Fox News host Sean Hannity is a conspiracy theorist and a shill. But he also seems to have more access to President Donald Trump -- his personal friend and political lodestar -- than virtually anyone else in the press. Hannity is so enmeshed in White House operations as an outside presidential adviser that aides refer to him as the shadow chief of staff. Trump, in turn, frequently watches Hannity’s show and provides the Fox host with feedback about how to shape his broadcasts during their near-nightly conversations. The result is that Hannity’s show plays a unique role in the media ecosystem because the president is effectively its uncredited co-producer.
That means Hannity can function in any of three distinct modes: as an “indicator” of the president’s current thinking, as a “fucked-up feedback loop” driving Trump to exercise his most destructive impulses, or as a harbinger of things to come. Friday’s broadcast, a special edition devoted to what Hannity termed “Act 2, ‘The Deep State’s Day of Reckoning,’” may have served as all three.
Trump certainly interpreted the broadcast as a milestone. Hours before it aired, the president tweeted to his tens of millions of followers that the program would be “a must see.”
During Friday’s special -- impenetrable to viewers not deeply versed in Hannity’s oeuvre -- the host and his “all-star ensemble cast” of frequent guests laid out the narrative they have developed over the last two years to counter special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. On Hannity’s show, Mueller’s probe was fruitless and the real story is that it originated with a sinister conspiracy by treasonous, politically motivated law enforcement officials, who are members of what Hannity terms the “deep state.” Those officials, the story goes, let Hillary Clinton off the hook while persecuting Trump, and they should themselves be investigated and prosecuted for their purported crimes.
“The Mueller report is over, it is dead, it is buried,” Hannity explained at the top of Friday’s broadcast. “It's now boomeranging right on to those who did abuse power, did try to influence the outcome of an election and then overturn a duly elected president.”
“Act 1 is over,” he continued. “The curtain is beginning to rise. Act 2 begins.”
The program seems to be both an accurate indicator of Trump’s current state of mind -- fixated on using the power of the federal law enforcement apparatus against his perceived enemies -- and a feedback loop intended to keep him there. Throughout the program, Hannity and his guests warned that if there is no investigation of the investigators, “we lose the country” and the public will be “rent asunder,” apocalyptic language likely intended to steel the president’s resolve.
And it may also be a harbinger of future events. “We are only days away from the release,” Hannity claimed, of newly declassified “major documents that will all expose the real election scandal,” supposedly revealing “the real efforts to spy on the Trump campaign, FISA applications, 302s, Gang of Eight intel material, exculpatory material.” While Hannity’s summary of the contents of any such documents should not be taken at face value, his direct line to the president and cozy relationships with top congressional Republicans give credibility to his prediction of a forthcoming document “avalanche.”
Over the last two years, Hannity, his guests, and other members of Fox’s pro-Trump propaganda machine have successfully convinced both the president and the network’s audience that the president was the victim of “sabotage” by the “deep state.” As of last year, however, their demands for criminal investigations of Trump’s investigators were going nowhere.
But as Hannity and his guests explained on Friday, something changed that has brought their dreams closer to fruition: William Barr’s confirmation as attorney general in January.
“There is a new sheriff in town and his name is Bill Barr,” Hannity explained at the top of the show.
“The president of the United States picked the perfect man at this great inflection point in history, Bill Barr,” offered Joseph DiGenova, a lawyer with deep ties to the Republican Party who was briefly announced as a member of Trump’s legal team. “He will not be stopped. He's going to get to the bottom of this.”
“Wouldn't history have been so profoundly different if William Barr had been the initial pick to be the attorney general of the United States by Donald Trump?” asked Fox correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera.
The commentators were drawing a distinction between Barr and his predecessor, Jeff Sessions. Trump and his Fox propagandists seem to think that a good attorney general is someone who uses the Justice Department to protect the president’s personal interests and punish his enemies. But Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from investigations related to the 2016 election led to Mueller’s appointment, and he was largely unwilling to bend to calls to investigate Trump’s perceived foes. That led to relentless criticism from the president and frequent calls from Hannity and his allies for Sessions’ firing, which eventually culminated in Trump pushing him out in November.
With Barr, Hannity and the rest got exactly what they were looking for. As head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, Barr favored an expansive interpretation of presidential power, pushed back hard against congressional oversight efforts, and advised Bush to pardon six Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. During the Trump administration and before his nomination, Barr said a federal investigation into one of Fox’s conspiracy theories would be appropriate, criticized the Mueller probe, wrote an op-ed defending Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, and sent a memo to the Justice Department officials -- which he also shared with Trump’s personal lawyers -- calling the notion that Trump’s interactions with Comey constituted obstruction of justice “fatally misconceived."
Fox commentators cheered Barr’s nomination, calling him “an absolutely brilliant choice” of “great integrity.” But as Hannity made clear on the day he was confirmed, the network’s propagandists were hoping that Barr would carry out their agenda of protecting Trump while opening politically motivated prosecutions.
So far, he has vindicated their praise. Barr’s smokescreen of a memo purportedly relating Mueller’s findings successfully hoodwinked news outlets into reporting that the president had been exonerated. He pushed Fox’s talking points and fueled conspiracy theories by accusing the Justice Department of “spying” on the Trump campaign in congressional testimony. And last month, he selected John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, to investigate the early stages of the investigation into Russian interference (despite being unable to identify any actual investigative irregularities) and received unprecedented authority from Trump to unilaterally declassify any information he chooses to in support of his own review of that probe.
Several commentators have noted the parallels between Barr’s actions and Fox’s unhinged coverage, saying that he “talks like Sean Hannity” and sounds like he “watches too much Fox,” while the network’s hosts have lavished him with praise.
The presence of a Fox News attorney general at the Justice Department poses a unique test for the press, particularly given Hannity’s prediction that Barr will soon release documents intended to undermine the origins of the Mueller probe. Barr’s handling of the Mueller report shows his willingness to mislead the public in support of Trump. The media’s response to his actions shows how vulnerable they are to such disinformation campaigns, and it raises questions about how they will deal with any future materials Barr sends out.