Sean Hannity, de facto attorney general
Fox News host Sean Hannity, the network’s biggest star and a sometime adviser to President Donald Trump, has spent the last few years defending the president by crafting a vast conspiracy theory. Over hundreds of segments, Hannity and a small coterie of guests have been sketching out a nonsensical yet intricate narrative which posits that the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was a politically motivated criminal endeavor intended to prevent Trump’s election, even though the probe was kept secret during the campaign when its revelation might have actually done so.
Under a normal administration, an absurd conspiracy theory like this might wither and die on Fox’s airwaves. But Trump loves both conspiracy theories and the right-wing network’s programming; he is an authoritarian who views the job of the Justice Department as protecting him and punishing his enemies; and in William Barr he has found an attorney general with an expansive view of executive power, his own predilection for Fox conspiracy theories, and a willingness to wield the department as a weapon in support of his personal interests.
And so on Thursday night we learned that Barr’s Justice Department had opened a criminal inquiry into its Russia investigation. The New York Times reported that it is unclear when the probe, initially an administrative review led by John H. Durham but closely overseen by Barr, became a criminal investigation, who it targets, or what potential crime is being reviewed.
The metamorphosis of a Fox conspiracy theory into a criminal inquiry targeting the president’s perceived enemies is perhaps the strongest sign yet of the overwhelming and dangerous influence the network has on the Trump administration. For all Barr’s unearned reputation as a pillar of the legal establishment, little would be different if Hannity himself were attorney general.
The Fox host and his allies have championed Barr, praising him specifically because they believed he would be willing to launch just such a probe. In December, days after Barr’s nomination was announced, Hannity expressed his hope that he would investigate the early days of the Russia probe. Hours after Barr’s confirmation in February, Hannity hinted that a reckoning was coming for 10 “deep state actors,” including former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, on a variety of purported crimes. By March, Republican lawyer and frequent Fox guest Victoria Toensing was predicting Barr would convene a grand jury to review the matter. “The president of the United States picked the perfect man at this great inflection point in history, Bill Barr,” Joseph DiGenova, Toensing’s husband and law partner, told Hannity in June. “He will not be stopped. He's going to get to the bottom of this.”
Now they have been vindicated.
“This is a major, huge development. Finally, we might get to the truth, as we have been demanding for quite a while,” Hannity crowed at the top of Thursday’s broadcast after the Times story broke. “Tonight, the deep state, their messengers at the Times, they have every reason to be afraid, every reason to panic, because Barr, the attorney general, is now apparently getting closer to the truth.”
The news seems tailor-made to provide succor to Republicans who have been battered by a month of revelations about the president abusing his power by leaning on the government of Ukraine to investigate his political opponents and apparently seeking to condition military aid to that country on its willingness to do so.
That scandal has swept up not only the president and his attorney general but also Hannity, Toensing, diGenova, and Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, Soviet-born businessmen who were charged Wednesday with campaign finance violations in connection with an alleged plot to advance the political interests of a Ukrainian government official. The latter pair were working for Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, as he sought to push the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. They were also working for diGenova and Toensing, who also represent Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch with alleged ties to Russian organized crime who is fighting extradition to the United States.
At a time when Republicans have struggled to establish a coherent communications strategy in the face of mounting evidence of widespread malfeasance, the Durham criminal probe gives them a lifeline, a way to go on offense by denouncing the DOJ’s Russia probe.
At best, the result will be an ongoing wave of propaganda from Burr’s DOJ intended to provide a counternarrative to the impeachment inquiry that will give Republicans something to cling to while tripping up the press. But beyond that, the system holds, DOJ independence is to some extent upheld, and the investigation survives only as a regular facet of Fox’s conspiracy theories.
At worst, we are entering a new and very dark phase of U.S. politics, in which the fever dreams of Fox News hosts that have captured the attention of the president and his attorney general lead to the arrests of his political enemies. Or as Fox host and Trump adviser Jeanine Pirro put it in December 2017:
Correction (12/13/19): This piece originally included the wrong middle initial for U.S. Attorney John H. Durham.