Flashback: Sean Hannity spent months aggressively defending President Trump for withholding military aid from Ukraine

Hannity Ukraine

Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters

Fox News host Sean Hannity took a few moments on Thursday night to praise the people of Ukraine as Russian forces penetrated deep into the heart of the country and threatened its capital city of Kyiv. 

“And tonight, total war in the country of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is attempting to take every inch of the country by force,” Hannity said. “But while the government of Ukraine has its own history of corruption, we have chronicled some of this on this program, the people of Ukraine -- as Jennifer just pointed out -- well as outgunned and outmanned as they are, well they’re bravely fighting back for their country’s David versus Goliath struggle, for their freedom, their autonomy.”

Hannity’s concern for Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom against Russian aggression was not evident back in 2019 and 2020, when he and his colleagues were excusing – and even applauding – former President Donald Trump’s plot to condition military aid to that country for personal political gain.

Trump’s first impeachment revolved around his scheme to corruptly pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate his political opponent, then-future President Joe Biden. Trump worked through both administration officials and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and in a July 25, 2019, phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he sought a quid pro quo. 

When Zelensky said on the call that Ukraine wished to purchase Javelin missiles for defensive purposes, Trump replied, “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” before asking Zelensky to “look into” the conspiracy theory that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 presidential election as well as false claims of corrupt actions in Ukraine by Biden when he was vice president. At the time, Ukrainian officials were aware that Trump was withholding $214 million in military aid that Congress had appropriated to counter Russian aggression. 

The aid was later released after its suspension became public, and a congressional watchdog said the hold had violated federal law. When a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump's call with Zelensky became public that September, it triggered an uproar which eventually led to Trump’s impeachment by the House. 

Fox News was made for a moment like this, and its propagandists ultimately did their job by helping to secure Trump’s acquittal by the Senate. The network rallied around the president and denounced his critics, offering a series of often contradictory defenses. Their goalposts moved as new information was revealed, with some who originally said he hadn’t done what he had been accused of eventually acknowledging that he had, but that his actions were nonetheless fine – or even worthy of praise. They were pathetic and mendacious and ultimately effective enough to keep Republican voters and elected officials from abandoning Trump in a critical moment.

Few were as responsible for Trump’s plight as Hannity. The primetime star, who is salaried by Fox but effectively pulled double duty as a Trump political operative, had originally stoked the president’s rage towards Ukraine by hyping false claims of “collusion” between that country and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Hannity’s program later became the main platform for Giuliani’s disinformation campaign detailing purported Ukrainian corruption on the part of Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter, which eventually led to him being pulled into the impeachment inquiry himself.

But then, few worked harder to clean up Trump’s mess after the fact – he spent September 2019 through the February 2020 Senate acquittal feverishly defending the president from every angle. While he now waxes solemnly about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, he backed Trump’s attempt to condition military aid for the country on its provision of political dirt to benefit the former president’s campaign.

Hannity was ecstatic on September 19, 2019, as he responded to initial reports that the whistleblower had filed a complaint detailing a “promise” between Trump and an unnamed foreign leader, and that this complaint “centers on Ukraine.” The Fox host explained that he “was happy at this news” because Ukraine might “tell us” about Biden’s purported corruption, and expressed no concern for what the “promise” might have entailed.

More details were made available when Trump declassified and released the transcript of his call with Zelensky a few days later. But Hannity was not concerned by Trump’s conduct when he responded to that document on his September 25, 2019 show. Instead, he lied that the transcript showed, “No quid pro quo, no discussion of U.S. aid, no misconduct at all whatsoever. Zero, zip, nada, nothing.” 

Hannity reiterated that point a few days later, saying that there was “nothing wrong” with the phone call: “Zero, no misconduct, no quid pro quo,” and adding, “read the transcript yourself.” But this time he went even further, claiming that Trump had asked for his “favor” from Zelensky in response to the president’s “sworn duty, a constitutional duty to investigate crimes” under a treaty with Ukraine that “requires cooperation in criminal investigations.” He went on to quote the U.S. Constitution’s statement that the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

On October 17, 2019, Hannity’s repeated claim that there had been no quid pro quo ran into a problem when then-White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney publicly admitted during a press briefing that Trump withheld congressionally approved military aid from Ukraine in part to pressure the country to investigate Biden. But Hannity responded not with horror at Trump’s actions, but by attacking Mulvaney as “dumb” for putting forward an “interpretation of things” that was “idiotic.”

A few days later, Hannity offered a new explanation, saying Trump’s use of the term “favor” didn’t reflect that there were “strings attached” or a “quid pro quo,” it’s just a “go-to phrase” that Trump “uses… all the time.” Here’s Hannity’s flailing word jumble on his October 22, 2019, Fox show:

When the president said, I like you to do us a favor. Okay. It's a favor, ok. There were no strings attached, zero quid pro quo, doesn't exist. Because during the call, the government of Ukraine had no idea the U.S. had temporarily delayed aid. And they still got the aid. Plus, the aid was never attached to anything. Nothing. And that's clear in the transcript. Especially related to sleepy creepy uncle Joe. Especially related to the 2020 election. And let's be clear, the term ‘do us a favor’ - well, we all have go-to phrases. You know, I say, you know, a lot. The president uses them all the time. Kind of a verbal aside. 

Hannity’s defenses became even less tenable on November 19, 2019, when then-EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified to the key role he played in Trump's scheme as his envoy to Ukraine. Sondland alleged that he had, at the president’s behest and with the knowledge of senior members of his administration, pressured the Ukrainians to publicly commit to conducting the investigations Trump wanted as a “quid pro quo” in exchange for a proposed Oval Office meeting between Trump and Zelensky, and that he later came to believe that the withheld military aid had been conditioned as well.

But on his show, Hannity presented Sondland’s testimony as a vindication of Trump because Sondland said that Trump had directly told him “I want no quid pro quo” – on the same day the House Intelligence Committee learned of the whistleblower’s complaint. “This was the day the Democrats’ Trump-Ukraine quid pro quo coup impeachment attempt and hoax officially died,” Hannity said, “Their phony, their weak narrative was just ripped to shreds. The gigantic, self-serving political stunt is now blowing up in their faces as we all knew it would.” 

Following Trump’s impeachment and amid his Senate trial, Hannity and his ilk ultimately settled on the “so what” defense to the question of Trump holding back military aid to Ukraine for his political benefit. As former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus put it during a January 2020 appearance on Hannity’s show, "Sometimes the best defense is the 'so-what' defense which is, if everything the Democrats said is true it's still not impeachable.” Hannity replied, “Great point.”

That same night, Hannity brushed off the finding that Trump’s withholding of aid had been illegal on the grounds that the same body had “thought that Obama broke the law many times and it wasn't a big deal then.”

Hannity’s final word on the Ukraine scandal came in an extended, incoherent apology for the president on January 28, 2020.

“President Trump is allowed to talk. He's allowed to vent. He's allowed to exchange ideas with his close advisers. That is not a crime,” Hannity said.

“It's kind of like, well, you tell your friend I want to rob this jewelry store,” he continued. “I want to rob this grocery store, convenience store. Oh, I'm going to punch this guy in the face. I'm going to rip somebody's face off. But you never do it. You weren't seriously plotting the act. That would not be a crime, now would it?”

“We all think about things, thoughts flow through our brains constantly, at least if you're a conservative,” he concluded. “And when you think about things, that's not a crime.” 

At the time, Hannity was not thinking about the Ukrainians. That’s not a crime – but it certainly undermines his sudden concern for their plight.