiently reminds his audience that journalists are enemies of the president who cannot be trusted to tell the truth about him. None of their stories are to be believed. Only Hannity and his hand-picked coterie of Trump supporters will reveal the real story about Trump; as Hannity puts it, the press “won't go near it, but we will continue to expose the truth until they have to cover this and tell you what's really going on.”
Hannity criticized a media “double standard” in 14 monologues
One of Hannity’s frequent bugaboos is that the media have a “double standard” in how they cover conservatives like Trump when compared to their coverage of progressives. He frequently uses this frame to defuse reports about Trump-Russia collusion.
As he put it in his July 10 monologue: “So what it all boils down to, what we're now living through, is a massive, huge double standard, selective moral outrage. Now, we know real felonies, real crimes were committed, again, things the media will not report or tell you if it doesn't have the word ‘Russia’ in it. Hillary Clinton mishandled and destroyed top-secret classified special program information, government information. But the media, the Democrats? ‘Oh, that's not a big deal.’”
The idea that the press did not devote significant coverage to Clinton’s email server during the 2016 presidential election cannot withstand scrutiny. But by suggesting the press is unwilling to report on supposed Democratic malfeasance, Hannity undermines his audience’s willingness to believe press reports on Trump.
Hannity accused the press of “colluding” with the Clinton campaign in 10 monologues
In 10 of his monologues, Hannity accused the press of “colluding” with the Clinton campaign during the 2016 presidential election. He cites the trove of emails from former Clinton campaign leader John Podesta that was reportedly hacked by Russians and released by WikiLeaks to claim that “just about every major media news outlet except the Fox News Channel was caught red-handed” in being allied with Clinton. This is nonsense.
Hannity uses this explanation to undermine the objectivity of the press during the Trump administration, saying that journalists’ “main objective” during the campaign was “to get Hillary elected” and that now they are willing “to say anything, do anything, regardless of how insane, conspiratorial it may sound, all in an attempt to damage the president.”
Hannity called out the “deep state” in 20 monologues
Hannity has referenced the “deep state” -- a term for bureaucrats in the intelligence community and elsewhere in government adopted by conservatives following Trump’s election -- 74 times over the term of the study, in 20 monologues or 33 percent of the total. Hannity has said that this group is “perhaps the most dangerous” of the “five forces” and is “at war” with Trump. “The deep state must be purged,” Hannity said on May 18, adding that “we've got to get rid of the people that are now the biggest threat to this republic, and of course, the free election of Donald Trump.”
With this argument, Hannity tries to convince his audience to treat any attempt by government bureaucrats to blow the whistle on Trump administration malfeasance as a politicized effort by dishonest people who hate the president.
Hannity criticized leaks in 17 monologues
Hannity claims that the “deep state” is so dangerous because its members are “targeting President Trump by selectively leaking information, true or not true, almost now on a daily basis.” He criticized leaks and leakers in 17 monologues, 28 percent of the total. Hannity uses this criticism of the “deep state” to avoid engaging with the questions about the president’s potential criminality. For example, he frequently attacks Comey in this fashion, criticizing the former FBI director for having “actually admitted he leaked to get a special counsel.” He also suggests that viewers should not believe Comey’s statements that the president asked him for his loyalty and urged him to put a stop to the federal investigation of a former Trump adviser.
This is an attempt to shift attention away from the damning revelations Comey and others have provided and onto their methods.
Hannity criticized “unmasking” in 14 monologues
Hannity criticized the Obama administration for improperly and perhaps illegally “unmasking” the names of Trump associates in 14 monologues over the study period, 23 percent of the total.
The names of U.S. persons are redacted in intelligence reports detailing the surveilled communications of foreign people, but certain officials can request the “unmasking” of those names if it is necessary to understand the importance of the report. In March, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) tried to deflect attention from the Russia investigation by alleging that Obama administration aides engaged in “improper unmasking” of Trump associates during the transition. Conservative media personalities like Hannity rushed to turn this behavior into a scandal, but experts quickly noted that it is not unusual for officials to “unmask” names in such reports.
Hannity frequently criticizes the purported “unmasking” of Michael Flynn, the national security adviser to Trump who was fired in February following a report that he had “privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office.” The story was reportedly based on an intelligence report in which Flynn’s name was unmasked that U.S. officials shared with a reporter. According to Hannity, this was “the only crime that we know was committed in this whole Russia collusion wild goose chase.”
Flynn is one of the Trump administration figures most endangered by the Mueller investigation, and he’s a staunch ally of the president. By shifting attention from his actions to questions around his unmasking, Hannity tries to delegitimize the case against him.
Hannity referenced “establishment” or “weak” Republicans in 13 monologues
Hannity mentioned “establishment” Republicans in 13 monologues, 21 percent of the total. Hannity defines members of this group as those who “never supported” Trump or his agenda during the campaign, though given that he distinguishes the group from the “Never Trumpers,” this appears to be a way for him to smear large swaths of the Republican Party as disloyal in the eyes of his viewers. By lumping them in with the rest of the “five forces,” Hannity paints Republicans as just as much the enemy of his viewers and the president as the Democrats.
