How Hannity is spinning his lawyer’s turn on the president

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

What do you do if your friend and former lawyer pleads guilty to a variety of federal crimes and admits that he committed some of them at the behest of his other client, the president of the United States, in order to help him win the election?

If you’re Sean Hannity, you go on your Fox News show and say that your former lawyer is lying about his statement that he was acting at Trump’s direction as part of a conspiracy helmed by special counsel Robert Mueller. And if your network is Fox News and has no real standards for your conflicts of interest, you can do that.

Michael D. Cohen, President Donald Trump’s “fixer” and a key player in his global empire for the past decade, pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court to campaign finance violations, bank fraud, and tax evasion, an extraordinary event that revealed the president’s own criminal exposure. Notably, Cohen stated that the president ordered him to make unlawful corporate and campaign donations during the 2016 presidential campaign in order to keep two women who said they had affairs with Trump from speaking out publicly. Cohen’s plea came the same day a jury convicted former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort on eight counts of tax and bank fraud; the two join the president’s former national security adviser and two other campaign aides in pleading guilty to or being convicted of crimes in federal court.

That’s all very bad news for the president, and so his media allies at Fox and elsewhere have been hard at work trying to feed their Trumpist audience a counternarrative. In the first hours after the news broke, unhinged presidential sycophants argued that Cohen committed no crimes and received bad legal advice; that all presidential candidates commit this sort of crime; that Trump’s supporters won’t care because they already knew Manafort and Cohen were crooked; that the president’s advisers being crooks doesn’t matter because the crimes weren’t related to collusion with Russia; that Manafort being convicted on eight of 18 charges was actually “an unmitigated disaster” for Mueller; and that the president and his associates are all victims of “collusion between the FBI and the DOJ.”

But nowhere was the spin so furious as on Hannity’s show. “Buckle up, stay with us for the entire hour. We will give you information, I promise, and perspective that you will not get anywhere else,” the Fox host said at the top of his opening monologue, before portraying Manafort and Cohen as the targets of a sinister conspiracy by Mueller in order to bring Trump down.

Amid this conspiratorial web, Hannity argued that Cohen is lying about whether Trump directed his illegal payments. “While Michael Cohen did say today -- I would argue, knowing him all the years I’ve known him, probably forced by prosecutors -- he’s changed his story about whether or not Trump knew about the payment to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal,” Hannity said.

Hannity returned to this theory later in the show. “I have all these examples where Michael Cohen had said that the president didn't know, that he did it on his own, and that he didn't do it with any -- expecting payback,” he argued. “Michael Cohen says today, ‘at the direction of the president,’ there were numerous times that he said it -- why do I think that that was the special sauce that the prosecution wanted? Because remember, this was fed to them and served up to them by Robert Mueller.”

In other words, Hannity is arguing that, due to his long relationship with Cohen, he has concluded that Cohen was telling the truth when he said Trump was ignorant of his illegal payoff, but federal prosecutors forced him to change his story to get a lighter sentence.

Hannity does have a long relationship with Cohen -- one that exposed his network to ridicule in April following the revelation that he had been vigorously defending the Trump attorney without disclosing that Cohen had also served as his own lawyer. And Cohen, like the president and his White House, has told conflicting stories about the Daniels payoffs, as diligent reporting exposed their lies. But Hannity’s argument that the president didn’t know about the payoff is obviously false. And Hannity knows that it’s false because the president’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told him so in a May interview.

In that interview, Giuliani contradicted Trump’s own prior statements, claiming that the president “didn’t know about the specifics about it, as far as I know. But he did know about the general arrangements.” At the time, Giuliani was arguing that the payment was “not campaign money” and thus there was “no campaign finance violation. They funneled through a law firm and the president repaid it.”

Giuliani’s theory has floundered. Federal prosecutors said that this payment to Daniels was an illegal campaign contribution, and Cohen has now pleaded guilty to that crime and said he committed it at Trump’s direction. Meanwhile, Hannity is conveniently ignoring information that came out on his own program in order to maintain his constant defenses for the president.