The “establishment Republicans” Hannity refers to clearly support Trump, just not as fervently as Hannity would like. According to Hannity, establishment Republicans are “weak,” “timid,” “spineless,” and “feckless,” and they have “no vision.” He also describes them as “afraid they'd get blamed for a government shutdown.” Hannity identified Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as one member of this group after McCain said that the Russia investigation was “reaching the point where it's of Watergate size and scale.”
Hannity referenced “Never Trumpers” in 11 monologues
Hannity has criticized the “Never Trumpers” -- conservatives who opposed Trump’s election even after he became the Republican nominee -- in 11 monologues, 18 percent of the total. According to Hannity, Never Trumpers “never thought or wanted Donald Trump to win” and are now “looking to be vindicated” in order to regain their prominence in the movement.
Hannity has repeatedly singled out The Weekly Standard and National Review, two conservative magazines where several Never Trumpers work, for criticism, saying that those “holier-than-thou outlets” need Trump to fail to regain “relevance.” Notably, journalists at those outlets savaged Hannity during the election for his obsequious support for Trump.
Hannity mentioned the Democratic Party in 51 monologues
As might be expected from a loyal advocate for the president and the Republican Party, Hannity regularly inveighs against the opposition. He referenced “Democrats” or the “Democratic Party” 218 times in the monologues we reviewed, an average of four times per monologue in the 61 studied. The party was mentioned in 51 of the monologues, 84 percent of the total.
As Hannity frequently tells his audience, the Democrats are “sore loser[s]” who are in “complete denial” over the results of the presidential election, and they plan to “obstruct every single agenda item of the president at every single turn.” (Ironically, Hannity’s characterization of Democratic aims matches the explicit strategy Republican leaders adopted following President Barack Obama’s election.)
This argument urges Hannity’s audience not to believe any criticisms of the president from Democrats; in his view, they would oppose whatever Trump does, no matter what.
Hannity mentioned the Clintons 342 times in 49 monologues
Hannity has been a harsh critic of the Clintons for decades, and they remain a fixation even months after Trump’s election. Hannity invoked the Clintons by name an astonishing 342 times over the course of 49 monologues, 80 percent of the total. That’s an average of six references per monologue over the 61 monologues in the study. It’s also a much higher rate than that of Hannity’s mentions of Obama, of which there were 153 in 44 monologues.
Fox News frequently find ways to bring up Hillary Clinton when a negative news story hits the president. For Hannity, without a lot of good news stories to share with his audience, the Clintons provide a ready source of vitriol that keeps the viewers coming back.
Hannity mentioned Hillary Clinton’s private email server in 26 monologues
Hannity brings up Clinton’s private email server -- by far the most covered story of the 2016 presidential election -- in 26 monologues between May 15 and September 1, 43 percent of the total. Hannity frequently invokes the federal investigation into the server, in which the FBI declined to bring charges, as evidence of both her criminality and the “two-tiered justice system” (mentioned six times over the course of the study) that scrutinizes Trump and his allies but not, according to Hannity, the likes of Clinton.
Hannity accused Hillary Clinton of colluding with Russia in 25 monologues -- and with Ukraine in 12
Hannity frequently tries to shift attention from allegations that Trump allies colluded with Russia by claiming that, in fact, it was Clinton who was guilty of colluding with foreign powers. The particulars of Hannity’s argument don’t add up, and the two nations he accuses Clinton of colluding with -- Russia and Ukraine -- have been engaged in ongoing military hostilities for years. But by suggesting that Clinton broke the law in this way and was not punished, Hannity can argue that the focus on Trump-Russia collusion is unfair.
Hannity has argued that Clinton is guilty of the “real collusion” with Russia in 25 monologues, 41 percent of the total. This faulty premise is based on the conservative myth launched during the campaign that Clinton personally approved the sale of a uranium mining company to the Russian government. In reality, the State Department had one vote on a nine-member panel that approved the deal, and the department representative said that Clinton was not consulted. The Clinton “collusion” concept also relies on the claim that former President Bill Clinton “doubled his speaking fees in Moscow” at the same time, as Hannity put it in eight different monologues; in fact, while Clinton was actually paid $500,000 by a Russian company to deliver a speech, he regularly delivered speeches for such fees during that period.
Hannity has also claimed the real scandal was that “Clinton allies” had been purportedly colluding with Ukrainian government officials to influence the election, saying so in 12 monologues. 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.
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 criticized the press (either collectively or a particular outlet);
- Hannity claimed a media double standard against Trump/Republicans;
- Hannity suggested the media “colluded” with Clinton;
- Hannity suggested Hillary Clinton’s campaign colluded with Ukraine;
- Hannity suggested Clinton colluded with Russia;
- Hannity referenced Clinton’s private email server;
- Hannity criticized leaks or leakers; and
- Hannity criticized “unmasking.”
The coders also counted each instance in which:
- Hannity mentioned “media”;
- Hannity mentioned “destroy-Trump media” and variants;
- Hannity mentioned “fake news”;
- Hannity mentioned “Democrats”/”Democratic Party”;
- Hannity mentioned “deep state”;
- Hannity mentioned “establishment” or “weak” Republicans; and
- Hannity mentioned “never Trump” Republicans.
Rob Savillo and Shelby Jamerson contributed research.